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Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

An early look at the Leafs and the Seattle expansion draft

In a normal world the playoffs would have started by now. We’d all be heavily invested in how the refs are screwing over the Leafs and the Lightning are a far dirtier team than anyone gives them credit for. Without Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri, we’d have picked out our new first round scapegoats, and while I’m sure Tyson Barrie would be one of them, I’m curious if we’d be cursing a run of a bad penalties by Kyle Clifford, talking about Spezza losing a step, or just listening to our cranky old uncles complain about Nylander and Matthews being too soft, while they are suspiciously fine with Mitch Marner.

Instead here we are, discussing an expansion draft that is just over a year away. We’ll probably see some hockey before that happens. I doubt we’ll see the conclusion of this season, but I remain optimistic for a full 2020-21 season, that’s not really the point. While the expansion is still far off on the horizon, the planning for it needs to start this summer.

The Leafs will be in a situation where they will have the option of protecting seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goaltender OR eight total skaters and a goaltender. In all likelihood they will go with the first option, as protecting eight forwards would be ridiculous, and I can’t imagine the Leafs having four defensemen or more defensemen worth protecting by next summer.

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Let’s walk through the current status of the Leafs roster…

Exempt

EXEMPT AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY
Abramov, Mikhail 19 C $810,000 RFA (2023)
Scott, Ian 21 G $805,833 RFA (2022)
Robertson, Nicholas 18 LW $850,000 RFA (2022)
Der-Arguchintsev, Semyon 19 C $783,333 RFA (2022)
Hollowell, Mac 21 D $799,766 RFA (2022)
Sandin, Rasmus 20 D $894,167 RFA (2022)
Liljegren, Timothy 20 D $863,333 RFA (2022)
Duszak, Joseph 22 D $800,000 RFA (2021)
Woll, Joseph 21 G $800,000 RFA (2021)
Korshkov, Yegor 23 RW $925,000 RFA (2021)
Mikheyev, Ilya 25 LW $925,000 RFA (2020)
Kivihalme, Teemu 24 D $792,500 RFA (2020)

The most notable names on here would have to be Sandin, Liljegren, and Mikheyev. Most of these are players are still prospects not quite ready to the NHL, with the exceptions of Korshkov, and Kivihalme, who might push for positions on the Leafs next season.

It probably goes without saying that as much as possible the Leafs should be trying to hold onto players in this group, as they will be critical to helping the Leafs thrive post expansion.

2020 UFAs

CURRENT UFAS AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY
Barrie, Tyson 28 D $5,500,000 UFA (2020)
Ceci, Cody 26 D $4,500,000 UFA (2020)
Clifford, Kyle 29 LW $1,600,000 UFA (2020)
Salomäki, Miikka 27 LW $750,000 UFA (2020)
Wilson, Garrett 29 RW $725,000 UFA (2020)
Spezza, Jason 36 C $700,000 UFA (2020)
Gaudet, Tyler 26 C $700,000 UFA (2020)
Gravel, Kevin 28 D $700,000 UFA (2020)
Lorito, Matt 29 LW $675,000 UFA (2020)
Kaskisuo, Kasimir 26 G $675,000 UFA (2020)

Cutting bait from this group is the logical decision, although it that doesn’t change the fact that there are three names on here that need to be explored.

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The Leafs can’t really afford to take steps backward when it comes to their defense, and losing Tyson Barrie without a replacement plan is exactly that.

Kyle Clifford is a player I could see the Leafs bringing back, even if it’s not necessarily a decision I agree with, but it’s hard to imagine that the Leafs would protect him in the expansion draft, so it’s probably not a significant worry.

Jason Spezza is the final name on this list that stands out, and his story isn’t completely dissimilar from Clifford’s, and may even be simplified by the fact the Leafs are likely looking to go year to year with his contracts.

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Goaltenders

GOALTENDER AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY
Campbell, Jack 28 G $1,650,000 UFA (2022)
Andersen, Frederik 30 G $5,000,000 UFA (2021)

Andersen will be 32 when the 2021-22 season starts and if this season has been an indicator, perhaps committing to him beyond his contract might be unnecessary. The Leafs could always decide if they want to bring him back after he hits free agency in the summer of 2021 as well, but extending him this summer seems unlikely, unless he’s wanting to take a pay cut. As for Campbell, well, he might be the protection option by default here. There’s no guarantee that the teams are going to pick a player just because they’ve been exposed in the draft anyway, and an analytics driven front office like Seattle’s is probably staying clear of the Leafs net situation, as it presently exists.

Defense

DEFENSE AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY
Rielly, Morgan 26 D $5,000,000 UFA (2022)
Muzzin, Jake 31 D $5,625,000 UFA (2024)
Holl, Justin 28 D $2,000,000 UFA (2023)
Rosén, Calle 26 D $750,000 UFA (2021)
Marincin, Martin 28 D $700,000 UFA (2021)
Lindgren, Jesper 22 D $775,833 RFA (2021)
Dermott, Travis 23 D $863,333 RFA (2020)

By not being particularly good, the Leafs defense seems to be in a good position for the expansion draft. With Sandin and Liljegren being ineligible for the draft, but being on the cusp of being productive NHLers is a huge advantage for Toronto.

Protecting Rielly is a no brainer. Assuming Dermott is re-signed, he’s probably a safe bet to be protected as well. A year into Holl and Muzzin’s contracts will probably give the Leafs a good idea of what they want to do with them. If Muzzin is still playing at a high level, he’s probably protected and Holl is exposed. If Muzzin is starting to look like an expensive 4th D, well, the Leafs could see if Seattle wants to add him and protect Holl. No matter what, the Leafs probably need to add a defenseman to make this scenario much harder than it currently is because it speaks to some very real defensive woes coming in 2020-21.

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Forwards

Where it gets interesting…

FORWARDS AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY
Matthews, Auston 22 C $11,634,000 UFA (2024)
Tavares, John 29 C $11,000,000 UFA (2025)
Marner, Mitchell 22 RW $10,893,000 UFA (2025)
Nylander, William 23 RW $6,962,366 UFA (2024)
Kerfoot, Alexander 25 C $3,500,000 UFA (2023)
Johnsson, Andreas 25 LW $3,400,000 UFA (2023)
Kapanen, Kasperi 23 RW $3,200,000 RFA (2022)
Engvall, Pierre 23 LW $1,250,000 RFA (2022)
Agostino, Kenny 27 LW $737,500 UFA (2021)
Kossila, Kalle 26 C $700,000 UFA (2021)
Hyman, Zach 27 LW $2,250,000 UFA (2021)
Petan, Nicolas 25 LW $775,000 RFA (2021)
Veronneau, Max 24 RW $925,000 RFA (2020)
Bracco, Jeremy 23 RW $842,500 RFA (2020)
Brooks, Adam 23 C $759,167 RFA (2020)
Malgin, Denis 23 RW $750,000 RFA (2020)
Åberg, Pontus 26 RW $700,000 RFA (2020)
Gauthier, Frédérik 24 C $675,000 RFA (2020)

Let’s start by mentioning that John Tavares has a No Movement Clause and is protected no matter what. Maybe he’ll waive it, but it would be strange if the Leafs asked and even more unlikely that he offers it up.

It’s probably a sound decision to protect Matthews, Marner, and Nylander as well, because, you know, they are very good. So you’ve got 4 out of 7 gone before you’ve used a single brain cell.

Looking at the free agency crop for this year, it seems pretty likely that Gauthier will be brought back, but it’s also pretty much a lock that they won’t worry about protecting him in the expansion draft. The same could be said for Brooks as well, and if they decide to re-sign Aberg or Malgin, there is no risk of them being protected save for an unprecedented breakout season. Bracco and Veronneau are as good as gone.

The 2021 crop is really the Zach Hyman story and his contract situation is an important part of figuring out what happens with the rest of the group. The Leafs could choose to gamble and let him hit free agency in 2021 and then re-sign him, keeping him exposed in the expansion draft, but they would wind up paying open market prices for Hyman, which might be higher than the $3.2M-$3.5M range Dubas has established as his comfort zone for non-elite top six wingers. The best case scenario is re-signing Hyman this summer and being prepared well in advance for the expansion draft. Then you protect him in the expansion draft, in all likelihood.

Now for the harsh reality. Of Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Alexander Kerfoot, and Pierre Engvall, you will only be able to protect two of them. Right now, Engvall is probably the odd man out, though he’s young, shown promise, and is potentially a cheap bottom six center option. If the wheels come off next season, maybe he gets exposed, but right now his contract and position make him seem like one of the strong cases for being kept.

Assuming there aren’t trades beforehand, the decision is probably pretty easy with going with Kapanen as the other player to protect. Youth, speed, and upside are strong cases, but that still leaves Kerfoot and Johnsson out in the cold. While neither has had a 2019-20 season worth celebrating, neither is a player you want to see leave for nothing, and that brings us around to the importance of trading the excess wingers to be ready for the expansion draft.

Trading wingers

So let’s look at the Leafs wing depth heading into 2020-21

LW RW UFAs
Hyman Marner Spezza
Kerfoot Nylander Clifford
Johnsson Kapanen
Mikheyev Korshkov
Engvall Barabanov
Robertson Agostino
Petan

This is with the acknowledgement that Kerfoot, Engvall, and Spezza are potentially centers.

The Leafs have a bit of flexibility when it comes to dealing Kerfoot, Johnsson, or possibly Kapanen and still having a very talented forward group. Keefe has already been talking about Barabanov as a Leaf and it’s day one. Robertson could absolutely push for a role or at least a tryout, and Korshkov looked very at home in the bottom six last year. If Spezza and/or Clifford return, that’s a very crowded group that will be pushing talent out.

LW C RW
Hyman Matthews Nylander
Mikheyev Tavares Marner
Robertson (Real Center) Spezza
Clifford Engvall Barabanov
Gauthier Korshkov

That would still be a pretty accomplished group, while moving on from Kapanen, Kerfoot, and Johnsson. For the sake of that 3C position, let’s call that person Joe T. (No that’s too obvious, J. Thornton).

Moving out two or three wingers, depending on when the Leafs do it, would also provide a bit of cap relief for addressing glaring blueline issues and potentially help recover some lost draft picks as well, which could be helpful in the post expansion draft world.

So make with the list…

F D G Notable Exemptions
Matthews Rielly Campbell Mikheyev
Tavares Dermott Barabanov
Nylander Muzzin Robertson
Marner Korshkov
Hyman Sandin
Engvall Liljegren
Kapanen Woll

In this world, assuming they haven’t been traded, I’m leaving Kerfoot, Johnsson, and Holl exposed. I’m also assuming that Andersen will be exposed and go to free agency. Losing Holl isn’t something that would keep me up at night, but preferably I’d like to see the Leafs find a way of getting some kind of an asset for their wingers. That journey probably needs to start this summer, though there seems to be a desire to let this group have one more go at it together before breaking up the band (or at least bringing in new backup singers.)

Assuming the group sticks together, and nothing changes, if I’m Seattle I’m probably selecting Alex Kerfoot, given his versatility, and their need to still add a bit of salary to their team. This wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to the Leafs, but arguably they can manage their assets better.