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Projecting the Maple Leafs’ Taxi Squad for 2020/21

With a January 13th start date all but confirmed for the National Hockey League’s return, there are all sorts of discussions at hand about what the league will look like when it comes back.

One particularly interesting caveat is one that I’ve expected to come to fruition for a few months now, but with a lack of details as to how – the taxi squad. Given the whole “global pandemic” thing, teams likely don’t want to be moving players between their NHL and AHL (should they opt in) clubs on a consistent basis, so having a buffer between them is going to be important this year. Capfriendly posted an excellent breakdown on Twitter this morning, but the even further simplified points are as follows:

  • Taxi Squads will consist of players whose contracts operate the same as if they were in the AHL. If you’re not waiver exempt, you have to clear waivers to be on the squad. Your payment is based on your contract’s 1 or 2-way status. Cap hits are based on the buriable threshold, meaning that the first $1.075 million of a player’s AAV doesn’t count if they’re on the taxi squad, but anything exceeding that is still penalized.
  • Teams must have at least four players on their taxi squad, with a maximum of six. If your team only has two goalies on the main roster, you must have a goalie in your taxi squad. If a taxi squad member gets sick or injured, they won’t count to the taxi squad size limit, but they will be classified as an AHL injury – meaning that if they suffer a long-term injury outside of an NHL game, you won’t be able to use them to bank LTIR dollars.
  • Taxi Squad players can practice with the team, participate in activities, and travel with them. They can’t join the AHL team for the same purposes, as the point of the taxi-squad is to avoid crossing streams. Taxi Squads will begin forming on the last day of training camp – presumably, if you’re trying to sneak someone through waivers before that, you can do that before placing them on the Taxi Squad.

A system like this was the logical conclusion for roster management in 2020/21, and while the NHL swears this will be a one off, I’m pretty open to this continuing to exist afterwards – it would be a great opportunity for mid-20’s players on the bubble of the NHL and AHL to keep their dreams of a breakthrough alive while affording minutes to younger players in the minors. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Today’s discussion is about how this will impact the Toronto Maple Leafs specifically, and which players we can expect to see on it. So let’s unroll that process.

The Base Layer

Before we can get to who is on the taxi squad, we need to get to who will be on the team. CapFriendly projects the Maple Leafs to be $1,049,325 million over the $81,500,000 salary cap with their 23-man roster, which was already designed to cut corners wherever possible.

Toronto could theoretically get there by sending down a player at or above the buriable threshold, but as the three players closest to fitting the bill here are Ilya Mikheyev, Wayne Simmonds, and Jack Campbell, it would be highly unlikely to see them go the single player route. The Leafs will likely run a 21-man main roster and get under the ceiling via two cuts, rather than one.

The first one is pretty easy, looking at the CapFriendly version of the roster. You would trim one of the five buriable forwards – Jimmy Vesey ($900,000), Nick Robertson ($821,667), Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, and Travis Boyd (all $700,000). Process of elimination likely leans towards Boyd in this equation. Robertson is a 19-year-old with nothing left to prove in junior and an inability to be sent to the AHL, you likely want to get him into as many opportunities as possible, so long as he shows he can hang in camp. Vesey is at the age, price, and talent level that a waiver claim is likely if they try to sneak him through. Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza are Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza, meaning they would have to play themselves out of the roster, which really just leaves you with Boyd, who is still a waiver risk but likely not to the same degree as Vesey.

Your second cut would come from the defence corps, and as much as this might upset some people, it’s probably Rasmus Sandin. Toronto’s blue line is super crowded this year, and most of the guys near the bottom can keep up, even if they aren’t world beaters. Sandin showed glimpses of his future NHL potential last year, but wasn’t quite at a level where you can argue him to be more than their 5th or 6th defenceman this year, even if all were to go right. Training camp could change this, but ultimately, you likely want him to play as many minutes as possible. He likely starts on the taxi squad, and then goes down to the Marlies when the AHL return to play process begins. The same can be said for Timothy Liljegren, though the roster has already assumed an AHL role for him. With those two gone, Toronto is cap compliant at $80,955,158. The $644,842 remaining is not enough to add a 22nd roster player, but depending on deals the team may make throughout the year, this could open up the possibility of operating at 22 players on the main roster later in the year. For now, one would assume that management would like to keep that space open for potential acquisitions.

The Squad

With that math out of the way, we can assume that Toronto’s starting taxi squad will include Travis Boyd (pending waiver clearance) and Rasmus Sandin (until the AHL begins). This leaves them with four more available spots, with a fifth that will open up down the line.

First, they’ll need a third goaltender. This is a pretty easy battle – your options are Aaron Dell, Michael Hutchinson, Joseph Woll, and Ian Scott. It almost definitely will not be one of the younger ones – Scott hasn’t played a high-level game in over a year and absolutely needs to see as many minutes as possible. Not only would I not expect him on the Leafs, or the taxi squad, but I’d imagine a push to loan him out if a team has room for him. As for Woll, he’s young enough to not push the panic button on yet, but you can make a very real case that he was the worst goalie on a performance basis in the AHL last year. A seismic leap is unlikely.

This leaves Dell and Hutchinson, and one has had much more success in the NHL in recent years than the other – so let’s project Aaron Dell to make the taxi squad, pending waiver clearance.

Now, we’ll need 3 to 4 skaters to round out the roster. One would imagine that players in their mid-20s would be more likely to get these spots than the greenest of prospects or the clear American League veterans. This leaves us with a pool that looks something like this:

  • Pierre Engvall
  • Alexander Barabanov
  • Yegor Korshkov
  • Nic Petan
  • Kenny Agostino
  • Adam Brooks
  • Kalle Kossila
  • Denis Malgin
  • Calle Rosen
  • Martin Marincin
  • Teemu Kivihalme

Of this group, Engvall, Barabanov, Korshkov, and Kivihalme are all waiver-exempt, which allows some flexibility. Pierre Engvall seems like a lock as a Taxi Squad candidate, as he’s just about as good as the rest of the bottom six, but has a contract just barely above the buriable threshold – having him taxied up instead of a $700,000 player saves the Leafs about $375,000 in cap space. He’s right at the stage of his career where more AHL time likely isn’t necessary, so practicing and being ready in case of injury is likely the play.

Martin Marincin¬†is another very safe bet. He’s in that AAAA territory of players that are way too good for the AHL (those who have watched him on the Marlies remain very confused on how he turns into Victor Hedman without the powerplay points when he goes down there), but isn’t good enough to give an NHL roster spot. He’s repeatedly cleared waivers, so it’s safe to assume he will again this year and that as someone who already gets scratched a bunch, he won’t put much much fuss about the assignment.

Three of these players – Korshkov, Kossila, and Malgin, are probably not worth worrying about this year. As most of those in the North American wing of the organization who played in Europe over the fall return to Toronto, Korshkov has remained in his native Russia and Malgin has remained in his native Switzerland; this might imply that they’re content to play this year out a little closer to home, which seems like a wise decision for a bubble player to make if they’re comfortable. Kossila was loaned to the DEL just 11 days ago, so I’d bet that he’s also out of the equation.

This leaves you with Petan, Agostino, Brooks, Barabanov, Rosen, and Kivihalme for the final two squad spots. Alexander Barabanov is one of the players who focused in on Toronto, to the point of coming over early instead of playing fall hockey in Europe. So there will be some sort of spot for him in the pro equation, and I don’t think he’s got his eyes on the Marlies. A route that could be taken here is an in-and-out rotation with Mikko Lehtonen, as both have near identically-priced waiver-exempt, two-way contracts to work with. I’ve got Lehtonen on the main roster as I think there will be more games available for him, but consider the last NHL spot and the first or second taxi squad spot to be interchangeable in this sense.

This brings us to one more remaining spot. I would eliminate Brooks, as he played an injury-riddled 2019/20 and will probably be used full-time on the Marlies instead, and Kivihalme, as he’s the least essential of the bubble defencemen. Of the forwards, both Petan and Agostino have good cases as AAAA-type players, but history implies that Toronto has been more comfortable with the former as a call-up. From there you’re brought down to Petan and Rosen, which will likely come down to roster health at a given time at either level. My lean would be towards Calle Rosen being the primary player to stay up, as the Marlies will likely be in bigger need of top scorers than top defenceman, with the Sandin and Liljegren duo almost assuredly getting massive minutes.

Final Breakdown

Put all of this together, and your 2020/21 Maple Leafs will carry a 21-man main roster and have a Taxi Squad that will likely look something like this:

  • Travis Boyd (pending waivers): Very capable and on a great deal, could even end up with a roster spot should Nick Robertson not be able to keep up in camp.
  • Aaron Dell (pending waivers): Undeniably the third most capable goalie in the organization right now.
  • Martin Marincin (pending waivers): As frustrating as his bad games may be, is still clearly an NHL defenceman. Well liked in the room and willing to sit out, a perfect fit for this situation.
  • Pierre Engvall: His contract makes him difficult to justify over other $700,000 options in the 21-man roster, but likely the best forward in the squad. This move is made possible due to his waiver exempt status.
  • Alexander Barabanov & Mikko Lehtonen: Will likely rotate between the main roster and the taxi squad due to their contract flexibility.
  • Calle Rosen (pending waivers): Gives yet another safety valve should the team’s depth be decimated, and is another smooth-skating option should Lehtonen struggle while that style is necessary.

The players most likely to get a look should short-term additions be necessary: Nic Petan, Kenny Agostino, Teemu Kivihalme, Michael Hutchinson

The players who will be focused on minor league minutes unless they make an undeniable step forward: Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Adam Brooks, Joseph Woll, Ian Scott

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