Assessing the Leafs’ trade chips ahead of the deadline
By Nick Richard8 months ago
The trade deadline is now less than two weeks away and not only are the Leafs expected to be buyers, but they also have multiple needs to address before then.
Most of the discussion has been centered around which players the Leafs might be able to bring into the fold before March 21st but nothing comes without a price. The Leafs may not have a top-five or even top-10 prospect pool and they’ve traded away their fair share of picks in recent years but they have also drafted well and managed to maintain some valuable trade capital.
As management continues to work the phones and fans dream about potential big-time additions to the roster, let’s take a look at what the Leafs could offer up in an effort to solidify their lineup.
The Leafs’ most valuable trade chips are also the pieces they will be most hesitant to include in a trade. If the Leafs do end up moving on from one of these assets, it will most likely be for an impact acquisition with term remaining on their contract rather than a traditional rental.
Even if there are prospects in the organization with more raw upside than Knies, it feels like he is the most untouchable player in their system because of the unique blend of size, skill, and physicality that he possesses. Since being drafted in the second round of last summer’s draft, his stock has skyrocketed.
Knies was a force for Team USA at last summer’s World Junior Summer Showcase which earned him a prominent role at the abbreviated World Juniors, a role he is likely to reprise when the tournament restarts later this summer. He has been one of the most dominant freshmen in the NCAA, recently earning a nod as a finalist for the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year Award, and even secured a spot on the American Olympic roster at the recent games in Beijing. It is still very early, but Knies has seriously outperformed his draft slot to this point and perhaps bumped up his NHL timeline in the process.
You don’t have to squint very hard to see what will make Knies an impactful NHL player – his physical maturity and pro-style tendencies give him a pretty safe floor but he still has plenty of offensive upside as well. He is sure to receive plenty of attention from potential trade partners but unless we’re talking about a Jakob Chychrun or JT Miller type of addition, shipping out Knies is likely a non-starter for Dubas and his staff. If Dubas does go big game hunting, chances are that Knies is his most valuable trade chip.
There has been plenty of speculation that the purpose of Robertson’s recent recall and audition on the Leafs’ second line has been to showcase him to potential trade partners ahead of the deadline. While that may be true to some extent, I think the idea of showcasing players for trades is generally overblown and that most teams don’t allow their decision-making process to be influenced by such small samples. What is more likely is that the Leafs are trying to get an idea of what Robertson is capable of providing to the team right now as they explore other potential options before the deadline.
There is no doubt that Robertson would have significant value on the trade market but that value might not line up with his actual potential when you consider all the time he has missed and what impact that may have on how opposing teams view him. Not only would it be unwise for the Leafs to sell low on such a valuable asset so early on in his development, but Robertson has looked like a capable contributor in his most recent stint with the big club. There are sure to be ups and downs as he establishes himself in the NHL but it is important to remember that Robertson is still just 20-years-old and has played less than 50 hockey games in the last two years
The Leafs have struggled to graduate homegrown prospects to the NHL in recent years but the Dubas drafts are starting to bear fruit and for a team that has so much salary cap space committed to the top end of their roster, having a potential impact player like Robertson on an entry level contract in the coming years could prove invaluable.
All the reasons the Leafs won’t want to move Robertson are the same reasons he will be attractive to other teams but given his upside, potentially diminished value due to injuries in the last two seasons, and his proximity to the NHL, it would have to be a substantial addition for the Leafs to include him in any deadline deal.
Like Knies, Niemelä’s stock has risen dramatically since being drafted. He broke out in a big way at the 2021 World Juniors where he earned the tournament’s Best Defenceman Award and has continued to build off of that performance, putting up one of the best U20 seasons in Liiga history so far this season.
Already looking like a steal of a third-round pick, Niemelä has all the makings of a future top-four defender who can drive play at the NHL level. He has outstanding instincts both with and without the puck, he skates well, and he has enough skill to make plays in the offensive end. Simply put, Niemelä is a prospect that any team would be happy to have in their system.
As much potential as Niemelä possesses, his situation may be in contrast to Nick Robertson’s in the sense that his perceived value may be higher than his actual value. Sure, he could continue to progress at a linear rate and become a bonafide top-four NHL defenceman in the next few years but there is also the chance that he is playing a bit over his head this season and that his value will never be higher.
Even if you assume that Niemelä will reach his ceiling, the reality is that he is still a ways off from entering the conversation as a potential NHL option for the Leafs and likely doesn’t factor into their current competitive window. The Leafs will be reluctant to move on from Niemelä – especially for a rental – but if they are going to trade any of their top prospects for more immediate help, he feels like the most likely one to be on the move.
Making a substantial addition to the roster ahead of the deadline will be costly and though these are still very valuable assets, they may be ones that the Leafs are more willing to part with.
2022 & 2023 1st Round Picks
It is tough to maintain a steady influx of talent into the organization when you are constantly trading away first-round picks but that is where the Leafs find themselves in their competitive cycle. The price for the top available rentals typically begins with a first-rounder and if the Leafs think that they can turn that pick into a player that improves their chances of playoff success this season, they won’t hesitate to strike.
The fact that the Leafs have been able to hit on picks outside the first round in recent years like Knies, Robertson, Niemelä, etc. makes it a bit easier for the team to justify moving off of another first-rounder and they’d likely be more open to moving the pick than any of those players.
Trading a first-rounder for Nick Foligno last year turned out to be a bust but some of that was the result of the player being injured. While that may make the Leafs’ brass a little more cautious, it shouldn’t hold them back from taking another swing this year if they identify a player that moves the needle.
It’s been a bit of a longer path to the NHL for Liljegren than many other former first-round picks but he has established himself as a regular this season at the age of 22. As one would expect, he has had his share of ups and downs during his rookie season but he has shown significant progress and has even earned a look playing alongside Morgan Rielly in recent weeks.
Despite playing a significant role and still having some untapped upside, Liljegren is an imperfect fit on the current Leafs’ blue line and his place on the depth chart is one that could be upgraded heading into the playoffs. With as many questions as there are on the Leafs’ defensive unit right now, going into the postseason with a rookie defender who has struggled against hard forechecking teams playing regular minutes probably isn’t Dubas and Keefe’s first choice.
All that said, the Leafs would obviously prefer to keep the young defenceman in the fold for the future but he may be an attractive piece to teams who are shopping more experienced and reliable blueliners before the deadline. Liljegren probably isn’t a player that you move for a pure rental either but the market will dictate what it will cost the Leafs to improve their club before March 21st.
If the Leafs are unable to make a big trade or if they need to move some money while adding value to a larger trade package, there are a few obvious options on the current roster that could be on their way out before the deadline.
Kerfoot has been a bit of a nomad in the Leafs’ lineup since being acquired in the summer of 2019 but seemed to find his place alongside John Tavares and William Nylander in the first half of the season. Kerfoot is in the midst of his most productive NHL campaign but has been at least partially relegated to the bottom-six once again as the team gives Robertson a look higher in the lineup.
Kerfoot’s versatility has been a bit of a double-edged sword – he has filled in all over the lineup in his time as a Leaf but that has also made it difficult for him to secure a permanent role. Make what you will of Robertson’s most recent audition but the lineup construction as of late would lead most to believe that Keefe isn’t quite content with what Kerfoot was providing on the second line or that the team would prefer to have him add a bit of offensive punch lower in the lineup.
In the Leafs’ salary structure, a $3.5 million bottom-six forward is a luxury they can’t really afford. If they have made the determination that they need something else out of that second line left wing spot, Kerfoot’s contract is the obvious first choice to try and move, not only to create cap space but because most of the other forwards on the roster fill specific roles that Keefe would prefer to keep them in.
The fact that Kerfoot is enjoying a productive season likely boosts his trade value up a bit from where it would have been last summer and having him signed for next season could be something that entices teams that are shopping rental players. He could also be included as part of a bigger deal for a player with term remaining to help make the salaries line up and to offset the loss of whatever player the Leafs acquire.
Kerfoot is still a valuable piece to the Leafs but funds are limited and they may be able to allocate his salary to more glaring needs on the roster, both now and next season.
Dermott has been the subject of trade speculation for most of the season after being surpassed by Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on the depth chart. He has put up solid results throughout his career as a third pair defenceman but has never been able to grab hold of a job in the top-four.
Following a bit of a disappointing first half, Dermott has gotten back into the lineup on a regular basis in the last few weeks as the team deals with various absences on the back end and has been playing his best hockey of the season. There is still a lot that is up in the air in regards to Toronto’s blue line but Dermott may once again find himself as the odd man out once Jake Muzzin returns from injury or if the Leafs are able to add another piece to their defensive core.
Dermott alone likely doesn’t land you an impact player before the deadline but that he is still relatively young, has excelled in third pair minutes, and is under contract for just $1.5 million next season could make him valuable enough to help push a larger deal towards the finish line.
Like Dermott, Holl’s name has bounced around the rumor mill for most of the season. After helping lock down the Leafs’ shutdown pairing with Muzzin last season, Holl’s play hasn’t been up to par in 2021-22 and he found himself watching a stretch of games from the press box as a healthy scratch early in the season.
The problems on the Leafs’ blue line mostly stem from not having the right mix of players who complement each other properly and Holl’s inability to maintain his strong play from last season has only led to more issues. As it stands, the Leafs already have seven defencemen on their active roster and that doesn’t include Muzzin who is expected to return in the next month. If Dubas is going to make a move to try and fortify that group, at least one member of the current defensive unit will have to go.
The Leafs would obviously prefer to have Holl find his game and lessen the need for a major addition on the blue line but time isn’t something they have an abundance of at this stage of the game. He probably doesn’t have a ton of value either but he is signed for next season at just $2 million and a retooling team might be willing to bet on him returning to the form that saw him succeed in top-four minutes last season.
As is the case with Kerfoot and Dermott, if Holl is moved it will likely be in a trade for a cheaper depth option to free up a roster spot and some salary cap space or as a secondary piece in a larger deal.
Sometimes a single trade chip isn’t enough to get a deal done or the value doesn’t quite line up and you’d prefer to package a couple of lesser assets rather than shipping out a high-end asset. The Leafs are short on picks in the upcoming draft but they have a decent crop of mid-level prospects and most of their picks in the 2023 and 2024 drafts.
You can quibble over the order of tiers three and four but it will likely come down to a matter of preference for potential trade partners and whether they’re looking for pieces to inject into their lineup now or if they’d prefer a more future-oriented return.
Even within a single tier, some assets are more valuable than others and Abruzzese is at the top of this group. He is a fourth-round pick from the 2019 draft who has been a star for Harvard since stepping foot on campus. Now 22 years of age, Abruzzese recently joined fellow Leafs prospect Matthew Knies on the US Olympic team. He is expected to turn pro when Harvard’s season wraps up.
The Leafs drafted Hirvonen just a few picks ahead of Niemelä and though he hasn’t popped in quite the same way, he has performed admirably in Finland’s top pro league and is still considered a valuable prospect. Hirvonen is likely still a few years away from pushing for NHL playing time but he could be coveted by teams that can provide him with a clearer path to get there.
2022 & 2023 2nd Round Picks
The Leafs probably don’t want to deplete their stock of picks quite as drastically as they did at last year’s deadline but considering how long it will take for the players drafted in those spots to make an impact, they should be more than willing to move one of these selections if it means securing a legitimate upgrade to their current roster.
As an undrafted free agent playing his first season of pro hockey, Steeves’ value is probably a fair bit lower than that of Abruzzese or Hirvonen but he has been one of the Marlies’ best players this season and he just turned 22 in December. If there is a team out there that values him appropriately, the Leafs could be convinced to include him as a secondary piece in a deal.
Much of the focus around the deadline is on the big names but more often than not, it’s depth players that dominate deadline day. We saw the Leafs exchange low-level assets to add depth in the form of players like Ben Hutton and Riley Nash last year and no one should be surprised if we see another move or two like that this season.
Depth Prospects & Late-Round Picks
Beyond the top of their prospect pool, the Leafs have an abundance of lower-level but still viable NHL prospects with varying degrees of trade value. Outside of their 2023 third and seventh-round picks, they also have their full stable of picks to deal from.
Joey Duszak has been a big-time offensive producer on the backend for the Marlies but there is no path to the Leafs’ roster for him and he has made it known that he would welcome a change of scenery. A team shipping out a low-end rental could be willing to give him a look in the NHL.
Joey Anderson is in a similar situation – he has been a prime contributor for the Marlies but his clock is ticking and it would seemingly take a rash of injuries for him to get a consistent look with the Leafs. He is still under team control beyond this season and could draw interest from rebuilding teams with holes to fill up front.
There’s also Semyon Der-Arguchintsev and Mikhail Abramov who are playing their first full seasons with the Marlies. They’ve been forced to play heavier minutes than the Leafs probably had in mind for them and while they have both had their struggles away from the puck, they have also shown glimpses of the offensive upside that will make potential trade partners take notice.
Looking beyond the Marlies, there are other prospects like Mikko Kokkonen, Veeti Miettinen, Ryan Tverberg, Ty Voit, etc. who have done enough in their time since being drafted to garner mild interest from potential trade partners.
None of these prospects or late-round picks are going to net the Leafs a significant addition on their own but they could be used to acquire smaller depth pieces or to help push a larger deal towards completion.
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