Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

September 22, 2020

The case against the Leafs pursuing Alex Pietrangelo 

There’s a perfect storm brewing in the Unrestricted Free Agency market this fall, at least in theory. St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo has made public that he plans on testing the waters when things start to open up on October 9th, leaving many in Toronto salivating at the thought of adding a “big ticket” in free agency for the third time in four years.

After all, he’s a match made in heaven, at least on the surface. For years, fans and mainstream media types have made it known that Toronto’s biggest perceived weakness is on the blueline, particularly on the right side. Pietrangelo, of course, is a right-handed defenceman who just led his team to a Stanley Cup last summer – and hails from just out of town in King City, no less. How do you not pounce all over this opportunity?

I get it. I understand it. But it’s a little more complicated than that, and in my opinion, pursuing the 30-year-old would be an unwise decision for the organization. I’ve broken up my rationale into core points, as I often do, and you can find them below:

Fighting The Fountain Of Youth

While watching Toronto’s relatively young core not get very far in the last few years has made many crave the idea of veteran presences, age is a factor that the team needs to be cognizant about in a couple of different ways.

The first of which is one that is heavily associated with free agency, and that’s decline. By the time most players become UFA’s for the first time, they tend to be in their late 20s to early 30s. This is past what data has suggested to be the “true” prime age for players, which is about 22 to 25, and into the age bracket where wear and tear start to turn “not peak, but still great” into all-out decline.

This argument is most used against mid-range players that are signed to bring toughness – think your David Clarkson, Milan Lucic, David Backes types, who all fell apart pretty soon after getting massive long-term deals that put them on the cusp of star income. But wear and tear impacts every player type at some point, and it stands to reason that big-minute, big-matchup, big-usage defencemen like Pietrangelo would be at risk for similar.

Alex Pietrangelo Duncan Keith Keith Yandle P.K. Subban
Brent Burns Dustin Byfuglien Kris Letang Ryan Suter
Brent Seabrook Erik Karlsson Marc-Edouard Vlasic Shea Weber
Drew Doughty John Carlson Mark Giordano Victor Hedman

The above group of sixteen players, Pietrangelo included, are a handful of most discussed and most deployed defencemen of our generation – a group that has defined an era in the mainstream, so to speak. Using Evolving Hockey’sGoals Above Replacement” model, I mapped out all of their careers by age, and found the following patterns:

  • The offensive “prime” of this group came from Ages 21 to 28
  • The defensive “prime” of this group came from Ages 21 to 26
  • The penalty differential “prime” of this group came from Ages 21 to 25
  • The overall prime of this group came from Ages 21 to 28
  • The biggest impacts of defensive play on the overall number came from Ages 21 to 26
  • Offence declines the slowest of the three factors for the group, and therefore becomes the most valuable part of their games in nearly all cases, even as their value in that regard dips

This obviously isn’t a completely scientific look, nor is it a clear prediction of what Pietrangelo will do in his future. I think that there are some factors at play here that fudge the numbers; the prime results start a little earlier than their actual primes due to facing easier competition when no one suspects their talent, and they end a little earlier because of the emphasis that they do end up facing. At the same time, offence likely lasts a little longer than their actual ability due to seniority earning them time with top teammates, and time on the powerplay.

But as we’re already seeing with some of the biggest names of the era – Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and PK Subban, for example, Father Time does find a way to hit the players with a bunch of mileage – maybe more so than ever in a younger, faster game.

That last point is an important one too, though the unpacking of it may be a story for another piece. As Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar reminded us this year, another revolution in the trust teams give their defencemen is coming – not unlike the wave that Pietrangelo rode at the start of the last decade, led by Karlsson and other contemporaries. This new group skates even better, joins the rush even more, and are essentially third wingers who’s goal is to move the puck upward and cut it off before it gets back, rather than letting the play come to them and trying to solve an invasion once the territory has already been claimed.

In the first five years after the lockout, Over-30 defencemen averaged 25 of the Top 60 spots in Point Shares, along with 14 of the Top 30 and 6 of the Top 10. Over the past five years, those three numbers have shrunk to 14, 8, and 6 respectively. Conversely, Under-25 defencemen are more likely than ever to rank near the top of these charts. I suspect this trend will continue, which makes betting on someone to succeed in their Age 31 to Age 37 years at an elite cost a very risky proposition.

The Upside Isn’t Quite There

Typically, when you’re paying substantial amounts of money to acquire talent, you want to make sure that the player is a game breaker to the degree of their paycheque. John Tavares made a lot of sense for the Maple Leafs in 2018 as one of the best finishers and smartest overall players of his generation. Artemi Panarin made a lot of sense for the New York Rangers last year as arguably the second best player in the world today, and the best winger on the planet.

As much as we like to believe in the idea that offence and defence are equal, they aren’t; in a game where you win by goal differential, offence has a much easier time doubling as defence, than defence has doubling as offence. Offence is the role you want to play 100% of the time, while defence acts more as crisis management. It’s no shock that both objectively and subjectively, the Top X players lists tend to be much more forward-dense, with very few defencemen truly making their way into the best overall player discussion.

If we’re being honest about Alex Pietrangelo, he’s not one of those guys. That doesn’t mean that he’s not great at what he does – over the past five years, he ranks 7th in both Point Shares and Goals Above Replacement for defencemen. But a lot of that is driven by the fact that he’s played the sixth-most minutes in that time; a valuable trait, but one of the ones you can’t rely on as much once a player hits their 30s. In terms of results on a rate basis, Pietrangelo drops to 16th and 18th in those “one number” metrics.

Obviously, one-number metrics aren’t the only way to gauge a player, but a general pattern can be seen in where he trends – he’s a mid-range #1 defenceman who gets played like an elite #1 defenceman. That’s still very good, but is it worth the contract he’d likely seek from a non-St. Louis team – along the lines of $63 million over 7 years? That I’m less sure of – what we’re looking at here is a hybrid of Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin’s traits with a right handed shot, for almost as much money as the two of them combined.

The Residual Cost

The Leafs have approximately $3 in Cap Space. Okay, the real number is about $6 million, but it feels like three dollars, especially when you consider that Jason Spezza, Ilya Mikheyev, Travis Dermott, and a few other fringe players need new deals.

One would imagine that a Pietrangelo signing would mean that Dermott is moved, and that the other two players will combine for about a $3,000,000 cap hit. Add two league minimum forwards to get to a full roster, and you’re looking at about $1.5 million remaining to sign the player.

To repeat the above, we’re likely talking about $9 million per year to get Pietrangelo as a free agent, if not more. So Toronto would have to clear $7.5 million – not just outright, but while replacing every roster player that moves out with at least a league minimum player.

In other words, Dermott, Andreas Johnsson, and Alex Kerfoot wouldn’t be enough. Dermott and William Nylander wouldn’t be enough. You’re either talking about moving 3-5 roster players to make this work, or giving up one of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, or Mitch Marner to make the balance sheets work. This also puts you in a tough spot next year, when you need to find new deals or replacements for Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, and Frederik Andersen.

Trying to fix your depth in one position while destroying it in several others seems unwise, trading Matthews or Tavares to make room for a veteran defenceman would be absurd, and while I was one of the most vocal critics of Mitch Marner’s contract as he negotiated it, I would much rather bet on a 23-year-old with back-to-back 90 point paces than a 30-year-old who’s peak was great but not elite, and is likely getting close to ending.

One could point out that the Leafs would get assets for the players they shed, but given that the window to make this pitch is about two weeks wide, and that Toronto wouldn’t be able to take any salary back in a situation like this, you’re likely not going to get sufficient picks and prospects for the players. This would be a situation that looks less like cashing in your casino chips, and more like desperately selling your heirlooms to a pawn shop.

Conclusion

Alex Pietrangelo is a fantastic player, and in a cap-free world, I would be fully, sincerely on board with adding him. He would be the best right-handed defenceman the Leafs have had since Tim Horton. He would be the best partner Morgan Rielly has ever had at the NHL level. It would be a great story and he’d make the team better.

At the same time though, this isn’t a cap free world. His best years are likely behind him. As a veteran, he likely won’t be able to make the d-zone impact people hope for when they talk about defencemen, and he won’t put up the offensive numbers without taking them away from the current top-two, similar to the Tyson Barrie powerplay conundrum. Acquiring him would likely force out not just one, but multiple meaningful players out of the roster.

Even in the most optimistic sense, it would be a seven-year commitment that feels marginally better for one or two years before looking like a big mistake – not because there’s anything wrong with him in particular, but because that’s how the game generally works these days. This isn’t a case of a player costing more than market value, but market value for his archetype being fundamentally against the best interests of a team building like the Leafs.

Toronto’s defensive growth will likely have to come from value finds and player development, along with their team tactics. An honest look at the team’s defensive results shows that they’ve made progress already under Keefe in that regard; some in the regular season, and a lot in the playoff series against Columbus, where finishing was a much bigger issue.  Having one more high-end player on the back-end would obviously make this gradual improvement both easier and faster, but only if the ends justify the means. I don’t think they do here.

Besides, I don’t think Pietrangelo goes anywhere. This is a fun exercize, but a read of his interview with The Athletic this week suggests that his “break” with the Blues is on the final 10% or so of salary, and a few things to do with structure. With a cup in his hands, comfort and securing the bag are going to be bigger factors for him than taking a discount to win – I imagine this is all just posturing for the last paragraphs, and that he’ll end up sticking with the Blues, making this whole conversation irrelevant in two weeks. But I guess we’ll see, right?

September 22, 2020 348 views 0

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Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

2 days ago

https://twitter.com/walsha/status/1307480088800182272

NHL player agent Alan Walsh making a strong case against the commonly-held myth that the gap in state/provincial income tax makes in player acquisition. This doesn’t include other diminishing factors such as player residency, jock taxes, signing bonuses, cost of living, favourable currency conversion, and the fact that players can be traded midway through their discount contracts.

When a player signs on the cheap for one of the no-tax teams, the team’s salary structure, competitive chances, and/or geographical location tend to be much more at play than the handful of dollars that the tax gap really leaves.

2 days ago 77 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

2 days ago

Working on a new front page for the site and unsure how short status posts will play with the social-sharing engine. So there’s a possibility you might come in here from Facebook or Twitter.

Just so I don’t completely waste your time, here’s a filthy shootout goal by former Devils prospect Mattias Tedenby:

2 days ago 38 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

August 25, 2020

Leafs move Kasperi Kapanen, replenish organizational depth in deal with Penguins 

The Toronto Maple Leafs have made their first signficant move of the offseason, trading forward Kasperi Kapanen back to the team they acquired him from five years prior – the Pittsburgh Penguins – as part of an extended seven-asset transaction.

Along with Kapanen, the Maple Leafs will send out Pontus Aberg and Jesper Lindgren to the Penguins, while receiving the 15th overall pick in the 2020 Entry Draft, prospect Filip Hallander, forward Evan Rodrigues, and veteran depth defenceman David Warsofsky.

Kapanen was originally acquired from Pittsburgh in the summer of 2015, as part of the trade that sent Phil Kessel on his back-to-back Stanley Cup journey. He spent the following two and a half seasons predominantly on the Toronto Marlies in an effort to round out his game, eventually reaching the point-per-game threshold and getting a more permanent opportunity with the big club.

Fans and media alike found reasons for optimism in the start of his 2018/19 season, where an 8 point in 5 game run in the midst of William Nylander’s contract dispute had many wondering if he could, in fact, replace the latter winger. Kapanen would fall off of that torrid pace, but still finished his first complete NHL season with 20 goals and 44 points, establishing himself as an NHL talent.

This season, Kapanen’s Age 23 year, did not produce the leap forward that many had hoped for. In 69 games, Kapanen posted 36 points, a slight regression from the previous year. More concerningly, his qualitative breakthroughs were non-existent; his blistering speed continued to dazzle, but decision making continued to be a problem for the Finnish forward, continuing to make bad off-puck lapses, poor shot and pass selections, and general disruptions of set plays.

As someone who has been back and forth on what Kapanen “is” throughout his development, that was a personal tipping point. The Maple Leafs are in the process of building an team that aims to play a high-pace, high-event, but largely controlled game. While Kapanen’s body meshes well with that – few can lay claim to a faster straight-line step – his struggles with remaining in-sync with his teammates has repeatedly slowed down or broken apart their efforts. Getting to the slot a second faster doesn’t matter if the next step, be it a pass or a shot, takes an extra two seconds to make, and that’s where he has continued to struggle over the years. In simpler terms, he’s more of an individual player than a team player, and so long as he’s not at the talent tier where he can break a game on his own terms like the “Big Four” can, that can be as detrimental as it is helpful.

That, combined with his $3.2 million cap hit over the next three years, made him an expendable piece for the team this offseason. While most prioritized moving the likes of his linemates Alexander Kerfoot or Andreas Johnsson instead, it was Kapanen to me that felt like the one to move first – his foot-speed is magnetic to the minds of traditionalists trying to build “fast” teams, allowing for an inflated perceived value that could be used to set the tone for further transactions down the road. This, combined with prior history, made calling Jim Rutherford and the Penguins an immediate fit.

In return, Toronto gets a bevvy of different assets that patch up several weak spots in the organization.

Most obvious to the average observer will likely be the first round pick. This pick is Pittsburgh’s own 1st round selection in the 2020 Entry Draft, which due the Penguins’ loss to Montreal in the Play-In round, was not sent to Minnesota as part of the Jason Zucker deal, as planned. They’ll instead get the 2021 first-rounder, while Toronto gets this years, which ranks 15th overall.

For the Leafs, this replaces the 13th overall pick that they’ll be sending to the Carolina Hurricanes as part of the deal they made to shed Patrick Marleau’s salary over the summer. This restores the ability to add another high-end prospect to the organization – something the Leafs would otherwise have been lacking before this trade given the likely NHL graduations of Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and/or Nick Robertson next season.

In fact, they may have arguably added two with this deal. Filip Hallander is more than just a body in this deal; the 20-year-old was selected 58th overall by the Penguins in 2018, with many draft experts ranking him above that mark. Developed in the Timra IK academy and pro systems, Hallander’s Swedish rights were moved to Lulea HF last season. In 72 SHL games to date, Hallander has put up 12 goals and 35 points. The only Under-21 player to put up a higher points-per-game in the SHL this season was New York Rangers prospect Nils Lundkvist. The year prior, he was 4th in U21 points-per-game, behind Emil Bemstrom (currently with Columbus), Sameuel Fagemo (2019 LA second rounder), and Dominik Bokk (2019 STL first rounder, traded to CAR). His production over the last two years tracks well with Canucks prospect Nils Hoglander, who I believe to be the better of the two, but is an example of the range we’re talking about here.

This is all to say that, in terms of what he’s done so far, Hallander looks poised to be a legitimate prospect if the organization can develop him well. Described as a hard-working two-way forward and just barely 20 years old, the Leafs will have lots of opportunity to groom the 6’1 forward into a potentially useful piece to the organization.

Capping off the trade are the assets on the fringes. Toronto gives up a little in Jesper Lindgren, who put up 9 points in 31 games with the Marlies this season and looked solid when paired with Teemu Kivihalme. Injuries were a problem for him, however, and at 23 the right-handed defenceman is running out of time to prove his NHL worth. Pontus Aberg was also included in the deal, and while his AHL time was impressive this year, motivation seemed to be a frequent concern. My understanding is that the contract he signed with Traktor of the KHL was not just a COVID precaution, and that the Leafs were ready to move on either way.

Incoming in terms of depth are Evan Rodrigues and David Warsofsky. Rodrigues is an Etobicoke native and has shown flashes of capability at the NHL level, putting up 25-30 point seasons with the Sabres in 2017/18 and 2018/19. Rodrigues is known as a high-energy player who statistically has had some success with shot suppression, though matchups and roles could play a factor there.

The concern with him in this trade would be his salary. Rodrigues is an upcoming restricted free agent and his current cap hit is $2,000,000; which would be reasonable if he could get back to his prime numbers, but is way out of range given his 10 points in 45 games this year.

A player like Rodrigues could be useful to Toronto’s rotation, as he has shown versatility and confidence in his own ability in the past. I can see the organization trying to pitch to him a short-term deal at under the price of the qualifying offer, allowing him a shot at redemption while close to home. I could also see his camp strongly considering it, as I can’t imagine the market for 10 point forwards who requested trades, got them, and then were traded again months later is particularly high, meaning that an offer in unrestricted free agency likely won’t reach the $2 million mark either. As far as value goes, I consider him to be a net-zero in this trade, as the team is essentially acquiring negotiating rights here and while he could stay, there’s no guarantee.

Last you have Warsofsky, who essentially replaces Lindgren on the Marlies blue line. Toronto likes to keep a few veterans on their AHL roster to keep an eye on the kids while helping them win hockey games at the same time, and in this regard, Warsofsky should be of good use. The 30-year-old hasn’t played an NHL game since 2016/17, but is typically good for about 0.5-0.7 points per game in the minors – something Toronto’s blue line will need with the loss of Lindgren, likely promotions of Sandin and Liljegren, and likely loss of Kevin Gravel.

All things considered, this is one of the best deals that the Leafs have made in the past several years. They sold high on a secondary asset who’s play style was more flash than substance, repaired their draft capital, restocked the upper end of their prospect system, and potentially added a useful veteran to their NHL and AHL depth charts, while freeing up several million dollars in cap space. When reports of Kapanen heading to Pittsburgh came out, panicked minds mostly expected Toronto to either step on a landmine (Jack Johnson), or galaxy brain their goaltending situation by landing Tristan Jarry or former Soo Greyhound Matt Murray. Instead, they picked up legitimately useful assets, and got a total worth significantly more than what even high-end goaltenders get on the market. Even if the Leafs were to immediately parlay this return into another deal and keep nothing that they acquired, they still have significantly more capital and flexibility this afternoon than they had this morning, and that in itself is a huge win.

August 25, 2020 27 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

August 3, 2020

Leafs shut out in playoff debut vs Columbus 

Welcome to your worst nightmare. Okay, it wasn’t quite *that* bad, but last night’s playoff opener was about as unwanted of an outcome as the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to get for themselves. The blue and white’s offensive firepower fell flat on Sunday night, and the team dropped Game 1 of their Best-of-5 play-in series against Columbus by a score of 2-0.

Highlights

The Numbers

My Notes

  • The most obvious thing to note about this game: Both goalies were incredible for 59:59 of this game. Joonas Korpisalo started for Columbus to the surprise of many, but rewarded John Tortorella for the trust with a front-to-back, first-star performance. Frederik Andersen was one of the best players for the Leafs last night.

    All the same, that goal Andersen conceded to Cam Atkinson, an unscreened wrist shot from above the faceoff dot with Morgan Rielly cutting off much of the angle, was one that had to be stopped. Hard to place blame on your goaltender when you don’t get him any sort of buffer, but you can’t have too many more of those shots hit the back of the net if you want to win a series like this.

  • The Mikheyev-Tavares-Marner line had the best possession numbers on the team last night, and are also taking the most heat in town after being on ice for the lone 5-on-5 goal, and not generating much offensively on their own. So who is right?

    Both sides, really. The numbers are results, and it’s evident that the trio heavily outshot and outchanced their matchups (typically Foligno-Wennberg-Atkinson) last night. I thought that they did a good job in transition, particularly in exiting the zone, and they didn’t really give the opponents much.

    Of course, we expect those players to score, and there’s a lot of pressure on them to do so. Marner in particular is in the midst of a multi-year playoff slump; seven games without a goal, four without a point, three of four without a shot. While he and the rest of his line did several little things right last night, they were invisible when it came time to tackle the big ones – and that’s a problem. The best way to describe this was a night that would be acceptable if others were performing, when the entire team is cold, you need your game breakers to game break.

  • On the opposite end, you have Auston Matthews. His line didn’t fare well in the expected shares against the Texier-Dubois-Bjorkstrand-Werenski-Jones matchup, but he was engaged the entire night and had at least one all-but-sure goal taken away from him by Korpisalo. I also imagine the numbers are somewhat skewed by the fact that Hyman-Matthews-Nylander line was on for a flurry of close-range chances in late in the second period, which Andersen was able to turn away. I thought Hyman was good on the puck retrieval front as he often was, and that Nylander was just okay – again, something that would be acceptable if even one of the game breakers broke open the game.
  • As many noticed, the Leafs tried doubling up the two lines with a Matthews-Tavares-Marner trio when they thought they had exposed a weak spot. Didn’t work this time, but I do like the creativity; Matthews’ underlyings with Tavares are unsurprisingly very strong, so it’s nice to have that safety valve.
  • The fourth line basically did not play last night, which makes sense when you’re the team with last change and you spend exactly 0:00 of the game with the lead. This is also true when the group gets out-attempted 8 to 1. I’d like to see Pierre Engvall draw in for Game 2; preferably it’s Frederik Gauthier that draws out to facilitate that, but if this and the warmup game are any indication, I’m not sure Toronto misses out on much if Kyle Clifford were to be taken out.
  • Penalties were non-existent in this game. I don’t like the idea of using that as an excuse for the loss, but the close score and the fact that neither team is prone to the egregious meant a game where just three penalties were called – by far the lowest of any of the games in the first two days (the average game had about 10). I’ve spoken many times over the years about hockey’s bias towards keeping penalties to avoid “deciding the game”, which ends up punishing disciplined teams – this is what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object in that regard.
  • Nick Robertson looked like he belonged once again last night. That third line had several flashes where they looked good, and they could be a scary, speedy option if Kasperi Kapanen develops even a halfway decent hockey IQ. While Marner’s slap pass to the wall with two minutes left probably takes the cake for “most absurd play” of the game, Kapanen’s button hook and fanned shot on a breakaway was a strong second seed – and something he’s not new to doing.
  • I haven’t spoken much to the defence, but I generally felt they were fine. Certainly, they look better than they have against Boston in previous playoff years – likely due to the fact that the pairs aren’t so obvious to match up against now. I thought the Muzzin-Holl pair was excellent, while the other two pairs were imperfect but still largely on the right side of things.
  • The one thing I’d maybe change in those defensive pairs – I’d like to see the responsibility in Pair 3 swapped around a little bit. It seems like Travis Dermott was doing most of the puck carrying and activation, and maybe that’s because Tyson Barrie was better covered by his opponents, but if given another opportunity it would seem to make more sense to reverse the assignment there.

Overall, I thought this was a fine effort from the Leafs in terms of control, but the lack of an extra gear to create prime scoring opportunities was of definite concern. Matthews had his one robbed chance, but beyond that, how often did it really feel like they were in complete control of the offensive zone? That’s a point of concern to me; the team will need to reach into it’s bag of tricks and try some new material, even if it requires more of a march to the net than a sprint.

Not to mention, they’ll have to figure out this new plan sooner than later. A seven-game series already leaves minimal room for failure – in a Best of 5, there’s next to none. Toronto is suddenly tasked with winning three of the next four to keep their season alive – we know they’re capable at their best, but how soon can they get there?

August 3, 2020 12 views 0
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