It’s a big day for trade gossip in Toronto. Let’s be honest, every day is a big day for it, but today we’ve got some radio hits circulating, and a practice moment that got everyone especially riled up.
Firstly, let’s address that latter bit – Travis Dermott is actually sick. I know people get skeptical when you see a roster piece bow out of the lineup due to “illness”, especially at this time of year, but after doing some poking around, I have less than zero reason to believe that the Leafs PR statement given to media at practice today, probably given after they realized how a lack of information would look to the public, is false. Kevin Gravel is up as a placeholder, but I suspect he won’t draw in, and that Dermott will be back relatively quickly.
But now to the hits. Two big ones, two insiders, two competing sports channels, two morning shows.
On one side, we have Matthew Dumba. This one comes from Elliotte Friedman, speaking to The Leadoff on Sportsnet Fan 590.
“[The cost to acquire Dumba is] not small. He’s signed for three more years after this, and I don’t think it’s an easy price, even though he hasn’t had a great year. I think that Minnesota recognizes that he’s a better player than he’s shown, but it’s probably going to cost them one of the Kapanen, Johnsson, and Kerfoot trio, maybe a young D, and I don’t know if it would be a high pick, but there could be a pick. Something like that. I can’t tell you for sure, because the person involved wouldn’t give me specific names, but I just think it would be something like that.”
On the other side, we have Josh Manson. This one comes from Darren Dreger, speaking to First Up on TSN Radio 1050:
“I think that Dubas is open to a number of scenarios. We’ve connected him to the Minnesota Wild and Matt Dumba, how serious that is, isn’t, or will get we’re going to have to wait and see. Interestingly, and the name has been out there a little bit, but Ray Ferraro talked about on the podcast this week as well, how much he thinks Josh Manson of the Anaheim Ducks would be a great fit for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Look, I’m not saying that it can’t happen, because stranger things have happened.
The sense that I get though, from Anaheim people, is that they’re not actively trying to move Josh. If Josh Manson is getting traded, it’s because a team stepped up and stepped up in a big way, and I don’t think that means Kasperi Kapanen. That might mean Kasperi Kapanen, plus, plus. Look, Mans would be a terrific add, there’s no question about that. If nothing else, it just kind of seasons the speculation because we’ve talked enough about Matt Dumba.”
A little bit of a bow at the rival there. I dig it. All’s fair in love and deadline frenzy.
What I don’t love, though, is basically everything else surrounding this. There are so many different ways you can criticize these rumours, and the sensibility attached to them.
For one, we’ve been talking about the same guys for several years now. Rumours regarding both Manson and Dumba have flown around the Leafs since at least 2017, and have persisted despite significant roster turnover, a change in GM, and a change in the coaching staff. These are players we have gone to the well for time and time again.
In saying that, though, we miss the reason for the rumour mill started. In 2017, Dumba was on the first year of a two-year contract where he was paid just $2.55 million, fresh off an ELC. Manson was similar, but his second deal was only $825,000. They were both young, cheap, and reasonably effective right-handed defencemen – Dumba a productive puck mover, Manson a rare case of a stay-at-home guy who threw tons of hits, blocked his share of shots, and didn’t look terrible analytically. They were assets to acquire because they were considered undervalued.
This ramped up in 2017/18, because the Leafs right side of their blue line (Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and Roman Polak) was agonizingly, glaringly bad, and both of these players, on the last year of their bridges, both appeared to break out on the boxcars. Manson’s possession numbers dipped, but a PDO spike meant that he had a 37 point, +34 season. Similarly, Dumba continued to not have surprisingly rough underlying numbers for a player of his reputation, but exploded for 50 points. Both players were also given increased minutes, meaning more attention to go with their results, and were seen as bonafide stars for the people who thought they were buy-lows a year prior.
The issue here, though, is that you’re only undervalued until you get valued, and a peak year doesn’t set you up for life. This is to say that Dumba or Manson both got paid – Manson for 4 years at a $4.1 million AAV, Dumba for 5 years at a $6 million AAV, so the illusion of undervaluation should be gone. It can also very easily be argued that neither have lived up to those deals, because neither has been lived up to the hype since, if they were even living up to it before.
In the two years since, Dumba was riddled with injury in 2018/19, and has struggled offensively despite a reasonably normal on-ice shooting percentage this year. Over that two year stretch, he’s produced 38 points in 82 games, 17 of which have come on the powerplay, leaving 21 for even strength. To put that into perspective, Tyson Barrie has been labelled a large disappointment amongst Leafs fans this year, and has 22 even-strength points in 51 games. Micah McCurdy’s models also are very, very skeptical of his shot impacts, suggesting that, at 5-on-5, Minnesota is worse off in both zones with him than without him. Not just this year, but for most of his career:
Dumba’s theoretical trade value comes largely from being a right-handed shot, a former Top-10 pick, his one strong offensive season in 2017/18, his high time on ice, and the fact that he has always been in trade speculation. You would think that constantly being a player that can be acquired at the right price would set off red flags, but it’s instead made him an easy name to point to when casually gesturing for the Leafs to go get a top-pairing defenceman.
Manson is in a similar boat, except that he is the generic name to bring up when talking about getting a “big, mean, physical defenceman”, because of that great honeymoon time where he seemed to be a bridge between the old and new schools.
The reality with him, though, is that he’s also not been particularly good since the peak of speculation. Since that 37 point, +34 year, Manson stopped getting 0.940 goaltending when he was on the ice and seemingly forgot how to contribute to the play offensively, putting up just 21 points in 105 games. He’s also been banged up a few times, and most noticeably, his team-relative numbers have started to curl back into the median, including a 46% Corsi season last season that saw him as one of the weaker possession players on the Ducks.
An even more alarming note to point out are the results that he’s had away from Hampus Lindholm, who has been his partner for most of his career and about half of his 5-on-5 minutes over the last two years. The Ducks have a respectable 51% of the shot attempts while the two are together on the ice, but Manson dips to 45.7% away from Lindholm. Expected goals are similar – a 48.6% share together, and 44.2% on his own.
As the tempo of the game increases and his partner, to an extent, regresses, a defenceman who was once seen as a defensive defenceman for the nerd generation is now just what every other defensive defenceman seems to be – a burden on play. Manson is still better than his ilk in the sense that the team isn’t necessarily conceding more while he’s on the ice, but he isn’t contributing to the offensive game.
What we’re essentially getting at here is that while people think that they’re asking for the team to get a “true top four defenceman” in Dumba, and a “true stay at home defenceman” in Manson, what they’re really asking for is a worse Tyson Barrie with more term and a higher cost, and a better Cody Ceci with more term and the same cost.
Toronto likely improves in the immediate if they were to give up no roster assets for one of the two and puts them in Ceci’s spot, but there’s a certain point where you wonder if the gains would be worth the pull from offence if you’re moving one of the secondary tier forwards plus additional assets to get them – as well as if the gains are that much better than just waiting for Morgan Rielly to get healthy and deciding which of Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren get Ceci’s spot.
That’s the other issue too, is beyond this year. Morgan Rielly, Justin Holl, and Travis Dermott are all presently returning. Jake Muzzin appears eager to get an extension done, and we reasonably expect both Sandin and Liljegren to be ready for primetime. Martin Marincin seems due to be the 7th man until the nuclear apocalypse. That’s already five or six men, all of whom fit into the Leafs’ general blueprint of a mobile, counter-attack driven, yet not physically unaware defence corps, plus a reserve. It’s a corps that’s not in the best group in the league conversation, but one you can reasonably expect to be in the middle of the pack or so, with a very good average age and a solid floor of talent.
Outside of Ceci, who for all his warts is still better than your average six, that’s also what this group has essentially been since the coaching change. Even playing at a very high event pace, the Leafs are 15th in Corsi Against per hour and 18th in expected goals against per hour since Sheldon Keefe has come in. These aren’t great numbers in a vacuum, but they aren’t terrible, and when paired with being a top 3-5 offence in the NHL, the team drives solid differential. Frederik Andersen’s slump over the past few weeks has left many confusing goals against with defensive ability, which has been there in a passable way for the past few months.
Obviously, it would be great to have a stacked, world-beating group of six defencemen, just like it would be to have the same for your twelve forwards and two goaltenders. But this isn’t something you can just snap your fingers towards, and the Leafs’ defensive group is at a state where you wish each individual was just a little bit better, rather than one filled with 2 or 3 gaping holes like it used to be. Toronto should obviously do their due diligence if a high-end defenceman is aggressively placed on the market – we’ve seen with Erik Karlsson, PK Subban, Jacob Trouba, Dougie Hamilton and the like that these players can often go for less than expected – but being the aggressive chasers of players who are in the “putting feelers out there” part of the rumour mill 365 days a year is not a wise strategy. In the case of Dumba and Manson specifically, I can’t really see an asset cost that makes sense for the team given their contracts, and what Toronto already has available to them, I can’t see either bringing much surplus value to the table.