What building from the core out could look like for the Leafs

The core. It’s pretty important and when you think about it we’re really only three seasons removed from the Leafs having nothing resembling a core at all. The Leafs had nice prospects and some good developing young players, but nothing resembling a core. Now it seems like the Leafs have some really good players that wouldn’t even be considered the core of this team.

What do I mean by core, well, I mean the players that the Leafs would be building around. Some of them are more short term core players that might not be in the long term vision of the team, and others are long term core players. Right now we can safely put John Tavares and Auston Matthews in that long term core, but a few of the others may only have a year or two left of being essential to the Leafs. Jake Muzzin is prime example of this, as he’s older and an unrestricted free agent after this season. Frederik Andersen is likely another as he has two years left on his deal and there is definitely some optimism around Woll and Scott as the goaltenders of the future.

Who makes up the core of the Leafs?

Well, at the moment I think it’s safe to say that John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, Frederik Andersen, Jake Muzzin, and yes, William Nylander are the core of the team.

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Let’s fight about Nylander for a second…

Nylander had two 61 point seasons prior to the last lost year and showing signs of being the dominant player once was while playing in the glorified preseason games that are the World Hockey Championships. It is too early to give up a player who had his career worst results and to seemingly sell low on him as a result. Also in no world do you move on from Nylander until the Mitch Marner contract has been resolved.

What does the core cap look like?

Player Position Age Cap Hit Years Remaining
John Tavares C 28 11M 6
Auston Matthews C 21 11.63M 5
Mitch Marner W 22 8-11M TBD
William Nylander W 23 6.96M 5
Morgan Rielly D 25 5M 3
Jake Muzzin D 30 4M 1
Freddie Andersen G 29 5M 2
Total 51.5-54.5M

That’s a lot of money, but at the same time it’s not a lot of money. You’ve committed approximately $53M to 7 players, and have $30M (based off of speculated $83M cap ceiling) left to spend on at least 13 more players (plus the, but likely 15 including a couple press box reserves (plus the dead cap space from the Kessel trade). That means spending just under an average of $2M per the rest of the way, and better believe that ELC’s will help you get there more easily.

Strong supporting cast

Unfortunately for the Leafs two key members of their supporting cast are going to be late to the 2019-20 party. Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott are the kind of affordable players that make an expensive core work, but both will be absent. Fortunately Trevor Moore seems to be an affordable support guy, as does Calle Rosen. When those four players are added to the Leafs roster, the Leafs are still projected to come in under $59M with potentially 12 more opening day roster spots to fill. We are still completely on track for $2M per player target, and that’s without putting Dermott or Hyman on the injured reserve.

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Cheap Depth

Here’s where you start earning some of that money back towards other players on the roster, but this is also where the decisions start getting harder to make. On paper Nic Petan, Freddie Gauthier, and Justin Holl fit that bill easily. The problem is that at this point the only one I could make a case for being on the Leafs roster is Petan, and the only one that Mike Babcock seems interested in playing is Freddie Gauthier. Including all three as Leafs means that the Leafs are only filling 9 roster spots, and would be able to spend $2.4M per player the rest of the way. The problem is that they might not be very good.

Of course that’s just the cheap depth we know, there’s still players like Ilya Mikheyev, Mason Marchment, Yegor Korshkov, Pierre Engvall, Teemu Kivihalme, and Andreas Borgman who could all warrant some consideration as Leafs. Not all of those players are going to be included, nor is the first wave, so at this point, I’m just going to throw my ideas together to see what I’d have.

_________- Tavares- Marner
_________– Matthews- Nylander
Mikheyev- _________
Marchment- Petan- _________

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Rielly- _________
Muzzin- _________
Rosen- Borgman


Extras: Gauthier
Injured: Dermott, Hyman

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With this approach the Leafs have $20M still available to fill seven positions, basically $2.8M per player. There are clearly a couple of elephants in the room we’ve ignored so far, but for now we’re going to continue to do so and focus on what a filled out roster looks like and then worry about how to make it better.

Since we’re building focusing on cheap depth right now, it’s worth considering Garret Sparks at this point. We never really got an update on what was going on with him at the end of the year. He was sent away for 10 days and that was over a month ago. With the playoffs over it seems reasonable to assume he’s transitioned into his off season regiment which hopefully involves less beer league hockey and more of a goaltending focus this go around, but given his price point, perhaps it’s best to assume he’ll be the backup in training camp, and if he’s not looking particularly good he’ll be replaced by whoever is put on waivers as teams adjust to their proper roster size.  That means we’re talking $3.24M per player the rest of the way.

Reality check

Patrick Marleau isn’t going anywhere this year. This is unfortunate from a salary cap perspective, but a truth we should all be prepared for. Putting Marleau back into the mix drops the money per opening down to $2.64M per player, and that is with potentially needing to fill 2 top four defensive positions, a third line center position, and at least 1 top six winger.

In the spirit of making this seem slightly easier than it is, let’s assume that one of Yegor Korshkov or Pierre Engvall find their way onto the Leafs roster in the last bottom six forward position available, at least during the period of time without Zach Hyman. It gets us back on track to having 4 roster positions to fill at $3M a piece, but with the knowledge that these are significant positions.

Who hasn’t been accounted for yet?

Kasperi Kapanen- We haven’t gotten around to signing any of the non-Marner restricted free agents yet, and Kapanen is a player who definitely stands out. Kapanen is a player is definitely not within the core of the team, but still has the potential to be a value contract for the Leafs. The problem is that he might be more valuable as a trade option at this point and the value he’d bring in there could allow another position to be filled cheaply. Given that he’s 22 years old he shouldn’t be paid more than $3M unless the Leafs are getting a significant amount of term I probably lean towards keeping him, and he certainly fills the top six forward vacancy discussed.

Andreas Johnsson- A lot of what is said about Kapanen can also be said about Johnsson, but moving on from him might be a bit easier given that he’s a couple years older, and is definitely not doing as much when not shooting the puck as Kapanen is. The downside is you probably aren’t getting the same return as you would with trading Kapanen, the Leafs may have a greater need for left wings, and his results with Matthews were stronger and that’s a big hole to leave open in the roster or to fill with a question mark.

Connor Brown- Connor Brown really has to go. He probably should have gone after his 20 goal season and perhaps that should be the wake up call around Johnsson and Kapanen as well. You’ll always be able to find another young 20 goal scorer and moving on from the ones you have shouldn’t scare you. Brown’s declined, but part of that decline has been playing further down the lineup and getting fewer offensive opportunities. Increased icetime and better linemates aren’t a guarantee of his offense returning, but hopefully a few teams are willing to take the chance on a winger who looks more affordable if you intend to play him more than the Leafs have. The flipside of that is that Brown is potentially the more affordable option to keep than Johnsson and Kapanen, and if he rebounds he might be sell high success story next summer.

Nikita Zaitsev- I’ve come to terms with the fact that Nikita Zaitsev isn’t as bad as I think he is, but I’ve also come to terms with the fact that Nikita Zaitsev is not who you want playing in your top four and his contract isn’t a fit for the Leafs. Nikita Zaitsev isn’t simply going to go away, but perhaps a solution exists that reduces the cap foot print a bit. Reality is probably that it is easiest to put Zaitsev back on the roster the same way we’ve assumed Marleau, but exploring trades involving Zaitsev needs to be constant.

Nazem Kadri- I’ve saved one of the toughest decisions for last and that’s Nazem Kadri. At $4.5M Kadri is priced high fairly for a 3C, especially considering he has often shown that he is a player who would have an elevated role on most other teams around the league. He’s also under contract for three more years at that reasonable price which makes him both appealing to others, but worth keeping for the Leafs. Any attempt to replace Kadri would likely involve downgrading the position or forcing Nylander into a role that he doesn’t seem suited for.

Between Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, and Nazem Kadri the Leafs already have $11.1M committed of the $12M they have to work with at this point. Assuming that Johnsson and Kapanen should warrant contracts around $3M per year (give or take a little), it seems like a best case scenario is that the Leafs would be able to bring back three of these players and unfortunately it looks like Zaitsev might have to be one of them.

My personal suggestion would be to bring back none of them, or as few of them as possible. The Leafs need to recover some futures lost in the Muzzin trade as well as need the cap flexibility to put towards positions of greater need. If the Leafs downgrade slightly on the wing, and at third line center in order to afford the defensemen they need.

These are the non core players it often hurts to lose, but have value around the league and are more replaceable than we assume (unless Kadri rebounds to his 30 goal pace, then that would be a whiff.) Kasperi Kapanen and Tyler Ennis scored goals at a very similar pace last season and while Kapanen is a much better all around player at this point, there is the ability to find replacement level offense through free agency. Along with Ennis, players like Brandon Pirri, Alex Chiasson, Brett Connolly, Patrick Maroon, Richard Panik, Jamie McGinn, and Brian Boyle may all be available on discounted contracts.

Those other prospects that haven’t been mentioned…

There’s no doubt that Jeremy Bracco may have the potential to be an answer to the need for another offensive winger, and that Timothy Liljegren being NHL ready does wonders to solve the problem on the right side of the blueline. There’s also the fact that Rasmus Sandin really does seem to be “that good” and could push for a job on the Leafs next fall. On a roster that already seems to be full of requiring Marlies to take a leap to the NHL, I’m not ready to assume any more. Presumably if Bracco is ready, he’d take a job I’ve earmarked for Marchment, Engvall, Gauthier, or Korshkov. If Sandin is ready he’d bump Rosen and Borgman down the depth chart and the same would be true of Liljegren. A big part of the roster being cap compliant seems to be based on graduating a significant number of Marlies, at least to start or finding cheap replacement players in free agency. The ideal candidates are going to be when the top prospects are ready to take the next step, and if players like Sandin, Liljegren and Bracco are ready, Leafs fans should be excited.

Putting the plan in place

The goal of building the roster from the core out is that the money is getting spent on the best players, then the balance of the roster is ideally filled with high achieving rookies or underappreciated free agents that push you over the top. Kyle Dubas hasn’t shied away from giving a ton of money to his best players, and he’s certainly made sure the Leafs development system is second to none to ensure there isn’t any shortage of affordable depth. Where he’s had his hands tied is on a couple of undesirable contracts left by the previous GM, and given that he’s only a year into calling the shots, he’s been limited by time. How Dubas decides to populate the roster this season should be telling about his long term vision for the team.

The nice thing about increasing the turnover in the roster to keep the core group intact is that it guarantees you will always be acquiring draft picks and cap space by not hanging onto your non-core players as often. The players you promote have the potential to earn their place in the core group or could potentially be those flippable assets that allow you maintain your cap flexibility and prospect depth. Being loyal to a large group of players, especially when you haven’t been able to take this group out of the first round of the playoffs seems like it would be a commitment to being an average team at best and that doesn’t seem like it will be accepted any longer.

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