Seller beware: Why the Leafs should be hesitant about moving salary at the deadline

Photo credit:© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
Let’s address my dishonest title. The Leafs aren’t sellers. Boom, clickbait, baby.
My misleading label aside, the Leafs may be looking to move salary at the deadline and that essentially makes them sellers when it comes to Kerfoot, Engvall, and Holl, as their three pending unrestricted free agents with a more notable cap hit attached to them. Of course the Leafs, if they strip their roster down 19 players and have Jake Muzzin on LTIR for the remainder of the season would have $5.2M to work with. Throw in salary retention and that’s $10.4M worth of upgrades available. That’s enough to add Timo Meier and Jake McCabe with 50% salary retention on both. How they’d be adding those players, who knows, but from a salary standpoint (not a SPC standpoint) they could be brought in.
The thing is there are always catches to that. The price for players goes up a lot when you are talking 50% salary retention. And there is still the small matter of the Leafs likely wanting at least one or two healthy scratches hanging around the club. To get to that point, the Leafs will need to look at the Kerfoot, Engvall, and Holl options. And those are varying degrees of good ideas and can take what looks like an addition and turn it into shuffling deckchairs instead.
Earlier in the month, I took a look at the P/60 production of Kerfoot and Engvall and found that few upgrades exist on the teams likely to be selling at the trade deadline. That seller list has grown, but it is a very singular way of looking at things anyway and another look at how Kerfoot and Engvall match up to rentals with worth taking on. While I’d argue the biggest need for the Leafs is another center that can either line up on the second line wing or push Tavares to wing, the consensus seems to lean more towards the 2nd line left wing position being the true priority. If there is some center ability there, great. For what it is worth, both Engvall and Kerfoot can play left wing and move to center as needed. Just not particularly well. Here’s how they stack up against some of the top forwards that are regularly featured on trade target lists.
So let’s start with a small assumption and that is Timo Meier, Bo Horvat, and Travis Konecny all represent significant upgrades and if landing one of them it is probably worth cutting ties with a pending free agent. So with that said, there isn’t any shortage of potential 2LW players out there and their comparison to Kerfoot and Engvall doesn’t necessarily show a significant upgrade.
While Engvall and Kerfoot have both seen their point rates drop off since the article earlier this month, Engvall’s has fallen from 1.66 to 1.51 and Kerfoot’s has fallen from 1.6 to 1.39. A couple of assists could wildly swing those numbers again, but for now the comparables I chose all represent an upgrade offensively, but while playing more time and not showing an upgrade in on ice performance.
So the lack of an upgrade in on-ice performance can largely be attributed to playing on a lottery bound team vs. a team that is near the top of the league. The externals also would be playing in top six situations drawing tougher competition than the current Leafs incumbents, in short, some drop off is to be expected.
That’s not really the full story though, and it’s worth considering that none of these players match the physical play of Kerfoot or Engvall, and to some extent that was on the checklist. Nyqvist is the best option and Garland comes close, but they don’t check that physical play box.
There is also the matter that both Kerfoot and Engvall are worthwhile defensive zone options too and capable puck carriers. We can overlook O’Reilly’s GF%, which is potentially an atrocious outlier for him and assume that he could be more capable with better linemates, but that is also ignoring that he’s an older player who had been slowing down returning from a broken foot. A less offensive, less physical Pierre Engvall doesn’t have a huge appeal.
You can talk a lot about playoff pedigree, clutch performance, leadership, and how a better team will yield better results, but even before you get around to potentially considering shedding Engvall or Kerfoot’s salary, do you want to see the Leafs use a first round pick and send out a prospect to hopefully meet the performance of the third line?
The story is somewhat similar when you look at someone like Conor Garland vs. Alex Kerfoot. Admittedly Garland is a player I like and believe in, but when I can’t make a case for him over Kerfoot beyond everyone being better once they get out of Vancouver it isn’t worth giving up assets on a hunch.
When it comes to forwards, it’s pretty much a go big or go cheap situation. The Leafs shouldn’t be blowing up what they have or if they absolute must, they need to be dealing players like Kerfoot or Engvall as assets first because the second that Kerfoot is dealt in a trade by the Leafs as a salary dump, the team he is going to will instantly be able to flip him for a 3rd round pick, or possibly better if they retain salary.

The Holl situation

When it comes to adding defensemen the situation seems even more complicated than bringing in forwards. The trade deadline mentality around defensemen returns most GMs and fans to dead puck era ways of thinking. Everyone wants toughness, shotblockers, and stay at home defensemen. If you have a player who has done remotely well in that role over the past couple of seasons you have the right to demand a 1st for someone that your fanbase has likely been trying to get healthy scratched since October.
That’s an exaggeration and a player like Jake McCabe does represent a capable in all situations defenseman who has attributes that could help the Leafs while providing some grit as well.
McCabe next to Holl shows an offensive upgrade. McCabe has the same number of hits as Holl. And McCabe has been doing as well as Holl while playing on one of the worst teams in the league.
Now, that’s not the full story as McCabe is playing a top pairing role and Holl when the blueline is healthy is a bit of a 2nd pairing/3rd pairing hybrid. He could even wind up as the 7D if the Leafs keep him around while upgrading the blueline. In short, you need to be significantly better than Holl to be worth the upgrade.
McCabe has the added bonus of being a very affordable option beyond this season if traded with 50% salary retention and that needs to be considered, but at the potential cost of a 1st to get that there is a renewed appreciation for just running with the blueline the Leafs have.
In all honesty, McCabe is pretty much the cut off for what I’d likely accept as a defensive move. If you want to go big and get in the mix for Jakob Chychrun, cool. That’s a worthwhile target, but other than him (or maybe Mattias Ekholm), what’s the point?
These are the elite defensemen available at the trade deadline.
Line starts to the left. Get in it if you want to throw futures away for recognizable names that you’ll be cursing when they match up against a Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos led lineup.

So what should the Leafs do?

It’s not to say that keeping Kerfoot, Engvall, and Holl should be an absolute certainty, and especially when it comes to Kerfoot and his higher cap hit there is a potential trade off in moving on from his contract to free the Leafs up to do more. There is also the question of what the Leafs want to accomplish both in their top six and bottom six. Already Kerfoot doesn’t directly seem to be a part of any plans, and instead, he’s resumed his role of “just stick him there and see what he does.” With a $3.5M cap hit, that’s not what you want. And that’s what you have guys like Jarnkrok, Holmberg, and even Engvall for. Let the Swedes handle it.
There is also the matter of the Leafs needing to send a player out whenever they bring someone in. At 49 contracts and plans to sign Matthew Knies, Toronto needs to move players out if they are being active at the trade deadline. The depths of the Marlies can certainly handle the brunt of that, but again there might be an interest in moving one of their free agents if they will struggle to hold a roster spot.
Praise for Kerfoot, Engvall, and Holl might not be a regular occurrence in Toronto, but moving on from them for the sake of bringing in new faces could be a minor disaster. While the idea of O’Reilly, Gavrikov, and Domi might seem like an upgrade, recent evidence suggests it isn’t and losing draft picks and prospects to bring in some name brand players seems unnecessary.

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