It could be worse: Grading Brad Treliving’s time with the Maple Leafs

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
6 months ago
Brad Treliving was always a “it could be worse” grade selection as the Leafs General Manager. The organization didn’t seem interested in extending the Dubas era by going with an internal candidate and already somewhat late into the offseason the list of experienced General Managers resulting in names like Chuck Fletcher and Peter Chiarelli coming up in conversation. I still wonder if the Leafs purposely leaked some horrible alternatives to make Treliving seem like a better fit, but I’ll try to remove my tinfoil hat as I write the rest of this post.
Admittedly Brad Treliving walked into a bit of shit show. There was an expectation that Auston Matthews and William Nylander be signed by July 1st, a decision needed to be made on whether or not Sheldon Keefe would be returning as head coach, Mitch Marner’s full no movement clause was set to kick in on July 1st as well and then you throw in the need to prepare for the draft and free agency, which included the mandate of the Leafs being tougher to play against. Even if Treliving had an extra month it would have been rushed and some bad decisions were bound to happen. There have been a number of a bad decisions.
Brad Treliving was on Edmonton Sports Radio 1440 with Jason Gregor in advance of the Maple Leafs game in Edmonton and while it is just me judging the tone of voice and the struggle to phrase some responses positively, but it doesn’t seem like Brad Treliving has been having a good time with the Leafs. That might be a good thing for the Leafs because it at least points to someone who knows he needs to fix things.
On the Treliving returns to Calgary for the first time, it seems only fitting that we look at what he’s done so far in Toronto. What has gone right and what has gone wrong, and what could still pan out in a good way for the Leafs as well as what needs to be fixed immediately.

The Good

We’re going to be positive about Treliving to start and say that he’s been incredibly strong at tapping into his knowledge of the Pacific Division to find three role players that have added value to the Maple Leafs.
Simon Benoit is clearly the standout of the group as he has not only established himself as an everyday player but has made a case for increased icetime as veterans like McCabe, Giordano, and Brodie have faltered at times. Benoit is far from perfect and is absolutely a bottom pairing or designated defensive start role player but he’s come a long way from what his numbers showed him to be in Anaheim and in Treliving’s interview with Jason Gregor he highlighted how difficult he made things for Flames players last season and how his deployment in Anaheim made judging him by the numbers a little unfair.
Martin Jones being able to take over the net as Samsonov has struggled and Woll has been injured shows that Treliving made the right choice on his third string netminder and considering how often the third string option was overlooked by Kyle Dubas in the past few seasons, Jones being there is a refreshing change. The bonus structure that Treliving (and likely Brandon Pridham) put in place to get Jones through waivers at the beginning of the season was a savvy move as well and it is very likely that Martin will be the Leafs’ number two goalie, if not the number one the rest of the way this year.
Noah Gregor adds a lot of speed to the bottom six and while his results may vary, in the context of a fourth line winger I’m not sure how much more you can ask of him. He’s provided good energy and when things are going right he’s been able to play up in the lineup or handle increased minutes. He was a good depth signing.
I think the same can be said of William Lagesson as a strong depth signing and if Benoit hadn’t been such a homerun from the Leafs perspective, we’d see Lagesson in the bottom pairing fairly regularly too. I’d argue that William should be ahead of Mark Giordano on the depth chart at this point as well and Lagesson (and also Max Lajoie for that matter) have given the Leafs blueline depth. They just need help higher up in the lineup.
Another move from Brad Treliving that was very good but hasn’t panned out particularly well is going to arbitration with Ilya Samsonov. The arbitration route was the path to getting Ilya at the cheapest possible cap hit and at the time he was absolutely worth bringing back rather than considering who was available in free agency. We can see what has gone wrong since but when you look at Treliving going down the path that resulted in a one year deal it’s still hard to criticize this move.
Drafting Easton Cowan is another win. This is likely Leafs scouting department driven but at the end of the day Treliving listened to Toronto’s scouts that he barely knew and went off the board with them to select Cowan. This still might have been the Leafs reaching and they could have likely landed him via trading down or picking up another draft pick, but Cowan has quickly established himself as a promising prospect for the Maple Leafs and it also serves as a good reminder that full time scouts of an NHL team probably know better than the draft ranking makers, especially when it comes to their own team. (That’s not to say there won’t still be misses.)
And while it was expensive and didn’t come on July 1st, getting Auston Matthews back for four additional seasons is a huge win. I don’t know if there is much more that needs to be said on that.

The Bad

Sigh. There seems like so many places to start on this one but I guess the obvious one is the one that has no chance of being redeemed. The signing of John Klingberg was a bad idea from the second it happened. Klingberg had an absolutely miserable season in Anaheim last year and didn’t do anything in Minnesota that should have warranted a $4M+ contract. Given that the Leafs were largely in the market for an all situation defenceman, one potentially that could play with a bit of edge, Klingberg checked none of the boxes for what the Leafs needed other than the team’s desire to add a right shot.
It didn’t take long for Klingberg to look like a massive mistake and as harsh as it is, having Klingberg go on LTIR for the reminder of the season is the best possible outcome for the Leafs. Toronto is still going to need to spend assets in order to find a proper defensive replacement, one that the could have found over the summer by simply waiting out Mathew Dumba for a few days waiting for his contract demands to come down.
Brad Treliving spent $3.75M on fourth liners and committed to them for 3 years (well four in Kampf’s case.)
The re-signing of David Kampf was one of Treliving’s first moves as the Leafs GM and likely is a sign that he was trying to do right by his coach (more on that in a bit.) David Kampf had a solid 2021-22 season for the Leafs and looked like a great fit with players like Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase. If one of them was absent, playing with Pierre Engvall or even Alex Kerfoot seemed alright as well.
Last season was enough of a drop off in Kampf’s game and with seeing the benefit of strong centre option like Ryan O’Reilly at the 3C spot, it should have been an easy decision to embrace Pontus Holmberg as the fourth line centre option to start the year. Instead, Treliving gave Kampf a raise and a four year deal. It didn’t take 20 games to look like a mistake.
As for Ryan Reaves and his bizarre deal that pays him $1.35M per season for three years, that has been a head scratcher and a blunder from day one as well. Treliving seemed to think that Reaves’ skills as a party planner and locker room DJ would justify the decision to go with him over a cheap in house option like Kyle Clifford and with Reaves offering the Leafs little when he is in the lineup, it seems like assignment to the Marlies might be the best course of action here.
If you want to add insult to injury here, you can look at the Sam Lafferty trade that sent him to Vancouver for a 5th round pick. The move was done so the Leafs could afford Ryan Reaves and to have money available to sign Noah Gregor. While Lafferty might not have had the best start to his time in Toronto last season you could argue that an underperforming Lafferty is still a better alternative to what Treliving prioritized over him.
Finally, while the idea of having William Nylander around for 8 more years is something the Leafs and their fans should be very excited about, it’s hard not to look at this situation as being mismanaged. While summer rumours, are just rumours, the expectation was that William Nylander was looking for $10M a season. At the time that number seemed high but with the fact that Nylander would be hitting the open market in a year where the cap was expected to jump significantly probably justified overpaying the 40 goal scorer by $1M or so per season.
The Leafs opted to wait and felt that Nylander’s interest in playing in Toronto would right size the contract ask at some point. Instead Nylander played the best hockey of his career and right at the peak of Nylander’s stardom, being in the top five in scoring, having multiple double digit point streaks, and earning an All-Star game selection, that’s when Treliving and the Leafs decided to cave and give Nylander a contract that expects him to maintain his apex for the next 8 years, into his mid-thirties. Nylander continuing to be a Leaf is a great thing, this deal leaves a lot to be desired.

The unnecessary

The Sheldon Keefe extension. I’ll put my personal views on Sheldon Keefe aside and appreciate that in the middle of June when the coaching market has thinned out, it wasn’t the best time for Brad Treliving to say that the Leafs were moving on from Sheldon Keefe. And with this offseason potentially seeing Rod Brind’Amour’s contract expire and potentially other interesting coaches become available, picking from the best group of options (that could still include Sheldon Keefe) might have been the best course of action.
That being said, the two year contract extension for Keefe absolutely seemed unnecessary.
While MLSE hasn’t shown much concern about ditching coaches with term left previously and it might not be overly impactful for the Leafs, it still seems bizarre. Coaches like coaching under contract and the feeling is it removed a distraction. Cool. It was also a vote of confidence for someone that the Leafs should have wanted coaching with a sense of urgency.

The undetermined

At this point it is painfully obvious that I haven’t mentioned Tyler Bertuzzi or Max Domi yet. The Leafs $8.5M commitment to bringing more snot into the lineup. It’s that snot and that snot in the playoffs that lead to the undetermined status of these players.
If you were to judge the players by their defensive play, they’ve been bad. If you judge them based on their offensive production, the duo has been outscored by Sam Lafferty and Alex Kerfoot this season. One of Lafferty or Kerfoot could have also filled the centre role that Domi is currently occupying as well, so that benefit is erased.
At least in my opinion, Domi has been a bit more of a bright spot for the Leafs. He has relationships with the core and he has a relationship with the organization, he wants to be here and he wants to play with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Bertuzzi has strong on-ice numbers but they come with gift wrapped deployment as the Leafs have been hell bent on keeping him in the top six even though the numbers don’t warrant it. Lately Sheldon Keefe has been highlighting the forward’s inconsistent play and both Domi and Bertuzzi have seen their icetime and roles decline as of late.

Treliving’s grade

While he still has the trade deadline to turn things around the kindest grade I can muster for Treliving is a C-. There has been a 9 point drop from where the Leafs were at 42 games last season to where they are this year and they have 5 fewer wins, 6 fewer regulation wins than last season. They’ve gone from being comfortably in second place in the Atlantic last year to barely clinging to a playoff spot. That can’t entirely be put on Treliving as Samsonov’s play dropping off that much would impact Kyle Dubas just as much as it impacted Treliving. You could even argue that Treliving has done better than Dubas would do on the goaltending front bringing in Jones.
What does stand out as issues for Treliving, the fact that the Leafs defence has largely gone unaddressed or was addressed by bringing in John Klingberg is a huge blemish on his early record. The fact that Treliving invested $8.5M in forwards that haven’t delivered yet is another and the overvaluing of role players seems to be a consistent trait of every GM, but that doesn’t help anyone feel any better about the Kampf and Reaves contracts.
Heading into 2023-24, I’d pessimistically say that the season was destined to be a wasted year. Maple Leafs fans would be going through the motions as Treliving made up his own mind on the Leafs core, their coach, and what the team’s identity should be. While Treliving may have overcommitted on Keefe, Kampf, and Reaves, he maintained nearly $13M of flexibility by giving Bertuzzi, Domi, and Klingberg one year deals. It has been a chance to try something out and maintain a competitive roster (although it does feel like it at the moment) and then hit the ground running for what he wants to do in the upcoming offseason.
It’s largely because of his plans for beyond this season that I’d wager he’ll do what he can to keep the Leafs 1st round pick as well as Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten who will be challenging for Leafs jobs next season. If he was giving up a first round pick for a rental defenceman, Toronto would probably have a trade completed already.
As frustrating as the year has been and as uninspiring as the moves made so far have been, there is still reason to hope that Treliving has a blueprint for what his version of the Leafs will be.

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