EDITOR’S NOTE :: Check out our North Division Update for the latest on the Maple Leafs.
The Fantastic Four: Tavares, Marner, Matthews, Nylander… The Elder Statesmen: Thornton, Spezza, Simmonds…. The Blue Line: Muzzin, Brodie, Reilly… So much talent up and down the Toronto Maple Leafs roster, it’s almost unfair.
On the surface it appears that there is no way Leafs’ GM Kyle Dubas can hope to protect all of his top players in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Surely the Seattle Kraken will end up with somebody who makes an impact from day one — a top-four defenseman, a top-six forward, a quality goaltender.
Unfortunately, I have some bad news. Seattle won’t be selecting anyone I’ve just mentioned, nor will they be able to get their hands on any of the younger talent Toronto has in key roles in their lineup. Dubas has put on a clinic in cap management — and expansion draft mitigation — and that leaves the Kraken with surprisingly few options.
When you look up and down the Leafs’ roster you quickly realize what Toronto has done. They have a core of about a half-dozen “untouchable” players who will be protected, and they are complimented by talented youngsters who are exempt from the draft, and a large number of players who will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.
So let’s start by saying that the Maple Leafs will employ the 7-3-1 protection scheme, and the following players will be protected:
Forwards: John Tavares (NMC), Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Alexander Kerfoot, Zach Hyman, Pierre Engvall
Defensemen: Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie, Morgan Rielly
Goaltender: Jack Campbell
In addition to those guys, the following players currently seeing regular minutes with the club are exempt from the draft: Ilya Mikheyev, Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren. So we’ve wiped out 8 of the top 12 forwards and 3 of the top 6 defensemen. When you factor in that Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, and newly-acquired Alex Galchenyuk are all UFA at the end of this year, you have now eliminated all but 2 of the players on the Leafs’ roster who don’t tend goal.
Speaking of goaltenders: Frederik Andersen will be UFA at season’s end; Jack Campbell will be protected; leaving 31-year-old 3rd-stringer Michael Hutchinson as the exposed netminder. Youngsters Ian Scott, Joseph Woll, and Veini Vehvilainen are all exempt.
When you consider the fact that the Leafs are atop the North Division and are considered favorites to make the Stanley Cup Semifinals, you realize that Kyle Dubas has been playing 3-D Wizard Chess.
The first thing to say is, the Leafs aren’t done yet. They have the correct number of properly-qualified defensemen and goaltenders to leave exposed, but given the list I have made, they have zero exposed forwards who meet the qualifications for contract status and NHL games played. So before the draft happens they will either need to re-sign or acquire two players who meet the number of games requirement, or they will need to veer off of the list shown above — leaving two of those forwards unprotected.
Assuming they will do that — they don’t really have a choice — and further assuming the forwards they sign or acquire will be minor league fodder on league-minimum deals, there are just 2 skaters who see regular minutes with the Leafs who are likely to be exposed and available to the Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Both are defensemen, and thankfully both represent a decent value for the money.
RD Justin Holl, $2 million AAV, signed through 2023. At 6’4″ and 205 lbs. Holl is what you’d expect from a second pairing defenseman. He plays a stay-at-home style, adding a healthy dose of hits and blocked shots to his dozen or so points in a given year. He is also a PK workhorse, logging the most minutes on the Leafs’ penalty kill, and ranking in the top 20 in the league for total PK minutes this season. In 119 NHL games he has logged 6 goals, 29 assists, and a combined plus-20. For a top-4 defenseman with these additional benefits, $2 million for another 2 years is a very attractive price, especially in the flat-cap era.
LD Travis Dermott, $874,000 AAV, RFA. Drafted by the Leafs in the 2nd round, Dermott is a stay-at-home defenseman who puts up about a dozen assists and a handful of goals in a normal season while maintaining solid plus-minus numbers. He has average size and speed, sees the ice well, and otherwise is unremarkable. He’s never going to be an impact player, but he does his job reliably every night. Dermott plays alongside Bogosian on the bottom pairing, and would be a budget-friendly fit in that same role with the Kraken.
If Ron Francis wants a forward, at this point he’s going to have to look pretty far down the depth chart to find anybody interesting — and I use the term “interesting” very loosely.
LW Nic Petan, $775,000 AAV, RFA. The 5’9″ Petan came screaming out of his years with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks boasting all the promise of a future impact player. 252 games, 358 points (!!!), and a plus-164 over four years. Then came the realities of playing against guys with 6 inches and 25 lbs. on him, and all of a sudden his future wasn’t so bright. He can deliver at the AHL level, with two point-per-game seasons under his belt, but he hasn’t been able to reach even a quarter of that pace in the NHL.
C Adam Brooks, $750,000 AAV, signed through 2022. Pretty much the same story as Petan, except Brooks is a center and stands 5’10”.
C Denis Malgin, $700,000 AAV, RFA. Malgin is yet another diminutive forward in the Leafs’ organ-eye-zation, though he is currently on loan to Lausanne HC back in his native Switzerland. He had attempted to make a go of things with the Florida Panthers and then the Leafs, with limited point production and disappointing plus-minus numbers. If the Leafs have anything to say about it, I would suspect the return to Switzerland will be permanent.
That is, very literally, it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Fighting The Inevitable
It’s apparent from the laser-precise management of the Leafs’ roster that Kyle Dubas has done his homework. He understood he was going to lose a player, and he massaged the roster in such a way as to make sure that the only options the Kraken had were ones of his choosing. Hats off to the man, he has done that masterfully. Additionally, crafting the roster situation so expertly means that there is essentially zero possibility of a deal with Toronto to secure a more viable player — especially with the price having been set so high by Ron Francis in trade discussions with the league’s general managers.
When the rubber hits the road, there is little sense in fighting the inevitable; the Kraken will make their selection from the offerings Toronto has available and move on to other matters. If Seattle is looking to keep the budget low, then Dermott is their man. But if they want the best player available, then Justin Holl will be in a Kraken jersey come October. Seattle will get a lot worse for a lot more money from several other teams in the league.
Both Dermott and Holl should be in the lineup when the Leafs take on the Montreal Canadiens tonight. Game time is 4:30pm Pacific, Wednesday, April 7th on NBCSN.