A couple weeks ago, I wrote about some teams in expansion trouble potentially being trade partners for the Leafs when things get busy next month. This has been a recurrent theme in this space and other Toronto-centric sites, as the need for the Leafs to make a substantial addition to their blue line this summer is well-known.
Previously, we looked at how teams like Anaheim and Minnesota will be put in a bind next month when it comes to protecting their rosters from Vegas, and with that comes a good chance of a defenceman hitting the block in the form of trade. No one wants to lose a quality player for nothing, and so there could be more movement than we’re used to seeing in June.
The names that we looked at last time were Jonas Brodin of the Wild, and Josh Manson of the Ducks. This time I want to focus on the Wild, mainly because I was surprised that, after attending the Ottawa Hockey Analytics Conference this weekend, a lot of people there were of the opinion that Matt Dumba could in fact be the defenceman that shakes loose from Minnesota, not Brodin. (h/t OrgSixAnalytics)
After a closer look at their cap situations, I can see how the case for Brodin staying and Dumba being pushed out makes sense. While unloading Brodin now would give the Wild some immediate cap relief with his 4.1-million AAV off the books, Dumba is currently on a bridge deal until 2018 and could be in for a heavier payday. Brodin’s reasonable hit all the way through his prime is probably the better option for the Wild to hold onto, as it eliminates some uncertainty for them in the long term. Dumba has shown to be a strong offensive producer to this point, and if he continues to grow in that regard next season, Minnesota could be in for paying him a lot more annually than Brodin.
Only 23 defencemen in the entire league hit 40 points this season. Dumba had 34. Assuming he takes another step there in 2017-18, trading him now makes sense if the Wild want to avoid a tougher decision later.
But assuming he could be available, how would he help the Leafs?
Dumba is that right-shot defenceman Toronto and so many other teams are looking for, but he likely isn’t going to bring the presence an established big ticket player like Shattenkirk would in free agency. He’s 22-years-old and just off his third full NHL season with the Wild. As mentioned, he’s going into the final year of his RFA bridge deal, and brings with him a 2.55-million AAV cap hit. So far, he’s improved every season in terms of his offensive output, but as we’ll see, there are some question marks when it comes to his role and how strong he is in the run of play at 5-on-5.
If you do a quick comparison of Dumba to what the Leafs currently have in their defence group, his 2016-17 season aligns pretty closely to that of Nikita Zaitsev, who was just inked to a (heavily criticized) 7-year deal. Contract aside, and keeping in mind Dumba is nearly three full years younger than Zaitsev, that’s actually a nice comparable. No doubt he would be able to step in and make the Leafs’ top four stronger right now, but does he still have room to grow? And even more, does he have upside to be a true top-pairing guy?
The answer to the first question is probably yes. Defencemen usually peak at age 23-24 and Dumba is likely going to take another step forward next season before he goes to cash in on his next contract. The answer to the second question is harder to answer. but I think if you’re a team like the Leafs pursuing Dumba, your dream scenario is for him to work out like Nick Leddy has for the Islanders after leaving Chicago. The situations aren’t all that different.
Leddy was the odd man out for the Blackhawks when they found themselves in cap hell in 2014. Coming off his own bridge contract worth 2.7-million annually, and seen as a player on the rise, Chicago couldn’t pay him, and instead shipped him off to New York where he quickly signed on for a seven-year deal taking him all the way through his prime years at 5.5-million AAV. In the Wild’s case it’s the looming expansion draft creating the urgency, but they now find themselves in a somewhat similar position to that of Chicago back then.
But how about the players themselves?
This usage chart simply shows that, unsurprisingly, Suter and Spurgeon are the horses for the Wild, take on the hardest assignments, and do really well with them. Dumba is in the right-hand corner because his Zone-Start Ratio is the highest in the group, meaning he gets a better share of offensive zone faceoffs (though not by much). The red circle signifies his Corsi at evens is south of 50% (it’s actually 48.5), but the size of the circle indicates his share of time-on-ice among the group – in this case 34%, or third-most.
So there rightfully is concern about how much Dumba can drive play at even-strength, which would obviously put some doubt in the answer about whether he can grow into a true top-pairing guy. But there is someone who had a somewhat similar usage profile at the same age.
Leddy did a better job of driving play in the season before the Blackhawks shipped him off, but his Zone-Start Ratio was cushy and in terms of ice-time, wasn’t trusted with as much share of minutes as Dumba was this past season at evens. He was also part of a much stronger overall group on a historically great Hawks team that season. Obviously plenty of people saw an untapped ceiling in Leddy, but there were still some questions as to whether he’d bloom into “The Guy” elsewhere.
Well, he did.
Now, of course that’s a real high bar for Dumba, but it just illustrates the best case for a player in a comparable scenario. I think even if evolving to become a player like Leddy is something that’s slightly out of reach, at worst the Leafs would be landing a player in Dumba that provides a major skill upgrade to their top four and brings along a strong offensive game – again, much like Zaitsev currently. He seems to have the overall skill of a difference-maker, and his career CorsiRel mark of -0.39% (score-adjusted) isn’t enough to convince me he’s forever a liability in the defensive game.
|Season||G/60 (All Situations)||Points/60 (All Situations)|
Dumba is a player that might not be able to step in and be better than what the Leafs already have in Rielly, Gardiner, and Zaitsev, but at the very least he can be someone who fits into that group nicely, giving the team a much more solid top four with a good amount of scoring ability throughout. I’m not sure if he’s the best possible option; Some have pointed to names like Chris Tanev and Justin Faulk among others, and perhaps those players make more sense as better true defenders. But in terms of availability, age, and the ability for the team to negotiate cost going forward, Dumba is certainly a viable candidate.