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Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs Should Bring P.K. Home to Toronto

With the trade deadline behind us, now seems like the perfect time to discuss who the Leafs should target to improve their D core next season. Timing is everything and, as the old saying goes, the best time to discuss a trade was two weeks ago and the second-best time is now…. or something like that.

Anyways, as you may have already noticed, the Leafs defense is kind of awful. More specifically, their right side is sub-par and only getting worse next season. Tyson Barrie has had mixed results this year but it’s hard to argue that Toronto has an internal replacement as good as him after his likely departure this summer. This leaves the Leafs with a 28-year-old AHL lifer and a 2019 NHL rookie holding down their right side in 2020; not exactly a recipe for success. Long story short, the Leafs need another body and preferably a body that is good at hockey. The answer…. PK Subban.

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Ok… hear me out. I can already sense the backlash to this idea: “PK is cooked! Do you think it’s 2016?! He costs too much! Why do you always have such terrible taeks?!”. These are all valid, albeit kind of mean, concerns. PK definitely could be cooked. But he could also *not* be cooked. He could be undercooked. And if he is, the Leafs could be buying very low on a very good right-handed defenseman. 

Most concerns regarding a Subban acquisition can be broken into three main categories PK’s play, PKs contract, and PK’s cost to acquire. I’ll do my best to address each of these separately.

Play:

There is no getting around the fact that PK is having a very poor year in 2019/20 and is coming off an injury-ridden year in 2018/19. Both by box score and fancy stats, PK has been a disappointing acquisition for the Devils. Due to his age (30), there are reasonable concerns that this dip in play is a sign of decline setting in. That being said, It really seems like Subban is being written off prematurely. In my opinion, there is a decent chance that this season is more of an outlier than it is the new norm. 

One factor that could be negatively affecting Subban’s play is that he is playing on a terrible team. PK was a star for the better part of a decade then almost immediately fell off after being traded to New Jersey (currently in 26th place). Subban almost certainly has declined over the last 2 years but I’m willing to bet that team effects have played a part in the degree to which his play has dropped off. Most public models try to adjust for this but that is never going to be perfect (especially when dealing with extremes like the Devils, whose roster is compiled primarily of NHL 20 create-a-players). There have been enough examples of players performing very differently in different situations *cough* Colin Miller *cough* that I’m willing to bet that PK looks better on a more skilled roster.

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Nagging Injury/fatigue may also be a factor. On the December 19, 2019 episode of 31 Thoughts Podcast, Elliotte Friedman theorized that part of Subban’s struggles were related to his workout routine. PK is a fitness nut and with recent injuries and age, Friedman suggested making adjustments to how he worked out could help Subban recapture some of his past success. If a source of Subban’s decline is actually health and training, who better than the Leafs to help Subban optimize what he has left to give. The Leafs have more medical and training resources than any other team in the league. They could afford to hire a team of doctors and skills coaches whose only job is to optimize what PK Subban brings you. The talent is there and the results have been there as recently as a year and a half ago. It wouldn’t be the first time the Leafs have been able to get value out of players who the league had all but written off (see Spezza and Ennis). If any team can get Subban in peak condition, it’s the Leafs.

Contract:

PK’s contract is the biggest deterrent for any team thinking about acquiring him. At a $9MM AAV for two more years, I doubt a single team in the league would be interested in taking a flyer on him. Even if the cap went up to $88MM,  as Bettman advised it might, that would still leave the Leafs with very little room. And if the cap lands on the low end of projections ($84MM), taking on $9MM is a near impossibility. However, if the Devils were willing to retain (which I expect they would for the right return), Subban’s overall contract becomes a lot more palatable.

For a Subban deal to work for the Leafs, the Devils would likely need to retain the maximum 50% of his total contract (equal to $4.5MM x 2 years). I’ll address what I think it would cost to have them do that in the next section. But assuming the Devils agree, this would leave the Leafs with a $4.5MM AAV for 2 years. The Leafs can fairly easily stay cap compliant with that cap hit on the books.

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Also in the Leafs favour, though the structure of PK’s contract makes it near impossible to buy out, it would be extremely easy to trade should they feel things aren’t working out after the first year. Subban has no-trade protection and his deal is heavily bonus-laden. I’ve included Subban’s contract structure below for reference.

Subban is owed $6MM in bonuses and $2MM in salary over each of the next two seasons. With New Jersey retaining half of that value, Subban would only be owed $1MM in the last year of his deal after his July 1 bonus is paid. At that salary, I am confident a number of budget teams would be willing to take a one year flyer on him, if only for name value/promotional purposes. All this serves to mitigate the Leafs risk when taking on a player at the start of his decline.

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Acquisition Cost:

Unlike many of the other options the Leafs could pursue at RHD, I actually don’t think Subban himself would be particularly difficult to acquire. The Devils are unlikely to be good in time to use his services, he clearly hasn’t worked out there, and they didn’t give up all that much to get him in the first place. If the Leafs were willing to take on his whole contract, I could see him being had for very little. Unfortunately, the Leafs can’t take on his whole contract. As I previously outlined, I really only think this is a worthwhile endeavour if the Devils retain $4.5MM x 2. That’s a tough pill to swallow. For the Devils to do that, their required compensation would rise significantly.

This past offseason, we saw the Leafs give up a first-round pick to the Canes in exchange for them taking on Patrick Marleau’s $6.5MM cap hit for one year. Though half of PK’s deal would be less than that per year, Subban’s cap hit would be on the books for an extra season. The Leafs will have to give up something of real value. My trade proposal:

To Toronto:
PK Subban

To New Jersey:
Andreas Johnsson

For the Devils, they get a second-line winger with some skill, a cheap contract, and team control. For the Leafs, they trade a player they’ve survived without all season and address an area of weakness by drawing from an area of strength.

Here is what the team could look like after that trade:

LW C RW
Zach Hyman (2.25M) Auston Matthews ($11.634M) Mitch Marner ($10.893M)
Ilya Mikheyev ($1.5M) John Tavares ($11M) William Nylander ($6.962M)
Nick Robertson ($850k) Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5M) Kasperi Kapanen ($3.2M)
Pierre Engvall ($1.25M) Jason Spezza ($800k) Yegor Korshkov ($925k)
Kenny Agostino ($738k)
LD RD G
Jake Muzzin ($5.625M) P.K. Subban ($4.5M) Freddie Andersen ($5M)
Morgan Rielly ($5M) Justin Holl ($2M) Jack Campbell ($1.65M)
Rasmus Sandin ($894k) Travis Dermott ($1.75M)
Timothy Liljegren ($863k)
Estimated Salary Cap Projected Cap Hit Roster Size  Remaining Cap Space
$84,000,000 $83,984,366 22 $15,634

Even at a $84MM cap, this is a cap compliant roster that allows for a couple of different options at both forward and D. They draw from internal depth to make up for the loss of Johnsson (subbing in Mikheyev, Engvall, and one of Robertson or Agostino). As for the D Core, adding Subban gives the team a lot more options. They could load up on offense by pairing Rielly with Subban and leaving Muzzin-Holl as a shutdown pair. Alternatively, they could balance out the pairs by putting PK with Muzzin and Rielly with Holl. Sandin/Liljegren and Dermott can thrive on a bottom pair rather than pushing them up the lineup before they are ready. Ultimately, the forward group stays very strong by only moving Johnsson and the defense group starts to look much more sustainable.

Other Thoughts

If the Leafs want to acquire a real impact RHD, they are going to have to take some kind of a risk because the UFA and trade market is limited. Free Agency holds ~2 RHD that I would be interested in (Hamonic and Pietrangelo). Both of their teams will be actively trying to re-sign them and even if they do hit UFA, their AAVs almost certainly come in higher than the Leafs can afford (likely $5.5-$7MM for Hamonic and $8.5-$10MM for Pietrangelo). If the Leafs pursue a non PK trade, I’m not sure just one of Kapanen, Johnsson, and Dermott gets you the defenseman you need. Two of those players might not even get it done. And if you give up two of those players, you are out of bullets if your plan doesn’t work. In acquiring PK, you lose Johnsson but you keep Kapanen and Dermott. If this works out, great. If not you still have more bullets in your gun whereas it probably costs ⅔ of the three trade chips to get a decent second pair dman otherwise. Subban is likely their best shot at someone resembling a top pair d. He has a much lower floor than most other trade options the Leafs could pursue but a much higher ceiling as well.

Subban really doesn’t change what the Leafs are but he might elevate what they are. At his best, PK is a defenseman that drives offense primarily. That being said, no single player the Leafs could acquire is going to completely change the way they play. Even the best defensive player can’t turn a terrible defensive team into a good one. The whole team is going to have to play better defensively if they want to be a real contender. There is no plug and play solution. Having a competent RHD doesn’t solve all their woes but it eliminates a soft target for opposing teams.

One of the best reasons to acquire Subban has nothing to do with on ice performance. It’s fun. And it’s good for hockey. PK is a force for good in this league. He’s one of only a handful of players who transcends the sport and having him in the league’s biggest market is good for the game. He could be a big part of the Leafs’ broader effort to win back young fans.

Admittedly, this would be a very boom or bust move for the Leafs. If 2019/20 is truly a sign of what’s to come, then the Leafs will have given up an asset for a player with little value. But if the Leafs can rehab Subban even to 85% of what he once was, that is an absolute home run and they will have acquired a defenseman they could never have gotten otherwise. It’s a big swing but the payoff is huge if they hit.