Over the Christmas break, it is inevitable that hockey is discussed at my family gatherings. It gives aunts, uncles, cousins and others to chat about certain players, the upcoming world juniors and yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs. This year, a very interesting question was asked of me, that I did not have the answer to…so I set out to answer it.
What would the Leafs look like today if some of the trade rumours & signings in the past 5 years had come true?
Spoiler Alert: YIKES!
There have been rumours surrounding JVR, Girardi, Dustin Brown and signings like Bolland. Obviously, not all of these would have come to fruition, as even one of these moves would likely have a trickle effect. I would say, if any of these come true, the Leafs likely still have Kessel. It is very likely, that the Leafs would have been even worse & likely still drafted Matthews (we will say they did for the purpose of this exercise).
Here’s the Line-up (list of trades below):
Mitch Marner – Auston Matthews – Phil Kessel
Teemu Pulkkinen – Nazem Kadri – William Nylander
Connor Brown – Dave Bolland – Leo Komarov
Dustin Brown – Stephen Weiss – Nikita Soshnikov
Josh Leivo (13th, but place him anywhere)
Morgan Rielly – Nikita Zaitsev
Kris Russell – Connor Carrick
Dan Girardi – Brenden Smith
Josh Gorges (7th D)
Roberto Luongo – James Reimer
- Acquire Dustin Brown for Luke Schenn & Matt Frattin
- *this means the Leafs do not acquire JVR from the Flyers
- Acquire Josh Gorges for Cody Franson
- Leafs don’t acquire Brenden Leipsic or the 1st rd pick in Nashville trade. That pick was traded to draft Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco & Martins Dzierkals (meaning the Leafs don’t have ANY of those prospects).
- Acquire Roberto Luongo for Tyler Bozak, Jake Gardiner & 2nd
- Acquire Dan Girardi for Carl Gunnarsson, Nik Kulemin & 4th
- Sign Dave Bolland to 5 year deal
- Draft Mitch Marner
- Leafs trade Dion Phaneuf to Detroit for Brenden Smith, Stephen Weiss & Teemu Pulkkinen
- Leafs don’t make trade with Ottawa, not acquiring Michalek, Greening or Lindberg
- Draft Auston Matthews
- Sign Nikita Zaitsev
- Sign Kris Russell to a 5 year deal
- Leafs DO NOT make Phil Kessel trade with Pittsburgh and therefore do not have Kasperi Kapanen, James Greenway & the pick they used to acquire Freddy Andersen.
Now, that’s a lot to digest and it is REALLY ugly to look at. Take into consideration that a roster of this makeup would likely see Mike Babcock behind a different NHL bench. Not to mention, David Clarkson may still be in Leafs colours, but I’ve assumed that trade was made.
Phil Kessel Rationale
In 2012, the Leafs acquire Dustin Brown, giving up Schenn and Frattin. This means Burke would not have the asset (Schenn) to trade for James van Riemsdyk. In 2013, the Leafs acquire Luongo, losing Bozak & Gardiner in the process. That is 2/3 of the Leafs top line for the past few seasons. With a lack of scoring, the Leafs can’t afford to trade Kessel, and therefore, keep him. In keeping Kessel, they don’t acquire Kapanen or the pick they used to acquire Andersen. However, that pick wouldn’t have been necessary because the Leafs would have Luongo in goal. With a roster like this, they are more than likely worse in the 2014, 2015, 2016 seasons, so I went with the safe bet: they drafted who they drafted.
The Blue Line
I think everyone is in agreement that the blue line is an absolute mess. Rielly & Zaitsev are a very young and developing top pairing, who look good in the Leafs current situation. The amazing Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), graphing extraordinaire, shows the CF% for each of the 7D in this article. The 3 current Leafs D, are all positive & would be the best 3 on the team. Russell started relatively even, but has fallen off, of late. Smith has not had a positive CF% since the end of October; granted, he was not in the line from Nov. 27-December 27. Girardi has had 6 positive games all season, with many very negative games (in November). Gorges, well, he hasn’t had a positive CF% for the entire season, with 4 games at exactly 50%. The 4 D that do not play for the Leafs, but would have, are by far, the worst. Safe to say, the Leafs would be spending a lot of time in their own end & Luongo would be a human piñata.
Prospect System Glimpse
As mentioned in the trade explanations, it is obvious that a couple of these trades would’ve been catastrophic for the Leafs prospect system. Particularly, Gorges blocking the trade with Montreal, eventually leading to the Nashville trade. With the assumption the Leafs drafted Nylander, Marner & Matthews, all those players are on the team. However, the Nashville trade effect sees the Leafs without a promising young d-man in Travis Dermott, an OHL star in Jeremy Bracco (2 pts/game) & Martins Dzierkals, another point a game player in the QMJHL. Dermott & Bracco are two of the Leafs most promising prospects, along with Andrew Neilsen. Let us not forget that the Leafs would not have acquired Brenden Leispic, either. If you haven’t checked on his progress, I’ll tell you, he is arguably the best AHL player and should be up on the Leafs right now. The Nashville trade alone, stands to completely deplete the prospect system, which is one of the strongest in the NHL, along with Winnipeg. To recap, had Josh Gorges accepted the trade, the Leafs would have him, and none of Brenden Leipsic, Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco & Martins Dzierkals. That’s a rather large bullet they dodged.
The second is the Kessel trade, which saw Kasperi Kapanen come the other way. Now, you could say the trade happened or it didn’t. I have my rationale. Even if it did happen, that leaves Kapanen as the Leafs ONLY grade A prospect in the entire system. Remove him, and the Leafs are staring down a barrel of a system that looks something like this:
Tyler Biggs, Andreas Johnson, Andrew Neilson, Rinat Valiev, Frederik Gauthier, Dmytro Timashov, Adam Brooks, Nikita Korostelev, Carl Grudnstrom, Viktor Loov & Stephen Desrocher
That doesn’t exactly please the eye, especially considering what the system looks like, now.
Salary Cap…whatever is worse than Hell
Wow. Some of these contracts are awful. Let’s assume every Leafs (still with the team) has the exact contract they have & that every other player also has the exact same contract (except Kris Russell; he gets what was rumoured).
Brenden Smith: 2.75M (UFA in 2017)
Dave Bolland: 5.5M (UFA in 2019 with modified NTC)
Dustin Brown: 5.875M (UFA in 2022! with modified NTC)
Stephen Weiss: 4.9M (UFA in 2018 with NMC)
Kris Russell: 4M (UFA in 2021)
Dan Girardi: 5.5M (UFA in 2020 with Limited NTC/NMC)
Phil Kessel: 8M (UFA in 2022 with Modified NTC/NMC)
Josh Gorges: 3.9M (UFA in 2018 with Modified NTC/NMC)
James Reimer: 2M (UFA in 2021)*
Roberto Luongo: 4.53M (UFA in 2022) – Vancouver retains as they did with Florida
Current Players on Team: 18.875M * (Kadri, Komarov, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Brown, Soshnikov, Leivo, Rielly, Zaitsev, Carrick)
Assume Horton & Lupul on IR: 10.5M
*Reimer is at 2M because had Luongo been traded to Toronto, he likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity as a start to earn (3.4M). He gets more than average backup, less than what he got.
Total Cap Hit: 65.83M + 10.5M = 76.33M (use LTIR for Horton to get under cap)
Assuming this, the Leafs would be cap compliant, which is nothing short of a miracle. Therefore, the Leafs could actually ice this team.
Here’s the problem:
Nylander, Matthews and Marner will all hit some type of bonus & the Leafs will likely incur a penalty of sort. Budget for that. Nikita Zaitsev needs to be resigned, he will likely deserve 3-3.5M. More importantly, Nylander needs a new contract in 2018 & Matthews/Marner need new contracts in 2019. If said contracts above expire, the Leafs would have 12.4M off the books (Smith, Weiss, Gorges & Nylander). That is plenty to sign Nylander. However, in 2019, the Leafs have only an extra 7.3M off the books. That’s a total of 19.7M to sign ALL of Matthews, Marner, Nylander & Zaitsev. Averaged, that’s a shade under 5M each, which won’t cut it. The 3 forwards will be worth well above 6M each, with Matthews/Marner likely near 7.5M. At that price, the Leafs would not have the room to keep all 4 pieces. Even now, the Leafs may not be able to keep all their pieces, but there is money coming off the books, and it wouldn’t shock me if the Leafs found a way to make it work.
Leafs fans, you should count your blessings that teams like LA, Vancouver and Detroit rejected the offers presented to them. Further to that, a rather large thank you is owed to Josh Gorges, who almost single-handedly, saved the team he “hates” from themselves. The team would be cap compliant, but it would be VERY ugly, especially the back end. Under performing players such as Girardi, Dustin Brown and Dave Bolland would be issues. Even though Bolland & Weiss are hurt, there is no telling if that would’ve happened in a Leafs uniform. Imagine watching that lineup play over the past few seasons, not having Babcock & likely losing one of the young stars because of those contracts.
While many Leafs fans still question coaching decisions like Ben Smith and Roman Polak, that is significantly better than deciding which of Dustin Brown or Dan Girardi is underperforming more. The Leafs are headed in the right direction, with a brilliant management group, coaching staff and a glutton of young talent. One can only imagine the pain the fans would’ve endured, and for how long they’d have to endure it, if some of the rumoured trades and signings had occurred. What’s important? They were just rumours. Remember that.