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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Leafs headed in a new direction?

The team of speed and skill have lost their speediest player.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was the first time the Leafs traded a roster player primarily for a draft pick since October 2018, when they traded Connor Carrick to the Stars for a 2019 7th, which they used to select Defenceman Kalle Loponen. Even then, it was because Carrick had lost his spot to Igor Ozhiganov.

You would have to go back to the Bernier trade or the 2016 trade deadline to find a similar trade on paper. Looking at it through that lens, it appears that the Leafs are headed in the wrong direction; subtracting from their roster instead of adding to it. Does this mean the Leafs are admitting their current approach isn’t working?

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Around the time of the aforementioned Bernier trade, the Leafs went out and got Matt Martin in free agency to try and change the course of their team. It could mean that is what the Leafs are preparing to do now, acquire a player in free agency that changes the perception of their team and alters their course.

From another perspective, it’s more of the same. Whether it’s Patrick Marleau, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, or Matt Martin, the Leafs have been trading away players due to cap complications for years. It seemed inevitable the Leafs would make a trade to clear space this offseason, it was just a matter of who.

What is done with the cap space will teeter on what the existing roster can provide, and what they are most in need of.

Did the Leafs choose Johnsson, or is he next?

Much of the debate was over who the Leafs should keep between Andreas Johnsson and Kapanen, who is more valuable in a trade, and who is on a better contract. I believe this trade proved Kapanen was worth more, as Johnsson would likely not have fetched a similar return after missing so much time with a knee injury.

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In terms of contracts, their production was extremely similar, so advantage Kapanen for the $200k discount. The extra year for Johnsson could prove to be a better asset, if they both turn out to be 50-60 point players they will both be due for big raises regardless of expiry status. Speaking of expiry status, Kapanen will be RFA, which guarantees the Penguins do not lose him for nothing.

Kapanen will need a new contract in 2022, as Johnsson enters his final year at $3.4m. The Leafs will still have their core 4 Forwards signed at that point plus Kerfoot, Robertson, Muzzin, and Holl. Keeping Johnsson and filling in around the perimeter is a commitment to sticking with the plan and trying to contend over the next 3 seasons.

It’s important to note the Kapanen trade was the first trade in over 6 months, the longest drought in the cap era:

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That’s a pretty good sign that it’s a deal that Kyle Dubas just couldn’t say no to, as Pittsburgh scrambled to make changes in the wake of their post-season disappointment. It’s believed the same reactionary management led to the Penguins signing Jack Johnson to a 5 year deal last summer, perhaps Dubas intended on sticking to the status quo but was blown away by what Pittsburgh was offering.

On the other hand the Leafs could be in the midst of executing a much larger plan for the summer, and Kapanen was just the first domino to fall. If that is the case Johnsson could very well be next in line. The Leafs have made it very clear they don’t intend on moving one of their core 4 Forwards, so when you look down the Leafs cap hits Johnsson sits glaringly.

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Taking another step in the direction of tearing it down, the Leafs could move Johnsson for picks as well and have ~$6m to spend in free agency after signing Mikheyev and Dermott.

I thought the Leafs were done worrying about Goaltending

Looking at the way the playoffs are unfolding, many teams could be tempted to opt for a goaltending tandem instead of pursuing an expensive starting goalie. Every time the Habs won a game Carey Price was worth the money, and every time they lost he was a cautionary tale of spending in the crease.

You could look at Frederik Andersen save percentage in the playoffs and say he played well, or you can look at the few that got by him and say he had a poor series. Either way, the Leafs did not win when they needed to. For a team as tight to the cap as the Leafs, spending $5m on a goalie is tough when you see other teams getting better results for half the price.

This wouldn’t even be a conversation had the Leafs not made a move for Jack Campbell, no rational fan would be looking to move Andersen when the in-house backup options are pending UFAs Michael Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo. Whoever the starter is, Campbell will be expected to lighten their workload, and that makes him even more valuable.

Realistically though, the Kapanen trade would have been the time to add a goaltender if the Leafs intend on trading Freddy. The Penguins have a trio of capable goalies in Matt Murray, Tristan Jarry, and Casey Desmith. The Leafs could have picked one of them up in the place of Evan Rodrigues, and the Penguins could have taken a run at re-signing the C instead.

Tentatively, it seems as if the Leafs are prepared to work with Freddy and Campbell for this season, and then address the position next offseason.

Depth Wingers

Although the Leafs received RFA Evan Rodrigues in the trade, I wouldn’t pencil him into next year’s roster too quick. His Qualifying Offer is $2m, and he does not seem to be worth that much after his performance in Pittsburgh. The Leafs will likely forgo tendering him a QO, in favour of negotiating a lesser extension by allowing Rodrigues to become UFA.

Rodrigues may be perfectly content to join a playoff team in his hometown after many years in Buffalo, but he would also have the option to sign anywhere as a free agent if the Leafs fail to give him a Qualifying Offer.

Whether or not Rodrigues remains with the Leafs, Kapanen’s departure puts an added emphasis on signing winger Ilya Mikheyev. While the lanky Russian played Left Wing all year for the Leafs, he spent most of his KHL career on the right wing. He could fill Kapanen’s spot on the 3rd line and allow Pierre Engvall to move up on the left. Kapanen’s absence on the PK also means Mikheyev will be relied upon more shorthanded.

It also creates space for another Russian with RW experience in the KHL, Alexander Barabanov. I wrote about the impact he might have on the Leafs depth next season here, fans might find some of the straight-line speed in him that just departed with Kapanen.

Room for Prospects

If the Leafs do not make any moves to address the spot left by Kapanen, or if they move Johnsson in addition, there will be an opportunity for the next crop of depth players. We’ve already seen a little bit of Adam Brooks at the NHL level, but Nick Robertson or Egor Korshkov could really burst onto the scene given the opportunity.

I’m not sure Robertson is a lock to make the roster for the full season, but if I know anything about him I’d be a fool to rule him out. He has the dynamic tools to score goals at a high volume, and every team needs that. Given a chance to play in the top 6, he could make it hard to try another winger alongside John Tavares. If he’s on the roster, he’s on PP1 on PP2 revolves around getting him the puck.

Korshkov could provide the Leafs with a big body to put in front of the net with the bottom 6, which they may need if Frederik Gauthier and Kyle Clifford are not around. He should be in mid-season form when the Leafs start playing again, as he will be in KHL action with Lokomotiv starting in September. Personally I would be excited to see 3 Russian wingers on the roster, they are all familiar with one another and it would likely help them all in practices and in general to have someone they can communicate with more efficiently.

Impact

As it stands, replacing Kapanen’s offence will be done by committee. If the Leafs move Johnsson it will mean twice as much responsibility is shifted to the likes of Robertson, Mikheyev, Engvall, and Barabanov. The 4 of them will likely be swapped around into many different line combinations, but the expectation is they can round out the middle 6 at a price tag around $5m.

If those 4 can replace Kapanen and potentially Johnsson, they create a huge amount of surplus cap space that can be spent elsewhere. A little over two years ago I wouldn’t have even entertained the idea, but a certain Minor Hockey teammate of former Unrestricted Free Agent John Tavares could become UFA this offseason. A 6’3″ right handed Defenceman UFA.

Moving Kapanen and Johnsson wouldn’t be enough, but the Leafs absolutely have the ability to make space for Alex Pietrangelo. It might take a contract that could sour towards the end, but it could be done. Assuming signing Pietrangelo would take Travis Dermott out of the equation the Leafs could throw a big offer at him by trading Andersen. A top 4 of Rielly – Pietrangelo and Muzzin – Holl could be enough to move their starting goalie for someone closer to league average at a reduced cap hit.

Although I acknowledge it is possible, I would not pour too much hope into signing a 30 year old UFA defenceman. St. Louis is going to take their best run at re-signing him, then every other team in the league will be seeing what they can do to add such a player. There was much breath wasted on where Erik Karlsson was going to sign before he extended with San Jose.

Still, the Leafs didn’t create cap space simply to sit on it. If they’re confident their four middle 6 wingers can pick up the slack, that money is most likely allotted to the blue line. The Leafs haven’t limited their search to right handed defencemen in the past, but it would make a lot of sense given their defensive depth on the left. There are plenty of lists of RD options, but the important takeaway is that the Leafs appear to be making significant moves to address an area of need that has existed for years.

New Direction

Whatever the new direction is, the expectation is that it’s one pointed towards the 2nd round of the playoffs. Anything less at this point would be another immense failure.

It’s possible that Kyle Dubas has accepted that the Leafs style simply cannot work, and moving Kapanen allows the team move away from an identity of speed. If they add a big defenceman that is hard to play against, they are committing to playing playoff style hockey. David Warsofsky being involved in the trade makes sense if this is the direction.

It’s also possible that Kapanen was the most sensible trade target, and the Leafs found a partner that exceeded their asking price. They could be taking one step backwards in order to take two steps forward under the current strategy. If the Leafs targeted Torey Krug many would begrudge the fact that his height doesn’t start with a 6, but they would still be an improved team with twice as many RHD than they had before.

I don’t get the impression that the Leafs have any intent to do this, but they could also re-sign their current players and let the extra cap space accrue, before making a big move at the deadline. If the Leafs have the opportunity to trade Johnsson for a $6m player right now, they could build a better roster by keeping AJ and letting their cap space accrue, then trading a different asset for that player at the trade deadline.

The Leafs have a 1st round pick in hand now and an ambition to make some moves, it will be who they move for that dictates where this team is going. Already this trade has committed them to going in a direction with many cheap complimentary forwards, trading Johnsson would be another step that way. If the Leafs commit more money to the defense they would be right back in cap trouble, but with a more well-rounded roster.