In the span of 10 days, Kyle Dubas has managed to shed the three contracts, that most in the hockey world believed, needed to be shed. He did it without retaining a penny, which is huge.
Dubas shipped out Zaitsev and Brown on July 1, after Zaitsev’s bonus had been paid, to the Ottawa Senators. When evaluating this trade, you can’t look through the lens of “if Brown scores x goals, Leafs lost the trade.” I am of the opinion that apart from elite players, and I mean bonafide superstars, cap space is the most valuable asset you can have. This is why I think the Leafs “won” this trade.
What is Ottawa getting? Well, Connor Brown will definitely play higher in the lineup, probably in Ottawa’s top-6 and on the PP. He will score more, naturally. However, it is important to look at it from the lens that Brown was not getting that opportunity in Toronto because there are too many better options ahead of him. There is a non-zero chance his deal ends up being a bargain for Ottawa, especially if he produces in an elevated role. Don’t be surprised if he returns to his rookie form and scores 20 goals. He wasn’t going to get that opportunity in Toronto, and therefore, the cap space was more valuable.
Based on how much DJ Smith values Zaitsev, it would stand to reason he will likely play on the top pair with Chabot. If Smith chooses to deploy Hainsey with Chabot, then Zaitsev slides to the 2nd pair and plays top minutes on the PK. If he plays a bigger offensive role, Zaitsev can contribute, but his defensive zone exits (or lack thereof) are an area of huge concern. Zaitsev was clearly valued by Babcock and the coaching staff, and a little hard done by when it comes to fans, who made him the whipping boy. No matter what you think of him, clearing 4.5 million off the cap for 5 years far outweighs any positive attributes Zaitsev was going to bring to the Leafs.
So what does Toronto get out of this deal? Well, they got Ceci, and we’ll get to that. But, they got Harpur, Luchuk and a 3rd round pick. The most important asset Toronto got…2.1 million in cap space in 19/20 and at least 4.5 million in cap space in the following 4 seasons (Brown is an RFA in 2020). That’s just in this trade! Dubas managed to get an additional 2.5 million in cap space when he shipped Kadri & Rosen to COL for Barrie (a right handed D, oh my!) and Alexander Kerfoot (who I think is underrated, and will be tremendous in his role). Where does that leave the Leafs? Well, there is actual cap flexibility, not the perceived flexibility that LTIR provides. That cap space is incredibly valuable to a team who is in the contending window.
But why is the cap space so valuable? If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone in a front office or on Twitter say “Team X can’t do this because they are tight against the cap/too close to cap floor,” I would never have to work a day in my life. The thing about cap flexibility, is it allows for player acquisition. If the Leafs weren’t so worried about the cap, Gardiner stays without a second thought. But, you see, Mitch Marner is sort of throwing a wrench in that, right now. It is incredibly frustrating to be a contending team, who wants to add a piece before the deadline or retain a free agent, and can’t because they don’t have the cap room. If you think it drives fans crazy, it bothers management and coaches, too. Toronto acquired the cap space, which for them, is by far the most valuable asset in this trade.
Now, Cody Ceci. Well, with the acquisition of Barrie, one would THINK and probably HOPE, he plays top pair with Rielly. If that’s the player Babcock chooses to strap to Rielly, well it would be a significant improvement over the last few seasons. That leaves Muzzin and considering Babcock likes his lefty-righty pairs, Ceci. Prepare yourselves for that, it is probably happening. That leaves Dermott on the 3rd pair with…one of Holl, Gravel, Marincin or Harpur. I would think, given the options, plus the young Swedes in the minors (who may get a look at some point), Harpur probably gets the Corrado treatment. Or, since his salary can be buried, Harpur could be sent down. For the record, Muzzin-Dermott is a better option, but don’t get your hopes up.
With Ceci on the 2nd pair, there are reasonable expectations. Let’s face it, he was asked to play far above his head, role-wise, in Ottawa, and it didn’t go well. When he was playing behind Karlsson, his possession entries were 20 percentiles better, and his possession exit rate was 30 percentiles better. His entry defense last season, as the number 1 D was staggeringly bad. On the flip side, he was average when playing behind Karlsson. Quality of competition and teammates, for the matter, is very important.
Ceci has shown he can make exits in the past. With the speed and skill of the Leafs forwards, his job will be to pass it to them and let them do their thing. My biggest concern, his ability to read the game. He hasn’t made good decisions with the puck or in his own end, which is a concern. I can attest to the fact that Leafs Skill Consultant Darryl Belfry has helped other NHL players with this, so there is no reason to think he can’t help Ceci.
The bottom line, as long as Ceci plays 2nd pair, against lesser competition, with higher QoT, and trusts the Leafs forwards to skate the puck, he can be serviceable in his role. One year at 4.5-million is very manageable, and the Leafs can let him walk next summer if there is no improvement and they don’t like what they see. However, if he improves in his role and is a fit, the Leafs can extend him. The only reason he gets 4.5 this year is because of his QO. It would stand to reason, that even if he improves, he still wouldn’t be worth that much (yes, he’s overpaid now), and as a UFA, would likely sign for less. One year at 4.- million is better than five years at 4.5-million. It is really, that simple.
What of Luchuk? Well, I remember working in the OHL, watching this guy, and thinking: he’s going to earn himself a contract. He scored at the OHL level (115 pts in 68 games in his last season), but he also plays a responsible two-way game. He’s a prime candidate for late bloomer, especially with the work that Leafs development staff has done with guys like Moore, Engvall and Marchment. Apart from his size, which barely matters anymore, the biggest knock on Luchuk is his skating. Based on her track record with Boyle, Gauthier and Dermott, we should be confident that Barb Underhill can work her magic on Luchuk. Even if he doesn’t get to the level of Dermott, it wouldn’t surprise me if she was able to get him to a productive skating level, which would significantly raise the possibility of Luchuk contributing at the NHL level.
The bottom line in all of this, Leafs needed to get out from under Zaitsev’s contract, and Brown wasn’t worth his contract playing on the 4th line. I am confident in saying that Brown will be worth his contract in Ottawa, as he will play in an elevated role. It wasn’t to be with the Leafs, and gaining the additional cap space was more valuable. Not to mention, the Leafs shipped out Kadri for a younger player (Kerfoot), and signed him for $1 million less. In Ceci, the Leafs are taking a chance that they can use their abundance of resources to improve Ceci’s game to a serviceable 4th D. Asking him to make the simple breakout passes and play some PK, isn’t asking a ton. I think simplifying his role, and cutting down on his time against tougher competition will help him gain the confidence he needs to be a good fit as a 4. His cap hit remains the same as Zaitsev’s, and if the Leafs don’t like the trajectory, they let him walk in 2020. Any way you slice it, getting out from under the term of the Zaitsev contract is a good thing.
As it stands, without LTIR, the Leafs have $3,765,301 in cap space. If Marner signs, one player will be sent down, let’s say with $700,000 worth of salary. This leaves 4,465,301 in cap space. The Leafs could also choose to send Harpur to the Marlies, or any other player with a salary that can be buried, and go with 22. If they aren’t going to play, it wouldn’t make sense to have them occupying cap space or a roster spot. This would add an extra $725,000 in available money. Add Nathan Horton’s LTIR space of 5,300,000, it leaves the Leafs with 10,490,301 in cap space. This issue: this is the last year of Horton’s cap hit. Clearing Zaitsev/Brown money, and allowing at least one of Ceci, Barrie & Muzzin to walk (if not two), will be necessary to fit Marner under in 2020-2021.
In terms of what the Leafs acquired in this trade, here is the ranking of importance: Cap space, Ceci, Luchuk, Harpur, 3rd-round pick. Whether you like Ceci or not, you probably like Marner, and if you want to keep him, this was an absolutely necessary move to make.