It’s been an interesting few months of re-finding myself, my mind, my ambition, and all of those fun things. The whole process that leads to that, and comes within that might be something I touch on another day – but today is about hockey, and a new purpose for this platform.

I’m returning to regular hockey writing, effective now. Technically speaking, I never “left”, but there’s a substantial difference between the dozens of articles I’d put out every month prior to scaling back and starting this site back up again, and where I’ve been at lately – lots of tweets, lots of non-writing side projects, lots of personal time, and the rare long-form post when I really felt the need to get a point across.

I’m not promising a post every day, and I don’t plan on being the person who puts out 150 word quick hits for every minor transaction. But I do want to get back to writing medium-length thoughts about the day-to-day stuff again, so expect more of that as the biggest difference.

Now, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve written something new, so let’s catch up on some Leafs news. I might revisit one or two of these in greater detail in the coming days, but for now..

The Marleau Trade

Last weekend, the Leafs traded Patrick Marleau – or rather, his contract – to the Carolina Hurricanes. They attached next year’s first-round pick (with a “no Top 10” condition), Carolina bought out Marleau’s contract after failing to convince him that staying was a good idea, and it’s expected that he’ll sign a low-cost deal with the San Jose Sharks in the coming hours or days, to end his career where it began and largely occurred.

It’s a tough pill to swallow. The easy “silver lining” way to look at it is that the Leafs essentially gave up a first-round pick as a retroactive two-year rental for Patrick Marleau – which, when put that way, doesn’t seem so bad. On the other hand, this also means they’re giving up picks for results that have already happened, not for results that will happen down the line, and we know that those results didn’t lead to the end goal of playoff success.

Marleau’s insistence to follow his family back to San Jose, which was completely within his right as a player under a guaranteed contract with a No-Movement Clause, obviously limited things and led to the higher cost. I do wish that Toronto would have been able to convince the Hurricanes to take on an asset they might feel to be overvalued instead of giving up the asset flexibility that a high draft pick affords, but with how tight this summer is from a cap perspective, it’s a cost I’d ultimately pay in their shoes.

As a big fan of the original signing, I hope the Leafs don’t have too many regrets in this process. While two years would have obviously been preferable, the idea of using what was then an abundance of cap space to land a marquee free agent – particularly one who would help with the development of the team’s younger players – was wise. The curveball here is that they were able to land an even better free agent in the following summer in John Tavares, but that isn’t something that anyone sane would have expected at the time.

I also think this speaks to how the Hurricanes plan to operate – not necessarily as a team that’s unwilling to spend money, but one that wants to make sure they spend it on the right things. Tom Dundon signed off on the team essentially buying a mid-low first round pick for several million dollars, which is probably a better use of their budget than a declining UFA acquired solely to get an asset signed.

The Draft

I’m going to be completely transparent here: This year was the least I’ve followed an Entry Draft class since my early teens and I spent almost zero time watching it. Between my in-hockey and in-media work this year, I was dealing with levels that surround the draft-eligible bubble, but don’t necessarily overlap with it, and it led to a blind spot.

Also, I was coaching and scouting at a Junior A showcase during the weekend. So I’m serious when I say that my only draft watching came while scarfing down a chicken burger in the arena bar between games, on a far-away TV with the sound off.

So I’m not here to give you a ton of expert opinion. I’d be lying to you if I said I had any, though I will be soaking in information and asking around about Toronto’s picks this summer, and will come into Prospect Ranking season significantly better-versed.

What I will say for now.

  • Nick Robertson looks like a good choice. His numbers with Peterborough look good, he looks dynamic in his highlights (though most prospects do), and I like how he carries himself. A lot of people had him much higher in their rankings, and I’ve heard some early positive reviews from those who have had the opportunity to dive into him.
  • Everyone seems to know what direction the opposing net is. Whether you’re a forward or a defenceman, all the drafted prospects have something resembling a point rate, and that’s good. Many will say that you don’t just draft for offence, but generally speaking, players who already come with excuses on why they don’t score points before their draft day are unlikely to be able to keep up with better opponents as they develop. I’d rather teach a scorer how to defend than teach someone who can’t score how to get the puck to my pro’s who can.
  • A lot is being made of the fact that none of the Leafs’ picks are 6’0 or taller. My stance on this is a firm “whatever”. A misconception about the analytics community is that because smaller scorers are championed, that everyone who understands how to read Natural Stat Trick thinks that hockey is a short player’s game now. In reality, it’s more that good players are good, and as long as size is treated as an asset regardless of whether the player can use it, the fallers from the top of a well-scouted board are probably going to be smaller players. This is likely a case of Toronto repeatedly having guys they liked still available, and those guys slipping because of their size. If picking a bunch of little guys means they have too many NHL-ready ones in four years, that’s a better problem than not having any NHL-ready prospects.

Johnsson & Kapanen

Mitch Marner’s contract saga doesn’t seem to be coming to a head any time soon – he still wants to make at least as much as Auston Matthews’ $11.634 million salary. I still think he’s closer to a $9 million player in terms of his comparative value, and while the numbers are likely a little different, I can’t imagine that the Leafs see it much differently internally.

Toronto did get their other two RFA’s signed this week though – Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen were both locked up, the former for four years at a $3.4 million AAV and the latter for three years at an AAV of $3.2 million.

Both are in the general range of contracts given to forwards who play on first lines without really being seen to be first liners – when you look at comparables, players like Bryan Rust and Connor Sheary (both Sidney Crosby Wingmen), Anders Lee (John Tavares’ wingman), and Toronto’s very own Zach Hyman (at the time, Auston Matthews’ displacer partner) show up. In fact, both are considered to be among the strongest comparables for each other, which makes sense.

Kapanen’s deal bridges a year short of Unrestricted Free Agency, while Johnsson’s buys a year of UFA. Both are in a salary range that allows them to slide into middle-six roles without much frustration, and both deals are easy to move in the event that the players stagnate. Each had good reason to commit to these slightly team-favourable deals – Johnsson, while now a proven finisher in three different pro leagues, had the league’s highest PDO (on-ice Shooting + Save Percentage, considered an indicator of luck when an extreme outlier) this year, while Kapanen was unable to keep up his early-season tear that put him on the map to begin with.

Johnsson’s quick release and strong hockey IQ have me pretty confident in his ability to continue scoring, while the worst case on Kapanen is that he gets used more for his two-way ability moving forward. It’ll be hard to mess up slotting these two into the lineup – ironically, the only bad place to put them is back on the same line with Matthews, who will hopefully have William Nylander flanking him again next year.

Hutchinson & Marincin

Toronto made two other depth signings this week in Michael Hutchinson and Martin Marincin, which had a few people asking some questions about the team’s thought process going into the new season.

Hutchinson was brought in midway through last season to shore up the Toronto Marlies’ goaltending depth, after Jeff Glass and Kasimir Kaskisuo seemed destined to deliver a historically low team save percentage. Kaskisuo eventually rebounded and even took over the pipes in the Calder Cup playoffs, but Toronto needed immediate help – not to mention, an emergency option in the event of Frederik Andersen and/or Garret Sparks getting injured – both of which occurring at points, even overlapping to allow Hutchinson some big league time.

Renewing Hutchinson’s contract allows the Leafs a bit of a safety net going into September, with Kaskisuo now losing waiver-exempt status. Toronto once again has three waiver-requiring backups in tow to choose from in September, with two of them to be thrown to the process with the hope that at least one clears. Last year, they lost Calvin Pickard and Curtis McElhinney to Philadelphia and Carolina respectively, putting them into the situation that led to Hutchinson’s acquisition in the first place.

Some feel the signing puts Sparks’ future in danger. I’m not so certain, though things could change. While Sparks had an underwhelming first full season in the NHL, he still produced mediocre backup numbers at a much-below backup average salary, and did not impact the team’s position in the standings. While it seemed like he soured on head coach Mike Babcock by the end of the year, there’s a lot of air-clearing time available between April and September. I could see Hutchinson battling for that final spot and Sparks having less security than he did last fall, but this seems more like “having options” than anything foreshadowing.

As for Marincin, everyone’s favourite depth defenceman to argue passionately about returns to the fold amidst a bit of surprise. It seemed like the team was ready to part ways with the lanky Slovak in the spring, though the tone began to shift in the past few weeks. Marincin didn’t play much for the Leafs last year, only coming in as an injury replacement, but still managed to snag 24 games of play time where he was his normal poke-checking, puck-losing, somehow play driving self.

With Marincin being 27 now, I’m at a point where I’m no longer passionate about his future – if it’s here or elsewhere doesn’t phase me too much. I think he should be an NHL regular and has a good impact on the defensive side of the game, but there is validity to the idea that he lacks confidence with the puck when he’s up with the big club.

However, I don’t see the big club as the priority here. The Marlies still need players, and unlike the left-loaded Leafs, the AHL affiliate’s options are mostly right-handed – and young players who need the minutes. A left-handed veteran was key, which perhaps explains the choice to keep a player they know can survive a call-up and dominate the AHL.

The Hakstol Hiring

The Leafs hired Dave Hakstol as an assistant coach this week. He’ll be taking over DJ Smith’s spot, meaning he’ll contribute to coach the team’s defencemen and penalty kill.

I don’t have a strong opinion here. Anyone who says they have a strong opinion about an assistant coaching hire without direct attachment to that coach or to the hiring team’s staff is probably blowing smoke. Hakstol was oft-criticized in Philadelphia, but he won’t be the one deciding the core traits of the system like he was there – it’ll be up to him to work on finite details that he probably wasn’t as involved in with his previous role. Philadelphia’s penalty kill seemed decent from a process & positioning perspective, but I have a hard time turning that into a firm belief as to what he’ll do in Toronto.

Look, I hate sounding like the apathetic take guy. Those might be the worst sub-faction in hockey (social) media right now. But I just don’t know how much you can stretch a thought about a new assistant coach until you’re either bluffing or over-thinking.

The Other Things

There are a few other nuggets of news out there – a trade that’s supposed to go down today, a few minor signings, and a few deals the Leafs didn’t make over the past week. But those we’ll save for when things get more official.

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