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Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports

3 Scenarios that could explain the Leafs extending Ben Smith

The Leafs signed Ben Smith to a one-year extension this afternoon. Most will tell you that doesn’t matter. Some will tell you it matters entirely. Nobody knows for sure why it may or may not matter. I do have a few ideas, though, and they all sound progressively more pessimistic. Let’s break this down:

Best Case Scenario: Trade Bait

Smith played 40 games this year, just enough to get him to make him eligible to meet exposure minimums in this year’s expansion draft. Firstly, if the Leafs legitimately dressed a player that made the team worse for a specific amount of games solely to have insurance for a situation like this, then words can’t express how shortsighted of a decision that was by a team who didn’t clinch a playoff spot until Game 81. Anyway…

Going with the seven best forwards available being protected (Kadri, Van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Komarov, Brown, Leipsic, Leivo), Toronto now has three players who qualify under the 40/70 exposure rule to present to Las Vegas in Matt Martin, Eric Fehr, and Smith.

This means that Toronto now has more flexibility if they trade anybody in that original seven. Seth Griffith and Kerby Rychel are the only remaining players with a potential contract next year that isn’t mentioned; maybe, if Toronto makes a few moves (say selling high on Bozak, JVR, and Komarov to harvest more young assets address other needs), they can slot those two and Martin into the forward spots and still have Smith and Fehr to expose.

Bad Case Scenario: He’ll Play

Back to the “almost cost the Leafs a playoff spot” point. There’s an easy case to be made for Smith being the wooden spoon of Toronto’s lineup last year. No disrespect to him, but results don’t lie:

40+ even strength minutes played with Ben Smith, 2016/17

Smith was the biggest drag on possession of any Leafs player this year. He was their least productive forward, scoring 0.65 points per hour at even strength and totalling four points on the year. Only Leo Komarov was less likely to spend time on the ice attempting to score with a shot, and Frederik Gauthier was the only forward less likely to hit the net with a shot at even strength.

The penalty kill gets brought up as well as an asset for Smith, but he had the worst shot differential against him of anyone who spent the bulk of his season in Toronto (Brian Boyle’s was worse, but carries over from Tampa Bay). Smith was hyped up for being able to win a specific type of faceoff (right side in the defensive zone), and that’s a thing that matters but not to the extent that it cancels out the rest of his play, and eventually, he ended up being overlapped by Boyle and Tyler Bozak on the faceoff depth chart as well.

Simply put, there wasn’t much redeemable about Smith this year. He wasn’t good enough at his set purpose for it to matter. He couldn’t score, he couldn’t drive play, and while he was at least capable of staying out of the penalty box, his inability to keep up with the play at times would lead to his linemates taking penalties for him. It was just a mess all around. There’s no reason to think he’ll blossom as a 29-year-old either, so I’d hope that they’re not relying on him to contribute beyond being sent to the Marlies to give them a centre that fares better at that level. That would be nice for them, but that’s also not a move you make with an NHL contract in May if that’s the mission.

Worst Case Scenario: Expansion Bait

I want to go back to the 40 game point for a second. In Smith’s 40th game, played a month after his 39th, the Leafs lost 5-2 to the Buffalo Sabres. You know, the game where Frederik Andersen got rocked in the head a few times and we all assumed that the season was over.

The Martin-Boyle-Smith line played about 10 minutes. They were a ~27% possession line on the night and a -1. If the Leafs don’t rally against Pittsburgh, we look a game that happened to be Smith’s game #40, in which his line was shelled (as they tend to be) as the game where it all falls off the rails.

I really don’t want to believe they played him so much this year because of this dumb draft. Let’s dive into the most likely of scenarios: they totally signed him because they don’t feel that they have two eligible exposures.

“But you just said Smith, Martin, and Fehr!” Exactly.

Don’t discount the thought that the Leafs signed Ben Smith so they could protect Matt Martin instead of Josh Leivo or Brendan Leipsic in the next couple of weeks. Those two aren’t 40/70 eligible, so they couldn’t be paired with Fehr. The only players that could be paired with Fehr in this scenario are Martin, Kadri, JVR, Bozak, Komarov, and Brown.

Unless they plan on trading one of Martin or Fehr in the immediate future, they’ve signed Smith to make it feasible to protect Martin; a move that borders on lunacy.

I’m very open to the idea of Matt Martin being a useful hockey player. I think he’s good at killing time, he’s strong on the forecheck, and he’s embraced the team dad role pretty well. But think from George McPhee’s point a few for a second; are you seriously about to draft this man?

The Golden Knights are going to be filled with players that fit these exposure requirements; players who have experience and, like Martin, are already in their mid 20’s. They don’t need a dad. Might they need an enforcer? Sure, but you can get those for under a million bucks in July. Might they need some cap boosters? I think they can survive without taking on dead weight based on potentially available talent, but even if they can’t, that’s why you take a single year of weight, rather than going for players with term.

Matt Martin might be good in the Leafs’ locker room. That doesn’t mean that an outsider will see a 9-point enforcer with three years and $7,500,000 left to be paid as a must-get. The Golden Knights will undoubtedly be drafting for value and upside, and for teams where they can’t find an affordable fit, they’ll probably just grab the best AHL scorer they can find to make sure their affiliate isn’t a mess in Year 1.

Martin doesn’t need to be protected because his contract and his situation already protect him. There is no reason to believe that the Golden Knights will take him, and on the 0.1% chance that they do? Well, you’ve got the year of “Good Pro” tutorial out of him and can call Rychel up to keep throwing fists and hits while adding some goals at a third of the price.

There is, of course, the theory that they don’t want Martin to feel “unwanted” or “demoralized” by being publicly known as unprotected, but if that’s the case, your intangibles guy doesn’t have the right intangibles.

In Summation

There are three potential situations here: The Leafs either think that they’ve got some big trades brewing and need warm bodies in case they don’t get any back, they want to bring their weakest link back to play hockey, or they’re using him as a safeguard to guard something that nobody reasonably wants to steal right now.

Is a one-year, buryable contract going to be the end of the world? No. But it sure as hell makes you wonder about the thought process in the war room.

  • MartinPolak

    The best case makes no sense because Ben Smith’s are a dime a dozen. This is shaping up to be a situation where because Babock loves Martin he will be protected. And I’m good with that because Martin is useful and Babcock is a smart coach. And even though jeffler pokes fun at me on twitter by calling me an old time hockey fan or whatever on twitter, it does give me great delight to see jeffler is wrong about Martin (as I have been saying it so much this year). But I’m good about this because jeffler was right about the leafs making the playoffs and that was a gutsy call. And he usually owns up to past mistakes (ie Bozak, Hunwick etc). And soon Martin.

    • liamo

      I don’t mind Martin he won me over this year. Some of the oilers oldest criticisms was always they didn’t have a bottom 6 and no vets to guide the kids. I think they’re is something to this line of thinking.

        • liamo

          Yes I’m not denying that helps but can you not see it’s better to have a Patrick Maroon/ Milan Lucic to help guide him through adjusting to this life style?
          Having some older guys teaches youngsters to be more professional. I’ve been mentored in my office by someone older to be a better professional. I don’t understand how you can completely disregard this aspect of team building.

        • Gary Empey

          The Oilers biggest problem was they had way too many forward who either didn’t know how to backcheck or didn’t want to backcheck. Their coach stated as much a few times. As soon as they swapped guys for players that did backcheck they immediately became a hard team to beat.

  • FlareKnight

    There’s really only one scenario here. The trade bait is utterly silly because he has no value. Heck he probably signed that deal because he knows he isn’t an NHL player and he wanted the money.

    Really it’s kind of impressive Jeff was able to write this much about a topic he despises (keeping Martin) without throwing himself out a window.

    Because let’s face it, that’s what this is about. Not exactly shocking since the Martin signing was hated the moment it happened. But such is. And no it doesn’t make you wonder about the thought process in the war room. I have no problem trusting a group that has assembled a good young team, been properly rebuilding this thing, and gotten the Leafs into the playoffs with a bright future ahead of them. And signing or protecting a fourth line winger is not actually going to impact that.

    • Gary Empey

      We really don’t know for sure who will end up as the two required exposure players, that are signed for next year. Vegas must take one of our guys. The $640K is cheap flexibility. Before this signing Ben Smith had little or no trade value. There are some teams out there that will be forced to expose a good forward who would love to have Smith on their roster. Here is a thought. The teams with a problem protecting their good defencemen will only want to make a deal before expansion if they plan to get some value for a good player. There could be all kinds of deals floating around at the entry draft. A lot of teams who would like to cash in on those deals will not be able to without exposing one of their own guys. If the Leafs were to acquire a good D-man there is the possibility they could use the 10 men total scenario, so they can protect 4 defenceman.

      • Bob Canuck

        Gary,

        I don’t understand your “10 men total scenario” comment. Putting aside goalies, a team can either protect 7 forwards and 3 defensemen or 8 skaters. Therefore, if you protect 4 defensemen, you would expose 3 additional forwards (7 minus 4) compared to the 7 F and 3 D option.

        • Gary Empey

          Sorry about that. I did make a mistake on the 10 man thingy. It should have been 8 skaters. Lou rarely lets any information regarding possible trades out of the bag. Recently he said there are some players involved in trade talks that would not normally be involved. So I take from that there are young players considered top pairing defenceman that could be available. There are so many variables it is almost impossible to to get a handle on it. If we end up protecting 4 D-men then we will only be able to protect 4 forwards. Right now those protected forwards would likely be Kadri, JVR, Bozak, and Brown. Vegas gets a choice of Martin, Komarov, Leivo, Kychel, Fehr and others. They can only choose one though. If Lou does make a trade for a top-pairing, young, D-man before the expansion draft, eg: Lindholm/Ekman-Larsson/Ryan Ellis/Jonas Brodin/ etc. for JVR, then one more guy can be protected. Smith can be a throw in for the other teams exposure purposes. Seriously I have no idea what all the possibilities are. I do believe Lou smells a couple of really good deals out there and is positioning the Leafs to take advantage of one of them. As usual nothing at all may come to pass.

  • Bleedblueandwhite

    So there is a caveat to your worst case scenario, in that Knights draft Martin to trade him to another team that values what Martin brings to the party. Yes Martin’s salary is deterrent, but frankly its in line with other big body veteran enforcers – Dale Weise, Derek Dorsett, Jared Boll – grant its on the high side but 2017 was also Martin’s worst NHL year on the scoresheet. I thought Martin was effective in the playoffs against Washington and his coach values his role on the team. But is there a team, that got bounced out of the playoffs early because they lack the size and toughness, in the Eastern Conference, that could use Martin?

    • Gary Empey

      Re- “Knights draft Martin to trade him to another team that values what Martin brings to the party.”….Vegas can not trade any players the take in the expansion draft in their first year.

  • Gary Empey

    @Jeff Veillette…Re- “the thought process in the war room.”….That war room is about seven levels under the ice at ACC. Each level has it’s own security class. Even Mark Hunter was not authorized into the Level Seven Bunker until they made him assistant general manager this year.

  • Kevin

    The move to sign Smith is most likely to protect Martin. That being said, I don’t think they played Smith for the sole purpose of the expansion draft. I thought he played well prior to his injury and filled in as a depth player. Moving forward, he will only figure as a depth forward on the team (for at least another year). There is no chance Vegas selects him in the expansion draft. Alternatively, the Leafs could have traded a pick/contact to pick up another person they could expose but that would have cost something other than cash. As for protecting Martin, I can see why they would do it (personally I would not protect him). He provides grit, leadership and energy while chipping in some offense on occasion and is not a detriment when on the ice. He gelled with the younger players and seems to have excelled in a mentorship role and Leafs brass value that aspect as well.

    • Kanuunankuula

      But his contract is already all the protection he needs. Vegas is not picking that up, when there’s a young forward or a D-man available. Gonna love to lose a Leipsic so we can protect Matt Martin.

      • Kevin

        I agree, I don’t think Vegas would select Martin considering his role and contract. However, there is an outside chance that Vegas might value the same intangibles the Leafs do and would select him despite the contract. Alternatively, the Leafs can still offer a pick to “guide” the selection that Vegas will make.

  • Brandon

    I’ll be very disappointed if they protect Martin and lose Leivo. I’d love to see a Leivo-Boyle-Kapenen fourth line next year, although it would be hard to call that a fourth line