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Civil Discourse: What should the Maple Leafs do with their first-rounder this season?

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Photo credit:Nick Barden
Mark Norman
10 months ago
Welcome to Civil Discourse, an article series where two TLN writers discuss a topic of interest rationally without resorting to personal insults. So basically the anti-Twitter.
Mark Norman
The Leafs have not drafted in the first round with their own pick since 2018 when they selected Rasmus Sandin at #29 (and even then, they traded down from #25 to make the pick). In 2019 they moved their first-rounder in the Jake Muzzin deal, in 2020 they moved it to Carolina to get out from under Patrick Marleau’s albatross contract, and in 2021 they traded it for Nick Foligno which… did not go as planned.
The Leafs, therefore, have not gotten much benefit from trading first-rounders over the last two seasons. This understandably has some fans shy about the Leafs continuing to spend high-end draft capital to improve their roster. For other fans, the time is now: Auston Matthews is only signed for two more seasons after this year and they feel pressure to go all-in every year while he’s in his prime. Where do you land on this, Jon?
Jon Steitzer
If the Leafs are going to truly upgrade at the trade deadline this season and not just simply shuffle deckchairs, it seems reasonable to discuss Toronto’s first, and admittedly I lack a straightforward answer on this.
Primarily I look at the fact that the Leafs are in tough no matter what. Their path out of the Atlantic involves Florida and Tampa and while that isn’t going to change next year, it does make me risk-averse about spending important assets like a first-round pick for what on its own is valued around 10 games of Nick Foligno.
(On a side note, how hilarious is it that a 1st is worth Nick Foligno for 10 games, but two of them a middle-six forward gets you into Jack Eichel with term territory?)
Anyways, with a limited number of picks last year, including not having a first at all, and only being limited to three picks this year, Toronto can’t risk their cupboards going too bare when players like Nick Robertson and Rodion Amirov are starting to have some significant question marks attached to them.
I guess it comes down to the player, but I think as far as rentals go, first-round picks need to be off-limits.
How about you, Mark? If you are parting with a first, what’s your threshold for making that trade?
Mark
Well, I think we’d be in agreement that a legitimate impact player would have to be the return if the Leafs were to trade their first, which probably means a bigger deal than just our first. Trading firsts, or even seconds, for ageing vets (Foligno, Boyle, Plekanec), has proven time and time again to be a win for the team trading away those players. These vets seldom make the impact that GM’s dream of: there’s an adjustment period as they familiarize themselves with new teammates and systems and before we know it the Leafs’ season is over and we’ve sacrificed the long-term for the short-term once again. You’re better off trading 4ths and 5ths for players of this type, if you feel the need to add veterans. But we already had Spezza, Simmonds and Muzzin last season so why did they feel the need to move a first for Foligno?
As a founding member of the “We’re Too Top Heavy” club, I have had concerns for a while about how much of the cap (49.7%) the Leafs have tied up in their Core Four. No team has won the Stanley Cup with this high a percentage of the cap tied up in four players. If you’re going to forge onward as unicorns, you need to make the absolute most out of the other 50.3%. To Dubas’ credit, most of his summer bargain bin signings have brought tremendous value. But which contracts tend to give you the most bang for your buck? Blue-chip talent on entry-level contracts. Sandin has fit that bill for the Leafs this season, but he’s already due for a new deal this summer, and as you mentioned Amirov and Robertson aren’t looking as shiny as they once did. So it doesn’t feel like the Leafs have much in the way of help coming in the near future to help counterbalance their top-heaviness, which is a big checkmark in the “keep it” column for me.
I’m conflicted, though. If being a Leafs fan has taught me anything, it’s that I should expect bad things to happen. Some people feel it’s guaranteed Auston Matthews will be a Leaf past 2023-24: I’m not as confident. If there ever was a time to push your chips all-in then now would be the time while he’s under contract. But it has to be for an impact player. What type of player would you be looking for if the Leafs were to move on from their first-rounder this season?
Jon
I think the Muzzin deal is probably the best recent example of the Leafs getting it right on spending a first. While Muzzin might be showing some wear right now, at the time the Leafs picked up a top 2 defenseman with a bit of term left. Having to add a couple of other pieces to make that work doesn’t seem like as big a deal as a 1st+ for Foligno. Still, even in that situation, I remain conflicted. In the salary cap world, building through the draft is more important than ever, and being a true contender means having players on entry-level deals that can give you far more than you are paying them. Slowing that pipeline can be a risk.
Of course, you also alluded to the Leafs being too top-heavy, a belief you know I agree with. If we are to truly believe that this is the “Last Dance” (I hate this term) and the Leafs core will be under review if they don’t make a splash in the playoffs, there will certainly be an opportunity to recoup a first or two as the Leafs sell off some assets to retool (not rebuild, just adjust philosophies) and if that is a commitment to Plan B, then yeah, maybe you open up to the idea of trading a first if you believe that you could pick one up later and the reality of the Leafs is that someone significant from the Leafs roster will have to go before next season.
Getting at your question of who the Leafs should be adding, I’d say I probably have an unrealistic ask. I’d say the Leafs need to pursue a 3rd line centre who could arguably be a 2C on most teams, or if they act sooner rather than later, I think going after another top 4 defenseman makes a ton of sense. In both cases, I’d prefer someone either signed past this season or with expiring RFA rights. There’s absolutely a threshold for when trading a first becomes acceptable, and that’s probably it for me. That said, I’d prefer to utilize some of the Leafs prospects instead of a first, if possible, and that begs the question, what prospects are untouchable for you?
Mark
I think you bring up a good point. Trading a first away does not mean you cannot re-acquire one, as the Leafs did with the Kapanen deal that landed them Amirov. Maybe the philosophy for this year is different than the next few. Who knows what the composition of the team is going to look like down the road? We don’t even know if Dubas is going to survive another playoffs letdown (I hope otherwise).
With Dubas throwing all his weight (and job security) behind the Core Four this season, let’s operate under the assumption that it’s balls-to-the-wall time, which potentially puts more than just the first-round pick in play. If it were me, I’d only be willing to move ONE of the first-rounder/Amirov/Robertson (in that order, from most willing to least willing) for a high impact player, but no more than just one of these Grade A assets should be going out the door for the sake of our organizational depth.
To answer your question in the most boring way possible, I don’t think anyone is untouchable if the right player is involved. That being said, I would grimace about moving on from Matthew Knies right now. He may not project as a better player than Amirov/Robertson but he has a very unique skill set that I want to see playing at the NHL level for the Leafs. Do you have any untouchables? And from Frank Seravalli’s 20 Trade Targets article, who would you be okay with moving a first-rounder or top prospect for?
Jon
When it comes to the Leafs prospects I don’t think I have a single untouchable, and to be clear on that, I no longer view Liljegren or Sandin as prospects. I think it’s important to not dump too many of them, but admittedly the appeal of a draft pick that comes in at 18 has more value to me than a good prospect who has maybe had to burn a year or two of their ELC and isn’t pushing for an NHL job yet. Of course, I’d also expect every NHL GM thinks that way or close to it too.
If I’m putting actual names to who I’d protect, there is definitely some curiosity around Niemela that I’d be reluctant to move on from, and Knies being that mix of size and skill the league covets, I’d be hard-pressed to do anything sort of a blockbuster involving him. When it comes to Robertson or Amirov, I’d say move one but not both ahead of moving the 2022 1st. The appeal of the mystery box is strong with me.
If we’re using Frank’s article as the primer for who is available, Chychrun is the only name on there where I’m thinking the 1st or top prospect is in play for me. I know Hertl should be on that list and he’s one of my favourite players, but I’m soured on rentals. Jake DeBrusk, Lawson Crouse, Jack Roslovic, and Dylan Strome are the only other players I would have interest in on that list, and none of them should involve something other than a young roster player plus a “B” prospect.
Mark
Interesting you bring up Topi Niemela. I feel like the World Juniors getting cancelled robbed us of a significant boost to his trade value. When it comes to Niemela, I feel his future as a Leaf might be stunted by the existence of Rielly and Sandin. I realize he’s a right-handed shooter while Rielly/Sandin are left-handers, but for Topi to thrive he’s going to need powerplay time and that time is spoken for.
I like the idea of acquiring Chychrun, especially since he’s signed for three more seasons after this one for $4.6M, but the acquisition cost for that one has to be astronomical, right? You can bet the Coyotes would highly covet Knies, a Phoenix native, in addition to a first and possibly more. If we had to go the rental route, Hertl would be my guy. I realize we’re a top-flight offensive team, but I want to do everything possible to bolster our offensive depth to mitigate another disappearing act from one of our highly-paid forwards. Make it almost impossible for us to get goalie’d out of a series. Hertl’s one of those rare players whose playoffs points-per-game is higher than his regular season rates.
The other forwards you’ve mentioned here would be fine consolation prizes that wouldn’t require the level of asset investment that would make us queasy about our remaining depth.
There’s one player who has been getting thrown into Leafs trade ideas for years, who doesn’t show on Seravalli’s list, and his name is Josh Manson. He’s not going to wow you offensively but he has good shot suppression results and a level of snarl that could prove beneficial in the playoffs. Manson is a UFA this offseason so this likely would be a rental situation as well. With Anaheim’s surprising success this season, they may want to hold onto him as an “own rental”, however. But one can dream.
Jon
Yeah, I think surprise teams like Anaheim have added some chaos to the picture and when you are looking at just the Canadiens, Kraken, and Coyotes rosters it’s easy to talk yourself out of trading picks and prospects.
The final thought I have here is that while the trade deadline is important for the playoff push, the Leafs need to be very cautious about their situation beyond this year. With approximately $7M to address five roster vacancies which include re-signing Campbell, Liljegren, Sandin, and Kaše, there will be a need to maintain cheap prospects that can step up beyond what you typically get from a bottom of the roster player. In short, big trades are fun, but an internal talent pipeline is critical to staying a contender.

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