Category: Toronto Maple Leafs

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 246 views 0

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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
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

July 22, 2020

Nick Robertson is likely NHL ready, and the Leafs should play him in the playoffs 

In hockey, having a big three – like the Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander trio that the Leafs debuted in 2016/17 is a great luxury. An Elite Four, like they formed when John Tavares signed? Seems like something out of a video game, but okay, I can suspend belief a little. A fantastic five, though? That’s just too insane. Such a thing just can’t happen in today’s hockey world, right?

Generally, yes. But there might be something in Nick Robertson.

It always feels early when you anoint a player before their first game. That intuition is often true; we see them like mystery boxes, always betting on potential, always taking each point in the scouting report and replaying it in our minds as the best case scenario for the player. At the same time, we have a pretty decent understanding, of the value of tangible results in projecting a player’s upside. When players put up numbers that align them with the top of the history books, surrounded by others who turned out to be great, their odds of success tend to be higher.

Robertson, coincidentally, just put up one of the most impressive goal-scoring seasons in the history of the OHL. This year, a Draft+1 year for the youngest player taken in the 2019 draft, Robertson put up 55 goals and 31 assists in just 46 games, placing him first in goals per game and third in points per game among players who played at least half the season. Not only that, but Robertson’s goal rate ranks as the third-best in OHL history, trailing only Eric Lindros in his draft year (1.25 in 1991), and Tony Tanti in his (1.21 in 1981). Lindros had one of the greatest peaks in NHL history before injuries slowed him down, while Tanti was a very lethal player for the Canucks in the mid 80’s. The players just below Robertson, John Tavares and Patrick Kane, are currently NHL superstars.

We can also look at Robertson’s performance from a more recent lens. Using resources from Pick224, I built a list of the best OHL goal scorers since 2008, the furthest back the site’s database goes, of players with 0.5 or more even strength goals per game. This gave me 50 players, and 24 players under 20.

Note: Shot data only available from 2016-present, total players who are in those samples in parentheses

Of this sample, Robertson stacks up with the most frequent shooters, the top scorers, and post productive point-getters. The only players who have produced primary points at a higher per-game clip than Robertson did from this group of goal scorers are Connor McDavid (Draft Year) and Alex Debrincat (Draft+1). Focusing just on even strength, the majority of players above him who did so in their Draft or Draft+1 seasons went on to be good to great NHL contributors, or, in the case of Quinton Byfield and Marco Rossi, are expected to be top picks in this year’s draft.

Robertson himself likely would been have up near the top of the 2020 mock drafts with that pair, had he not been born three months premature. Instead, the undersized winger, with his mid-September birthday, just barely made it in last season, to the Leafs’ benefit.

Early indications from camp show a player who looks like he belongs. This shouldn’t be all that surprising when looking at the names that the data aligned him with, as most transitioned to be contributors right away. Debrincat is a good player to bring up here; he’s similarly small, pesty, and goal-leaning, and 2017 Draft+1 season is likely the most comparable to Robertson’s 2020; within 0.04 even-strength goals per game, within 0.02 primary points per game, and within seconds of estimated average ice time. Debrincat had this season after falling to 39th overall in 2016, despite great pre-draft production, due to concerns about his size translating.

Since then, he has put up 173 points in 234 games with the Chicago Blackhawks, producing at a 50-point pace or higher in all three seasons while putting up positive play-driving numbers. It’s worth noting here that Debrincat is two inches shorter than Robertson, and is a December birthday, giving him nearly nine months of edge when comparing the two. When you put all of that together, it’s hard to imagine that a player like Robertson couldn’t add to the Leafs roster, particularly one that is missing another tenacious, smart, goal scoring winger in Andreas Johnsson. In a playoff format that will be more determined by fortune than any post-season in the modern era, it’s important to have as many weapons who could get “hot” in your lineup as possible. Robertson might not yet be able to bring that to the same tier as his already-developed star teammates, but there is ample evidence to suggest that he can give flashes.

Via Pick224.com, Robertson has also shown a slot-shooting tendency that is in line with Toronto’s current system

The biggest concern about such a move, interestingly, would be off the ice rather than on it. Specifically, that playing Robertson would burn a year from his Entry-Level contract, forcing Toronto to extend him after 2021/22 rather than the following year.

The first and most obvious point to be made here is that the object of this whole operation is to win the Stanley Cup, and the Leafs are a potential contender who might stand to gain significant depth and talent by bringing him into the fold now instead of later. You build your roster to give yourself a window to win, and Toronto is firmly in that window.

Abstaining from burning a cap year while competitively is kind of like punting on fourth and inches, on a key drive, when you’ve got a reasonable shot at getting the go-ahead touchdown if you get across. Instead of trying while a good opportunity is there, you opt to put yourself in slightly better scoring position three years from now, and specifically only three years from now.

There are only two reasons to push forward an Entry-Level year: You don’t think your team has a chance in Year 1, or you think your team will really need the money in Year 3. The Leafs absolutely have a shot to win this year, and while having Robertson line up at the same year as Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin (who were also “pushed forward” this year) isn’t super optimal, it also sets the course for all of them to be pitched on discount deals – and also takes away a year of development before they can show their work.

Look at Mitch Marner, for example. Toronto sent him to London for an extra year, slid his contract, and he had three great seasons once he came up. But there was a significant leap between years two and three, from 69 points to 94, that allowed him to push for his roughly $10.9 million cap hit. Had the discussion come a year earlier, the talks are likely closer to “wanted 8-8.5, settled for 7.5” rather than “wanted 11-12, settled for 10.9”. With Toronto’s first wave of top talent already locked up, getting the second wave locked up at a good before they break out will be key, and if you trust the player to break out, you should get to the negotiation table for their second contract as soon as possible, which this facilitates.

Like with the two Swedish defencemen, another advantage here is that even if the contract year is “burned”, because Robertson did not play 40 regular season games, it doesn’t count as a year of service time accrued towards unrestricted free agency.

In summation, while we all aspire to keep our expectations tempered for unproven players, and while the Toronto market is one that often gets mocked for it’s inability to do that, there is plenty of reason to believe that Nick Robertson is another special talent in the Leafs’ developmental pipeline. His ability to produce at his age is matched by few in the history of his elite developmental league, and he compares to quality NHL players who had little problems adjusting.

So long as the Leafs believe he is one of the 12 best forwards they can put on the ice, the team should absolutely use him in this year’s playoffs. He makes a competitive team better, and while that pushes next contract a year closer to the present, such a thing might actually be a positive for the Leafs. Should they not find him good enough to keep up, then leaving him in the press box is acceptable, but if he’s there – let’s not talk ourselves out of it. Let’s get excited for the chance that the mystery box might, in fact, be the secret weapon.

July 22, 2020 18 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

July 17, 2020

The Leafs shouldn’t be punished for investing in themselves 

For the second time this week, word has come out about the Toronto Maple Leafs being punished or sanctioned by the National Hockey League for… to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to describe this. Unfair training practices? Competitive advantages? Honestly, I’m a bit at a loss for the exact words at the moment.

The first incident came on Wednesday, when the Leafs were told that having officials at their training camp scrimmages was going too far:

Now, depending on who you ask, the stories as to why this happened differ. According to CJ, this had to do with a noteworthy volume of the rest of the league feeling concerned about the COVID-19 risk of having extra people involved in practices, despite the fact that teams are allowed about 20 non-player officials in the rink that these officials would have almost assuredly counted under. Sheldon Keefe’s quote (via Kristen Shilton) implies that teams didn’t like that the Leafs had “such resources readily available”, as if no other NHL market has access to officials who could call a scrimmage.

Not NHL officials, which as far as it’s known these officials weren’t, but officials in general. Keep in mind here that this isn’t even a particularly new revalation; the Leafs organization has been hiring referees for training camp scrimmages for years, for both the Leafs and the Marlies. Other NHL teams do it. From my own personal experience on the operations side, even junior teams do it. The point of a scrimmage is to emulate a game situation, so having people enforce the rules is a pretty key component.

All the same, this wasn’t an individual hill worth dying on. Yes, such a complaint seems incredibly petty and silly and more reflective of teams upset that they didn’t think to use their extra staff limits on officials, but there are bigger fish to fry before the playoffs begin and hey, maybe there is something to the idea of keeping two more people off the ice for social distancing purposes. I suppose we can just pick up and move o-

I’m sorry, what?

For context here, the Toronto Maple Leafs practice at the Ford Performance Centre in Etobicoke, formerly known as the Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence, or MCC for short. A decent drive away from Scotiabank Arena, the facility is owned by the City of Toronto and designed to primarily serve the local community, but the Maple Leafs pay a little under $600,000 a year in rent which allows them to have their own custom dressing rooms with amenities for the Maple Leafs in Rink 2, and Marlies in Rink 3. It also covers, presumably, the timeslots that they rent throughout the season, and the team takes care of a lot of the operation and upkeep of the rink as well.

This isn’t to say that the Leafs have exclusivity to these pads by any means, either. Rinks 2 and 3 are in constant public and private use when the Leafs aren’t using them – heck, the last game played on the Leafs’ pad before the rinks shut down for the COVID-19 lockdown featured my beer league team losing 3-0 to the “Too Drunken Monkeys”; our league puts us on the Leafs and Hockey Canada rinks at FPC two or three times per year.

According to ‘J’, Friedman continued: “Toronto was a team that, a lot of their prospects, or a number of them, would come to Toronto in the summer and they’d work out at the practice facility and they really improved as players. And teams were like, ‘we don’t like that’.”

So the gripe here seems to be that the Leafs have ensured that players and prospects who stick around town and don’t necessarily go to a specific training coach or school have a rink where they can go to and get some stuff done on their own time.

I have a very hard time considering this to be an unfair advantage. Most, if not all teams have their own practice facilites, and several teams (Anaheim, Winnipeg, Vegas, Buffalo, San Jose, Los Angeles, and possibly more) own their rinks outright, and I would assume the others have leases that would allow them to open the doors of their dressing rooms between June and September.

Given that these aren’t organized practices being hosted, and the fact that usage of the facility is in no way mandatory, and that every other team has some sort of practice arena arrangement with similar, if not more power over their facility, I don’t see any reason that other teams can’t do what the Leafs are doing. They might not want to spend that much money on amenities, sure. Their players might not want to stay in their cities during the summer, sure. But those aren’t Toronto’s problem.

This all sort of spins back to what I spoke about in my piece “The NHL and the pursuit of mediocrity” a few weeks back. With each passing year, passing month, passing day, this league becomes less about being the best and more about being good enough. Instead of hoarding it’s money, the richest club in the league is re-investing in itself and it’s community by tapping into it’s resources to make the product it sells better, in ways that don’t violate the rules or the “spirit” of the game, but actually encourage getting it right – making sure you’re playing by the rules in the case of the officials, and making sure that players have access to the tools they need to hone their craft in the case of the facility.

Yet, here we are. A bunch of teams have complained that this self-investment is unfair, and now the team can’t do it. At the end of the day, these two rulings individually aren’t things to lose sleep about – they won’t make or break the team’s success – but they do make you wonder what the point of going the extra mile is, if all it will lead to is the league siding with teams who feel slighted about being “shown up”. If this truly is the best hockey league in the world, then striving to be the best in ways that still keep everybody happy should be encouraged – “good enough” shouldn’t be considered good enough.

July 17, 2020 19 views 0
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