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The Leafs add Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty; what’s next?
By Colin Hunter11 months ago
♫It’s the most wonderful time of the year♫
On Monday, the Leafs announced the acquisition of Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty. Coming just over a week after acquiring Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, it’s clear that the Leafs are loading up for a playoff run through an increasingly daunting Eastern Conference.
While we’ve seen the Leafs bolster their roster in preparation for the playoffs in previous years, these have been the most significant deadline-related deals that we’ve seen from GM Kyle Dubas. The nature of these trades begs the question – what might be next for the Leafs?
When analyzing the next steps for the Leafs, there are two main considerations. Firstly, how will they fit this roster under the cap? And secondly, will they attempt to improve the team further? Let’s explore these questions.
How will the Leafs manage the cap?
Currently, the Leafs stand with $2.85 million in useable space of their LTIR pool. With Matt Murray (and his $4.69 million dollar cap hit) seemingly headed towards being healthy, the Leafs do not have the space to activate him.
For now, let’s pretend that the Leafs plan to activate Matt Murray in the near future. Sending down Joseph Woll would create roughly $750k in cap space, leaving just over a million dollars required to be cleared. After this, however, every player left on the roster is waivers eligible. In order to clear the cap space, the Leafs would have to waive one or more player(s).
So, who are the options? Looking at the bottom of the roster, waiving both Conor Timmins and Zach Aston-Reese would fulfill the requirement. I have a hard time imagining them pursuing this option for a number of reasons. Timmins was recently given a two year extension, and depth on defence is critical in the playoffs. Further, the Leafs seem to committed to having a heavier fourth line, which Aston-Reese contributes to at a very low cap hit. Each of these players would likely be claimed on waivers, which is not something that I think the Leafs would prefer.
Looking elsewhere on the roster, trading a player like Justin Holl or Pierre Engvall could clear the required space, and waiving or trading Alexander Kerfoot would do the same. Of those options, waiving or trading Kerfoot seems to make the most sense given his cap hit in an already crowded bottom six.
Moving Kerfoot at his full cap hit would lift the Leafs to $6.35 million in total useable space, and would leave the team with roughly $1.65 million in cap space upon activating Murray. Alternatively, waiving Kerfoot and sending him to the Marlies would bury $1.2 million of his cap hit, resulting in just over $100K in cap space with Murray activated.
Moving Murray would create the required space, but as discussed in my piece earlier this week, it doesn’t seem like that is (or should be) the plan.
Of course another option is to have Murray stay on LTIR until the playoffs. This may be a risky move for a number of reasons. If the plan is indeed to keep Murray and rely on him for goaltending insurance, he would be best served by playing a few games before the playoffs begin. Further, the league appears to be cracking down on “cap circumvention” which at this junction is, quite frankly, ridiculous but must be considered. Keeping Murray on LTIR after making comments implying his imminent return would likely not be looked at kindly.
Another under the radar option is to just wait. Trades can in fact be made after the deadline, the player moved simply becomes ineligible to play in the playoffs. If the Leafs want to use their time in anticipation of an injury on the roster or a Murray setback, they could do so, with a trade of Kerfoot, Holl, or Engvall to a non-playoff team as an emergency chute. This option comes with another set of issues, primarily among them being that teams would likely raise prices significantly to take on a cap dump after the deadline.
Essentially, managing the cap boils down to three options (assuming that the Leafs don’t do something unexpected):
- Waive Timmins and Zach Aston-Reese
- Trade Holl, Engvall, or Kerfoot (or waive Kerfoot)
- Keep Murray on LTIR until the playoffs
How could the Leafs improve their roster?
Further improving the Leafs’ roster may be tricky, but many who listened to Dubas’ press conference on Monday came away with the impression that he may not be done trying to do so.
So, how could this feasibly be done? And who may be the target(s)?
First, we have to assume that the Leafs have made a decision on how they will handle the cap situation. For ease of analysis, let’s simplify the situation down to one key decision: either Murray is kept on LTIR or he is activated.
Next, let’s analyze where the Leafs would be most likely to add. Their defence now goes 8 legitimately good to great NHL defencemen deep. Unless they plan to acquire Chychrun, which at this point seems very unlikely, none of the other options in the market would represent a worthwhile spend of assets. In net, both Samsonov and Murray have posted strong results while healthy, and once again the options in the market, such as Vejmelka and maybe Demko, would be significant gambles.
The forward group, however, is an area that could feasibly be improved. One more forward with scoring ability to add to either the second line (bumping O’Reilly to 3C) or third line would round out the roster wonderfully, particularly given the Leafs’ secondary scoring struggles in recent playoff series.
In the first situation, where Murray is kept on LTIR, the Leafs would have $2.85 million in cap space to improve their roster. At this number, they could acquire essentially any forward on the market when factoring in the potential of double retention. Adding a forward would require removing a forward, however, which would further increase cap space and reduce the need for significant retention.
In the second situation, with Murray being activated, the Leafs would have to first clear cap space. As stated, the most likely candidate to move seems to be Kerfoot, which would leave the Leafs with $1.65 million in cap space, enough to acquire a player with a $6.6 million cap hit at double retention.
Looking at Frank Seravalli’s remaining trade targets, some interesting names that stand out to me include: Mikael Granlund, Nick Schmaltz, Conor Sheary, Lawson Crouse, and Conor Garland.
Any one of these players could be acquired in either scenario presented above, and would serve as an upgrade on the current forward group. Whether this happens depends on a number of factors. Do the Leafs feel that they need to (or should) upgrade their forward group? Will they be willing to pay the asset cost given the prices already paid? Do they plan on bringing in Matthew Knies and do they see him as a contributor? I can’t pretend to know what the Leafs are thinking, but it’s clear that they have options.
It’s an exciting time to be a Leafs fan. Management is taking huge swings, and this upcoming playoffs is shaping up to be an all-timer. Before we get there, however, there are still a few things to figure out with this roster.
The salary cap situation could be handled in a number of different ways. Most likely, to me, is that one of Kerfoot or Engvall will be moved shortly, and Murray will be subsequently activated. However it is possible that management chooses to go down a different route. Further, a player could get injured before Friday’s deadline, making any cap-related move redundant.
If desired, the Leafs could feasibly further improve their roster. At this point, it seems likely (and logical) that they would target a forward. Significant potential contributors appear to be available, and could be acquired given appropriate corresponding moves.
All of this is to say that the Leafs will still be active leading up to the trade deadline. Whether that’s waiving players, announcing Murray to stay on LTIR, or making a bigger move, there will be something to keep an eye on as a Leafs fan.
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