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Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs are sitting on a mountain of wingers

Depth is good. This year has proved that, as the Leafs have suffered more than their fair share of injuries this season. I’m not knocking depth. The thing is cap space is pretty darn good too, and the Leafs spend an awful lot of it on forwards, and perhaps too much of it on wingers. According to the numbers on PuckPedia, 41% of the committed cap space for next season is spent on seven wingers (this includes Kerfoot as being on the wing, because finding a solid 3C for next season makes sense.)

Most of that money is obviously tied up in Marner and Nylander, and I’m not making a case for trading them. Nor am I making a case for trading Zach Hyman, assuming the Leafs can extend him at a reasonable cap hit this summer. This is more of an exploration into whether the wing is a place the Leafs can sacrifice some of their depth of skill in order to save a bit of money to spend on greater areas of need, such as a 3rd line center, or upgrading the blueline.

The Current State:

Roster Locks Pending Free Agents Pushing for Spot
Marner Mikheyev Barbanov
Nylander Spezza Korshkov
Hyman Clifford Agostino
Kapanen Malgin Robertson
Johnsson Aberg Petan
Engvall
Kerfoot

Now, assuming that re-signing Mikheyev is a lock to happen, that is an incredible top to bottom collection of eight wingers the Leafs have. And skipping past the rest of the pending free agents for now, that’s not a bad group of players knocking on the door, looking to backfill any injuries as well. On the surface the Leafs are in ideal shape, and frankly it’s crazy to suggest moving on from this group. Throw in the fact that Spezza can likely be signed to an affordable contract and whether or not you agree with it, Clifford will probably be re-signed, there is a ton of depth available to the Leafs on the wing.

Some of that depth might erode a little, assuming that Spezza and Clifford return, and there won’t really be a spot for Robertson and he’ll be returned to junior. Given that Petan and Agostino are heading into the final year of their contracts, there is a very strong chance that they will be claimed on waivers before the next season, and the Leafs will be living and dying by that core group.

The Center Factor

Before I illustrate too much wing depth, there is a very real possibility that long term goal for Pierre Engvall is to have him play center. There is also a very good chance the Leafs aren’t down with Kerfoot at center. And of course, in a pinch, Spezza can certainly play center still, and the reality is the Leafs could be spot on to where they want to be, and have accepted a skill drop off at center in the bottom six to compensate for the money they’ve committed to the forward group.

The Seattle Factor

The Leafs are going to only be able to protect seven forwards heading into the expansion draft next summer, and while that may seem like a long way out, it’s certainly factoring into some decisions that will be made this summer. Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares are certainly locks. Mikheyev, Barbanov, Korshkov, and Robertson are exempt, and are therefore all beautiful boys the Leafs should bend over backwards to retain. That leaves three spots for Hyman, Johnsson, Kerfoot, Kapanen, Engvall, and potentially Clifford. If the Leafs move on from Clifford, problem solved. If the Leafs decide to let Hyman hit free agency and then try to sign him, well, that is risky, but a potential work around, but still leaves a decision that would need to be made on which of Johnsson, Kapanen, Kerfoot, and Engvall that the Leafs would let walk for nothing.

What I’d do…

Well, since no one asked, here we go.

#1. Re-sign Spezza for another year. Even if he’s getting a raise, the idea of having a bottom six veteran who can line up at any position has a lot of appeal. He seems to have made his piece with the fact that he might spend a couple of nights in the press box as well, and it’s great to not have to move on from a player like that.

#2. See what Engvall can achieve at center. Let’s not go crazy and slot him in as 3C, but give him the fourth line to see what he can achieve.

#3. Move on from Clifford. The Leafs will likely save themselves from having to upgrade the Kings draft pick for them, and if they want to add some toughness, toughness is always available in the summer. Sometimes people will even pay you to take it away.

#4. Oh crap, I didn’t say re-sign Mikheyev yet. That should have probably been priority #1 out of this, but heck, it should be on there. Ideally the Leafs can keep him under $1,5M since they didn’t really get a good look at him last year.

#5. Give Barbanov, Robertson, Korshkov every chance to earn a spot out of training camp. Cheap skill on entry level contracts is how you win championships. If they don’t pan out, too bad, but potentially there are 3 wingers there who will cost the Leafs less than $3M.

#6. Try to re-sign Hyman early. Get him locked up so you know what you have going forward. This likely costs the Leafs some flexibility in the expansion draft, but it’s an investment in certainty for all other roster decisions.

#7. Move on from both Kapanen and Johnsson, and if the Leafs see Kerfoot as a winger, move on from him as well. Potentially this is clearing $10M of salary that can be invested into other areas of need. There is no doubt that especially with Kapanen there is a market very willing to overpay, and Kerfoot probably can fetch a good price as well. Johnsson’s injury history might mean that he’s better off with the Leafs for now, but that’s a lot of money to commit to wingers who have primarily been bumped down to third line duty.

#8. Win lots of Stanley Cups. Duh.

While torching wing depth doesn’t seem like a particularly sound idea, it’s worth noting that there while the Leafs are dealing out players from the middle of their roster, there should potentially be a stockpile of question marks that can be added through free agency to backfill that depth too, most with contracts more fitting over bottom six wing talent. The Patrick Maroon, and Tyler Ennis’ of the world still exist and can help address roster holes created by sending out skill for cap relief.

All that said, Kyle Dubas seems to be loyal to his group and wants to give them a chance to win together. Next season is another opportunity for them to do that. While I can campaign for a trade them all philosophy, the reality is a lot of this group will return, and when it comes to the wingers, that doesn’t look like a bad option.