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.
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.