The Case for Trading the Leafs First Round Pick

Last week, I covered off my case for the Leafs trading up at the draft. I think the logic there is pretty sound, except for the one big argument that is going to come up again and again, and that is that the Leafs are in their cup winning window, and the 2018-19 season is the last chance to make a cup run while Matthews and Marner are on their entry level contracts. (Please note this isn’t the Leafs competitive window closing, it’s just the last time these players will ever be this cheap and that is kinda a big deal.) 

With this all in mind, it’s time to make a splash through free agency, through trades, through anything possible that can add to a Leafs team with a fairly deep forward group, and a defense that is not without it’s charm, provided you only look at who plays on the left side of the blueline.

The Case for Trading the Pick

  1. The last paragraph is pretty much the case. The Leafs do not have a right side of the blueline at present. Zaitsev is a disappointment with an albatross contract, which unfortunately means he’ll be the guy who sticks and plays second or third pairing minutes depending on how much the Leafs are committed to improving their roster. Hainsey, is another player who probably still has some hockey left in him if he’s reduced to the bottom pairing, but perhaps on the left side. Polak is gone for real, right? RIGHT? We can only hope. And Carrick is arguably the most talented of the lot, and he hasn’t been able to crack the roster under Babcock. Timothy Liljegren is a promising part of the future and proof the right side doesn’t need to be terrible forever, but if he makes the Leafs in 2018-19 that’s a pleasant surprise, not an expectation.Right shooting defense is obviously the priority, but with van Riemsdyk, Bozak, and Komarov potentially all departing, there is a need to add some depth to the forward group as well, but I can’t imagine I’d be as comfortable with the Leafs making a significant deal that mortgages the future without addressing their most glaring hole.
  2. Let’s revisit the quality of the Leafs first round pick. In the trading up post we looked at the tiers of the draft discussed by Canucks Army, and Michael Schucker’s draft pick value, and based on the draft tiers the Leafs are likely to either catch an okayish player who has slid a little in the draft, or will get one of the first choices of the “best of the rest” players that will make up the bulk of the second and third rounds of this somewhat deep draft. The shot at high end talent isn’t as great as in previous years and even swing for the fences options like Ryan Merkley are likely to have been selected.
    With the Sharks eliminated the Leafs are now either going to be picking 24th or 25th, and if Pittsburgh is eliminated as well this round the Leafs would be 25th, which I certainly wouldn’t complain about drafting someone like Jett Woo, I’d be much more curious to see what the Leafs 1st or Leafs 1st + can do to fix the holes in their lineup.
    Using the chart and tiers together, it’s much more likely that the Leafs are just going to miss out on the 300 value level players, and instead be picking from the 200 level, which wouldn’t be too far off what they could draft with their second round pick. As much as it is nice to see the Leafs pick a player on Friday night, it’s entirely possible the player they select on Saturday morning can fill the prospect sized hole in our hearts.
  3. The Leafs recent history of picks in the 20-31 range has yielded some pretty limited results. Over the past decade the players they have taken in that range is Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy, Frederik Gauthier, and Yegor Korshkov. Of course this present management group really only has Korshkov on their record, and they were able to find Travis Dermott at 34 as well. Korshkov could end up being a decent player, but he’ll likely never be valued around a 1st or high 2nd again. Even if the Leafs are able to grab a solid player who gives them a few good seasons of hockey before disappearing forever, that could be more valuable than a late 1st round pick.
  4. Finally we can daydream about what players may be available if the Leafs put their first round pick in play.
    1. Tyson Barrie was still rumoured to be available at the trade deadline, though a playoff push certainly could have ended that. Since he’s one of the more exciting names that I can include I’ll toss him up here, even though the Leafs would clearly need to add to make this deal happen. It would leave the Avs incredibly thin on the blueline but his name has been out there.
    2. It’s hard to tell how much the Coyotes value Jason Demers, but they do love draft picks. His value seems to be right around a late first, and would be the Coyotes selling high compare to what they acquired him for. If they don’t see themselves as pushing for a playoff spot (they shouldn’t) he’s not a bad option for the Leafs
    3. Do the Leafs try to pry an Shattenkirk out of New York before knowing how he’s recovered from his injury? He’s got a sizable cap hit and question marks, but the Rangers have fallen in love with first round picks and getting the cap space back wouldn’t hurt them either.
    4. Erik Karlsson isn’t happening, but why not put him on the list anyway? Doesn’t hurt to find out what it takes and you know 1sts are going to be part of the package that gets it done.
    5. Dougie Hamilton seems pretty unlikely, but has be a pipe dream of a number of Leafs fans for a while. Since Hamilton had a decent year last year and Calgary sees themselves as close to being back in the playoff picture, they probably aren’t going to drop a top defenseman a 1st +.
    6. Chris Tanev is another player the Leafs have had rumoured interest in before. On talent he’s more valuable than a late first, but his injury history is jarring and giving up more than the Leafs first for him wouldn’t appeal to me personally.
    7. With the Carolina Hurricanes being a complete wild card at the moment I’m going to add Justin Faulk to this list. I can’t see this playing out especially since the lottery has already given the Canes their best shot at gaining ground to get back into the playoff picture, but given the need for goaltending, does Sparks and a 1st at least start the conversation?
    8. Mark Pysyk rounds out the list as his cap friendly contract would be a godsend on the Leafs second pairing. With Dale Tallon wanting to add experience to blueline, perhaps he’s willing to clear out Pysyk to make room for that. Heck, he can also take Hainsey back in the process if he wants.

Is It Worth It?

If the Leafs are doing this, ideally they pay a little more (more futures or a roster player) and get a true top pairing defenseman on the right side. Not only does that help clearing the cap space to keep the rest of the band together, but it crosses off the biggest question mark on the Leafs lineup card. It remains to be seen if that is possible. The biggest problem is that it is easy to be optimistic about your roster in June, and teams like Colorado, Florida, Carolina, Calgary, and possibly Arizona won’t see themselves as sellers any more. Ottawa, Vancouver, and the Rangers will have much more control of the market, and the Leafs certainly won’t be the only team searching for right side defender.

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I’ve spent a good chunk of the season operating under the assumption that the Leafs would be trading this draft pick for a roster upgrade, and when it didn’t happen at the trade deadline I admit I was a little shocked and disappointed. Heading into the draft there is little doubt that the pick is still in play, but there is also a looming sense of what the Oilers had to pay to get Adam Larsson. It’s entirely possible that the return the Leafs get for a 1st is nowhere near the names I suggested. Using Florida as an example, would the Leafs have to pay them same price I’d expect for Pysyk for Alex Petrovic (who isn’t a bad pickup, but not worth a 1st).

There are a lot of questions that can’t be answered, especially given that we have no idea who the GM of the Leafs will be. What we do know is that after a top pairing right side defender one of the Leafs biggest needs is quality prospects, and that is something the draft pick could help them address.

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