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Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports

Toronto’s experience with Daniel Winnik should inspire rebuilding teams

I don’t have any specific inside knowledge to offer on his situation, but if I had to bet my guess would be that Daniel Winnik will be in the NHL again in 2017-18, expanding on his 700-odd career games.

The 32-year-old forward is still unsigned and may need to accept a professional tryout offer to make it happen, but he’s a well-rounded player who had 12 goals and 25 points in precious little ice-time on a very good team last year. He’s big, he kills penalties, and he can play any forward position; surely some team will take a chance on him.

Given the dogfight for spots up front that Toronto is already dealing with, the days of that team being the Maple Leafs should certainly be in the past. But with Winnik and other notable NHL veterans still looking for homes, his experience with the Toronto rebuild is instructive.

There’s a common misconception that rebuilding teams should clear the decks for their prospects, giving them plenty of playing time and avoiding bringing in mid-tier veterans to compete with them for minutes. It’s a problematic approach from a development perspective, as internal competition can help players develop and “over-ripening” prospects is often preferable to baptizing them by fire anyway.

From an asset management point of view, it’s an even worse idea, as we’ll see.

Toronto’s rapid rebuild really should be a blueprint for teams in similar situations around the league. Team president Brendan Shanahan was hired in the summer of 2014. A year later he fired GM Dave Nonis; two seasons after that the Maple Leafs were in the playoffs again. There was some good fortune involved—not every first overall pick is Auston Matthews—but the Leafs accelerated the process with good decision-making.

One of those decisions was signing Winnik. A second was signing him again a year later.

Winnik’s first deal was a no-risk, one-year contract at a modest $1.3 million cap hit. If he hadn’t been on the roster, Toronto probably would have distributed his minutes between middling forward prospects Brandon Kozun, Carter Ashton and Sam Carrick. Two of the three are now in the KHL, while Carrick is with Anaheim’s farm team. It seems unlikely that an NHL push would have altered their destinies significantly; only Kozun is a significant scorer at a lower level, and injury played a major role in ruining his attempt to turn himself into an NHL regular.

Instead, Winnik got that ice-time. He put up 25 points in 58 games, helping the Leafs a bit without significantly altering their odds at a good draft pick. Then he got flipped to the Penguins at the deadline for warm body Zach Sill and second- and fourth-round draft picks. Both picks were eventually dealt, one for depth defender Martin Marincin and the other in the massive Phil Kessel deal that brought Kasperi Kapanen and others to the organization.

It worked so well that the Leafs decided to do it again, this time signing Winnik to a two-year deal at a $2.25 million hit. The structure of the deal (front-loaded, with significant signing bonuses) is usually done at the player’s request, but it would also have made it easier to unload Winnik if he’d fallen off in his second year. It would also have made him more attractive to any team with cap space but a real dollars budget. This is one of the ways large market teams can take advantage of their relative financial strength even in a capped system.

If Winnik had not been re-signed, one of Toronto’s final forward cuts might have made the team more quickly; the list includes William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and Kapanen. Given how good that group looks today, it’s hard to argue they were ill-served by being sent down in the fall of 2015.

Winnik was shipped out to Washington midway through the first season of his contract. It’s difficult to figure out his precise value in the trade, because Toronto made another smart rebuild play and took Brooks Laich’s pricey pact off the Caps’ hands in the deal. However the value breakdown worked out, they got defenceman Connor Carrick and a second round pick back.

The pick was used on winger Carl Grundstrom, who impressed in the AHL playoffs last spring and looks like he could have an NHL future. Former Marlies video coach Justin Bourne  was on with our Ian Tulloch earlier this week and praised the prospect.

“In just a few games with us, he looked like someone capable of being bigger and better,” Bourne said. “I know the people who drafted him love him. I think there’s a real good chance for him to play in the NHL.”

All Winnik cost Toronto was a bit of money. Spending that money enabled the Leafs to dress a real live NHL player for their paying fans, and then flip that player for useful rebuild assets at consecutive trade deadlines.

Developmentally, Winnik’s value is a little harder to figure because we can’t go back and see what would have happened to Kozun and Ashton and Nylander and Brown if they’d been given more of an opportunity. With the value of hindsight, though, it looks like having a veteran ahead of those players didn’t hurt the real prospects and didn’t derail anybody who would have ended up mattering to the organization.

That’s probably something that teams currently in the middle of rebuilds should consider when they think about inviting Winnik, or any of the similar unsigned NHL players out there, to camp on a tryout basis.