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.