Over the course of any season, especially one as turbulent as the Leafs have undergone, the transaction count really piles up as teams approach the trade deadline.
Every trade, AHL assignment, NHL recall, waive, or signing leaves a little trace of what the team is thinking. I went back through my notes on each move and tried to take away key points that will impact the Leafs this summer.
The first thing I noticed was that teams did not want to spend an asset to acquire Leafs players when their cap position dictated those players will likely be on waivers at some point anyway.
The Leafs couldn’t find a trade partner for Nick Shore or Dmytro Timashov and lost both on waivers. I thought it was interesting that Detroit claimed Timashov, understandably they need bodies but the very first team with an opportunity to claim Dima did so. He’s RFA at the end of the year and likely plays a more significant role for Detroit next year than he ever would have for the Leafs.
For the very same reason I cannot fathom how no team claimed Nic Petan. His NHL production has been subpar but teams that are strong up the middle like Pittsburgh or Edmonton would have done well to give him an opportunity with skilled players in an offensive role. Petan currently has 31 points in 23 AHL games for the Marlies. He has another year left at $775k and is an RFA after that, giving the Leafs a depth option with a top 6 skillset.
Martin Marincin getting extended gives the Leafs D a nice safety net for next season. His performance in the absence of Jake Muzzin has made him a good option as a 7th or 8th defenceman, especially for league minimum. In the same sense re-acquiring Calle Rosen gives them a cheap option for next year (still on the contract the Leafs signed) that can skate the puck well and play both sides.
Extending Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl secures a left and right handed shutdown option, and neither player needs to be protected in the 2021 expansion draft. Assuming Morgan Rielly is the first player protected, those two will battle with Travis Dermott to avoid being exposed to Seattle.
Dermott is still a pending RFA, but his injuries and lack of production should make him an easy sign on a short term deal. The Leafs may have long term ambitions for him but at this point it may be better to buy another season or two to evaluate Dermott. He is not yet arbitration eligible, so the Leafs may be able to sign him short term for under $2 million if they are tight for cap space.
The other glaring RFA on the roster would be Ilya Mikheyev, but I sense he has much enthusiasm to remain in Toronto. A 1 year deal would still leave him as an RFA, perhaps the best option for another player who suffered from injury. The Leafs need not make expansion draft considerations for Mikheyev though, as he is exempt from being selected as a “first year professional” by CBA definition this year.
Other notable exempt players are Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, and Egor Korshkov. If all three and Mikheyev are on the roster only 3F, 1D, and 1G from the starting lineup would be left exposed. Nicholas Robertson and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev are also exempt, in case anyone was worried about that.
While it was likely not directly related to the expansion draft, the Leafs have been careful to only move players that are eligible. Dating back to the Muzzin trade Carl Grundstrom is eligible, as are Mason Marchment and Trevor Moore. While we inch towards the expansion draft those depth players begin to depreciate as more teams realize they may be trading for an asset they cannot protect. Not at all dissimilar to the devaluing of 4th defencemen caused by the 2017 Vegas expansion.
Sandin inching closer to UFA
Going back to Sandin for a second, if he is on the Leafs roster for 40 games he will accrue a professional season towards unrestricted free agency. It is important to note that he doesn’t actually have to play these games, just be on the roster. What that means for the Leafs is Sandin would become UFA at age 26 rather than 27, potentially making a contract extension more expensive or impacting their ability to sign a bridge. He’s currently on pace for 42 games on the roster I believe, so the Leafs may look to send him down for three games.
Looking at the schedule they can’t afford to send Sandin down until Rielly is back, and there is no friendly stretch for Sandin to miss three games after that. The Leafs could send Sandin down for the Devils, Senators, and Red Wings games specifically, but they may want to wait. If they can lock up their playoff spot by March 31st they could send Sandin down for the Capitals game and the remaining two April games.
There is no guarantee the Leafs go through this CBA gymnastics to extend their rights to an important player, but don’t be surprised if you see Sandin sent down if the Leafs secure 3rd in the Atlantic.
If Pierre Engvall plays 23 regular season and/or playoff games this year he will become waiver eligible. I don’t imagine that’s on the minds of the Leafs front office considering his $1.25m extension, and the fact that would occur in the second round at the earliest. Engvall failing to play 23 more games would be a silver lining of flexibility next year if the Leafs need to maneuver the cap, but probably comes at the cost of an early playoff exit.
The Leafs traded for a lot of depth pieces at the deadline, leaving them with Denis Malgin, Frederik Gauthier, Max Veronneau, Pontus Aberg, and Teemu Kivihalme as RFAs this summer. While none of those names are overly exciting they can all be cost controlled depth options for next season in addition to Petan, Rosen, Marincin, Korshkov, and Kenny Agostino, who are all under contract for another year.
The only caveat to that group is the conditional 6th tied to Veronneau. If he plays in 10 NHL games for the Leafs this season or extends and plays 10 games next year, the Leafs must give Ottawa their 2021 6th. It seems unlikely the Leafs will have to fulfill that, but something to keep in mind.
Another small note is goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo becoming a group 6 UFA. He will only be 26 when this contract expires and would typically be RFA after, but he has not played enough NHL games to avoid becoming unrestricted. With Michael Hutchinson gone the Leafs may have aspirations to extend K2, but they could just as easily be clearing the crease for Joseph Woll and Ian Scott.
Finally there is the Robin Lehner trade. This was an interesting one and could be summarized as paying $1.1m in cap space for a 2020 5th round pick. The mechanics of the trade were more fascinating, as it had been reported earlier in the trade deadline day without Leaf involvement.
Vegas had cap issues that needed sorting after other deals they had made, and the Leafs stepped in with the LTIR space they gained knowing Johnsson was done for the season. Since the Leafs needed to actually trade something away for the NHL to approve the deal, they grabbed a player of their 90 player reserve list, Martins Dzierkals.
Dzierkals decided to leave the Leafs organization to pursue pro in Europe because he did not want to play in the ECHL, and did have a strong year in Russia. He was also the 4th round pic from the double trade down in 2015 that landed the Leafs Travis Dermott and Jeremy Bracco.
In the end Chicago retained 50% on Lehner’s deal, then the Leafs retained 44% of what remained, amounting to $1.1m in cap space. I have explored the idea of assigning a dollar value to draft picks in the past based on salary dumps, and a 5th was just under $1m in 2017. I may take another look at that in the offseason if there is interest.
In a general sense the Leafs have been much more active in positioning themselves for a good offseason. With the cap projected at $84m on the low end they should not have any trouble keeping their core pieces. While they’ve had to move high draft picks to get here, the Leafs have also managed to get picks late in this draft from trading Patrick Marleau, Nazem Kadri, Fedor Gordeev, Eric Fehr (who was playing for the San Diego Gulls when the Leafs traded him), and Garret Sparks. They have 10 picks in 2020 so far.
They are in a good position for the 2021 expansion draft, and next season might be the first in a long time they don’t have a permanent fixture on LTIR. That means they will be able to accrue space next year for performance bonuses or deadline acquisitions, finally free of the David Clarkson contract signed in 2013.
Speaking of performance bonuses, only Timothy Liljegren, Jesper Lindgren, and Ian Scott have any for the Leafs next year. They managed to sign Robertson, SDA, Mikheyev, and Sandin without any performance bonuses, another general trend that has been going on under current management.
They may have to dole out performance bonuses if they wish to land forward Konstantin Okulov or goaltender Timur Bilyalov from the KHL, both of whom have been linked to the Leafs. Both would be eligible for 1 year Entry Level contracts like Mikheyev, but the competition for Okulov means the Leafs may have to use performance bonuses as incentive.
Those signings would be for next season, but the Leafs still have two remaining SPC slots for this year. Typically playoff teams don’t land top NCAA free agents because they cannot offer them NHL opportunity, but injuries may have changed that for the Leafs. Last year they signed Joseph Duszak out of college, but before that they had only signed Kaskisuo and Casey Bailey in recent memory.
It’s impossible to say who will go where and I’m not going to predict which NCAA free agents will play in the NHL this season, but there are good options like C Josh Dunne or D Jack Ahcan. The Leafs could use a SPC slot on a NCAA free agent before the season is over, but I wouldn’t bet on them landing top names over basement teams.
This season may unfortunately go down as a transitional year for the Leafs, but it was still a move in the right direction. They have discarded nearly all of their bad contracts and held onto their future picks while replacing depth and securing cheap players for next year. It’s hard to say with any confidence the Leafs will make it through Tampa and Boston this season, but they can get some playoff experience and build a better group for 2020-21.