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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports

On the Leafs’ protection list and why it could be both better and worse

You’ve probably all seen the lists by now, but if you haven’t, the Toronto Maple Leafs have joined the other 30 teams in publishing their Expansion Draft protection lists. If you’re not in the loop, you can see the Toronto’s full list over at Ryan Fancey’s post from this morning.

There are a couple of major talking points at play here, though.

The Simple Meritocracy

Firstly, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that all of our arguments about what the Leafs’ thought process was when making this list might be overthinking it:

Toronto protected the goalie under contract with the most games played, the three defencemen under contract with the most games played, and 6 of their top 7 signed forwards in games played. The only player that doesn’t follow the rule is Josh Leivo, but he’s coming in over Ben Smith, who basically played himself out of an NHL job as the year progressed and is widely thought to have been extended as emergency expansion fodder and/or AHL (a level where he performs well in) depth.

Legitimately, it may have been as simple as the players who played the most games getting the spots. Or that might just be a happy coincidence. Anyway..

Protecting Matt Martin, and why they could’ve done better

This is going to be the big discussion point of the next couple of days. After months of debate about whether or not such a move would be necessary, Toronto used one of their seven forward protection spots on 28-year-old Matt Martin.

Martin just completed the first year of a four-year contract that he signed with the Maple Leafs in July of 2016, at a cap hit of $2,500,000 per season. In that year, he threw a lot of hits, participated in over half of the team’s fights (his 13 majors just barely beat out Brian Boyle,  Nazem Kadri, and Roman Polak’s totals of two each), and was considered to be a positive influence in the locker room, which is important when you’ve got a bevy of rookies.

With all of that said, Martin also had a career-low 9 points, the second fewest of any forward in the National Hockey League to play at least 70 games this season. Martin was just the 30th forward in the past 43 years to play 80+ games and finish with under 10 points, and the third Leaf to do it (Kris King and Colton Orr being the others).

Here’s the thing: I don’t doubt Martin’s value to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the present. Whether it lasts for the full term or not is another question, but I’m sure they were satisfied with his net impact on the organization this year. We scoff at intangibles a lot, but that’s usually as a counterbalance to people who over-emphasize them; there’s little doubt that things like proper attitudes, positive leadership, protection/intimidation/comfort and the like do still have some auxiliary benefit to a player or team.

Martin’s also not an awful straight-up player, either; he’s very capable in his role as a displacement forward that can slow down the pace of the game to give their teammates. Argue all you want about whether or not the Leafs should be using their fourth line in that capacity (I’m on team four-scoring-lines), but they aren’t and he’s capable of playing within the confines they currently do have set up.

At the same time, look through the eyes of Las Vegas. They’re going to have a rotating cast of players and almost all of them will be around Martin’s age. There won’t be much room for mentorship. They’ll also be using this draft to either accrue assets or take a lot of flyers on upside. The odds of them taking a player like Martin, coming off of a down production year and still having three seasons remaining at a salary that even his biggest fans will tell you is above market value, are slim to none. If Vegas decides they need a role player of his ilk, they’ll reach out to one of the many role players that tend to always end up in free agency pile in a few weeks and likely find an alternative for half the price and term.

You don’t need to be demanding Martin head out the door to question his protection; it just doesn’t seem like opportune asset management to use a spot on a player who is very unlikely to get selected.

Oh, and for those justifying this as the Leafs protecting him to avoid hurting his feelings: if he was that type of person, he wouldn’t have been signed by the team to have the interpersonal role that he has. I certainly wouldn’t want a player who can’t emotionally handle a depth chart to be mentoring my superstars, and I don’t think that Martin matches that description.

Exposing Brendan Leipsic, and why they could’ve done worse

At the same time, while I personally feel the Leafs didn’t make the correct decision for that last spot, leaving Brendan Leipsic exposed is not disastrous.

Just like we did with Martin, let’s qualify this: Brendan Leipsic is good. Maybe even really good.

Not every high scoring AHLer makes it to the NHL, but if you’re able to put up points in your teens or early 20’s, your odds of success are a fair bit higher than if you do at 27 or 28. Two players on this list ended up playing in the Stanley Cup Final, with Jake Guentzel proving himself to be a core-worthy piece for the Penguins moving forward.

Leipsic, for what it’s worth, isn’t the only one on this list available to the Golden Knights; the two oldest players (Seth Griffith and Pontus Aberg) were made available by their teams, and Washington exposed Christian Djoos. In fact, nobody on this list was protected; those staying with their teams were all exempt.

But there’s still some hope there, and Leipsic has the potential to be a very interesting player. He’s creative with the puck, brilliant at going from end to end with possession, isn’t scared to get in the thick of things despite being just 5’9, and has the propensity to be a bit of a pest. He’d be a fine selection for the Golden Knights, and I would be no shocked if he went on to have a rather successful NHL career.

He also might not make it, though. At a certain age, it becomes fair to question whether a player, no matter how skilled, will get afforded the opportunity to have an adjustment curve once being called up, which Leipsic will need having played just six NHL games while being half a decade beyond his draft day.

Certainly, the climb is even more uphill in Toronto than it is in Las Vegas, with the Leafs having a ton of quality wingers, many of them on the younger side and not likely to move out of the way for him soon.

That’s the biggest problem for him, and also for guys like Griffith and Kerby Rychel, who were also exposed by the Leafs despite very good AHL seasons and their relatively young ages. As I brought up lately, that entire group (and Leivo as well) all require waivers to be sent down to the AHL next season.

Unless Toronto moves out some wingers in trades in the next few weeks and doesn’t replace them with others, the odds of any of them being any more than the 13th forward are very slim. With that in mind, there’s a non-zero chance that arguing about which one or two of the group should or should have been protected has a final result of all four of them being gone for little to nothing in October.

Summing it all up

The Leafs went with a list that I wouldn’t have mirrored. While Matt Martin brings certain elements to their team specifically, his value to the Golden Knights would probably be minimal, if any, and they’d almost definitely pass over him if he were to be exposed.

At the same time, while I believe in the younger players that Toronto have left out in the open, and while I do believe that this likely ends in Vegas selecting Leipsic and giving him a legitimate opportunity, the odds of him, Griffith, Rychel, and maybe even Leivo getting their long-term NHL break with the Leafs are minimal.

Also, in fairness, I highly doubt that we’d be having this conversation if the Leafs didn’t have so many of their forwards falling under exempt status.

With that all being the case, Toronto’s list is far from catastrophic. While it makes you think about what the thought process is on the inside a bit, and you wonder how that will spill over into later decisions, the worst case scenario here is that a player that hasn’t had a chance to prove themselves here (and likely never would) thrives in a situation that he would’ve never received here. Ideally, Martin has a bounce-back year and whoever leaves seizes the moment and everybody is happy.

Not ideal, not a disaster. Could be better, could be worse.

  • Stan Smith

    As I keep saying. Some people put way to much emphasis on scoring, and ignore the other factors, such as defensive play, grit, work ethic, etc. Fact is that of all of the forwards that played the majority of the season, Martin had the lowest GA60 on the team at 1.72. He also had the lowest SA60 of anyone that played the majority of the season with the Leafs at 28.47. On top of that his goalies Save% was the highest at .940, showing the quality of shots were less with him on the ice. As for your contention that there was little or no chance that Vegas would have picked him, I have two replies, first if one of the smartest management teams in the NHL valued Martin to the tune of $2.5M a year, why do you think Vegas wouldn’t. Second McPhee stated his goal was to have a young, fast skating team. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the Leafs? He may have just as easily felt Martin could provide all the positives to Vegas as he does for the Leafs. As for Martin having a bounce back year, I don’t think he has anything to bounce back from.

    In the case of Leipsic, I’m more surprised they didn’t protect Rychel, than Leipsic. The Leafs have an abundance of small, skilled wingers. Babcock stated at the end of last season the Leafs needed to get bigger up front. I think the odds of Leipsic making the team were slim.

    • GA60 and SA60 has a lot to do with the competition he is playing against. He mostly laced up against the other team’s 4th line and spent the majority of his time mucking around in the corners. Sure that means he capable of killing some time off the clock if that’s what you want. But if you are playing from behind or defending a league, he’s probably not someone your putting out there against the top line of the opposing team. Additionally, how much of his stats are impacted by playing with an elite defensive centre in Boyle. Centres have a much larger impact on defensive play than wingers like Martin.

      From the save percentage standpoint, again, that has more to do with the quality of shots. If it’s a bunch of 3rd and 4th liners he’s lining up against, they also don’t have an “emphasis on scoring”. Their shot quality won’t be good. It would be much more informative to see what the shot location distribution and shot quality save percentage was.

      As for his contract, it was signed after a season high of 19 points. Classic contract year overcompensation. Again, “Martin was just the 30th forward in the past 43 years to pay 80+ games and finish with under 10 points”. Why would Vegas want that? Will he rebound a bit next year? Maybe, but it’s not like he is going to break 20 points as he never has. Again, you can get that his “intangibles” every year off FA; that is how the Leafs got him, after all…

      • Stan Smith

        So you are basically saying he did his job as a 4th line winger very well. If you are down a goal you go more with the other three lines. I’m glad you mentioned Boyle. Once they got Boyle, the two of them were awesome at cycling the puck together. As for your question, why would Vegas want him, why do the Leafs want him? Thanks for helping to support me argument though.

        • Kanuunankuula

          That depends what you want from them. I’d like a scoring 4th line. In that he’s not doing his job. Look at Pittsburgh, they’ve got some skill on 4th line, and it’s working out.

          Vegas is not in the same situation as Toronto. They’re not going to be laden with rookies, and let’s say they needed a Martin type, they’d just sign a tough guy in FA.

        • No, read again. I said he merely killed time, or more accurately, was a waste of time. If that’s what you want out of your fourth line, then sure, have a never ending tug of war with next to no results. It’s definitely the traditional way of doing things and it used to have merit in the clutch-and-grab era. I’d rather replace him with some kids that are equally adept at cycling that also put in more than 10 points per year. But sure, find the one place where I respectfully grant you a slim margin of doubt to then ignore every other point I’ve made.

          As for why the Leafs want him, that’s exactly the point. You don’t know either. It’s likely another one of those favours that the Leafs have given to role players in the past (see Clune). It’s definitely not based on production. You’re simply using their decision, whatever the reason for it may be, to confirm your own biases. Unless you know their reason, it’s a very weak argument to use it as a complete justification of every one of your own biases.

          Lastly, as for Boyle, read your point again. “Once they got Boyle…”. Maybe, just maybe, the reason they got better at cycling was because of Boyle? We would have seen more glimpses of that kind of game earlier in the season in Martin otherwise.

          Again, I hope you realize that I’m not purposefully bashing Martin. He’s a very competent player. He’s a huge improvement over the Orr/McLaren days. I’m not saying there is no place for him on this team. I just think that there was a very slim chance he would ever get claimed based on everything McPhee has said about building their new team with youth and skill.

  • MartinPolak

    where is the jeffler story about the wrongness of the cup winning penguins exposing corrado 😉 you deserve that jab jeffler for unapologetically picking on me and others all season on twitter for liking what martin brings to the team. And telling that you are wrong with who the leaf would protect. And i’m very happy with Lou and babcock despite your hystrionics on twitter with martin and lunch pail lovers

  • Glen

    Personally I like the Leafs protected list. As for Martin the Leafs management are obviously fans and their opinion is the one that counts. You can quote all the stats you like, but for all the intangibles Martin brings both on and off the ice he is an important part of this team right now.

  • FlareKnight

    What a shock…the Martin thing continues.

    I don’t buy the argument of this article. Just like I haven’t bought the complaining about protecting Martin for the past few months. No value to Vegas? I’m not sure on that one. The Leafs expose very little of value. You don’t think they could claim Martin and move him somewhere that would use him? Trades are a thing. If the Leafs management group liked Martin enough to sign him and play him all season, I’m sure there’s another group in the NHL that would be ok with that.

    Expansion isn’t just about what Vegas wants to use for themselves. That should be obvious at this point. We have Andersen in net because that is obvious. Teams moved guys to protect them from being just taken for nothing. Teams have made deals with Vegas to avoid losing guys they like. And Vegas has openly created a bidding war for anyone exposed that they could take and then trade.

    I get not liking the contract. I don’t like the contract. Don’t really hate it either because my god it’s a small contract. If a 2.5 million dollar cap hit is hindering this team in any possible way…they just waive him and bury almost half of it. The list is fine. Who is exposed? A few guys who can’t crack the Leafs roster and probably will get picked up on waivers. At most we lost what…a 4th round pick that we’d get by trying to trade them around training camp?

    The list is fine. Martin has a role on the team and the Leafs want to keep him. Exposing someone you want to keep because you hope Vegas won’t take them or trade them is a bad idea and bad asset management.

    • Kanuunankuula

      So what if they pick him? He’s not exactly hard to replace? And for the contract, he’s an ok player but man is that contract going look bad in it’s last year for the Leafs.

  • AAADam

    As far as I’m concerned, Martin scored 9 points in a full 82 game season and that does NOT belong in the NHL. It’s honestly pathetic for a $2.5M cap hit. No fancy stats involved, I just simply watched the game. IMO he brought almost nothing to the table on game by game basis. Yeah sure, he got Chara to take a penalty in that one game and everyone was like “oh this is why we need Martin”. But like .. what does he do that Rich Clune can’t? Ugh I’ve hated this signing since the second it happened. I particularly don’t like MGMT’s handling of Martin, because they are giving him special treatment and not treating him like any other player who would obviously not belong with 9 points in a full season. RE: Vegas, I don’t see why they would ever take him. Why would they want such asinine production at such a high cap hit? The Leafs absolutely protected him unnecessarily. They protected him to send a message to Martin himself that he belongs on the team, but does that not counter Lou’s team first philosophy? Not about the name on the back, but the logo. I honestly don’t think he makes the Leafs better, I think he does NOTHING at all.

  • DukesRocks

    I’ve read through most of the pros and cons with protecting Martin and the main reasons against was his 9 points and his 2.5 annual salary. I was wondering what point total would be enough to make everyone happy and comfortable with his annual salary. I was thinking about the Leafs lines all season and one line never had a consistent cast comparative to the other 3. Yes, the 4 line kept changing all season, with Martin being the mainstay on the line. I was just wondering, would Martin still have 9 points if he had Boyle and Kapanen all season? Being that as it may, the Leafs signed Martin to keep the flies off the rookies. Did Martin do his job, Yes. The results were amazing, with everyone including vets having career seasons. Unfortunately, there are no stats to show how Martin helped in this aspect. To me, Martin brings balance to the Leafs and without him, I guarantee the Leafs would not have made the playoffs.

    In reference to LV not picking up Martins contract. This depends on how you value Martin. If you want to go by points sure, I can see LV passing on him but if you value his leadership, toughness, character, heart etc… 2.5 is chump change in the grander scheme of things. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s not a foregone conclusion LV passes on him.

    • Grunt

      What I haven’t heard mentioned here or anywhere else is that the leafs have a bad reputation for trading for veterans and then burying them in the minors. So now they sign a free agent and don’t protect him what does that possibly say to other free agents. Remember Micjalic said if he new that the leafs would send h to the minors he never would have waived his no trade clause. Like him or hate him and or his contract I think this was a message to other free agents that if you sign with the leafs you will be valued.