The Leafs don't need to be sellers, but they should play the sellers market

Jeff Veillette
February 24 2017 09:45AM

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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

The NHL trade deadline is now less than a week away, and teams are finally starting to talk to each other and (gasp) even make some deals. In the past ten days, we've seen the following trades go down:

  • February 15th: Los Angeles trades Tom Gilbert to Washington for Future Considerations
  • February 18th: New Jersey trades Sergei Kalinin to Toronto for Viktor Loov
  • February 20th: Arizona trades Michael Stone to Calgary for a 2017 3rd Round Pick and a conditional 2018 5th Round Pick
  • February 21st: Carolina trades Keegan Lowe to Montreal for Philip Samuelsson
  • February 23rd: Carolina trades Ron Hainsey to Pittsburgh for Danny Kristo and a 2017 2nd Round Pick

This group of five is a mixed bag. The first two deals, one of which involves the very same Maple Leafs that this blog covers, veer closer to the side of "player dumped to some other team for nothing", but in the case of both Gilbert and Kalinin, both trades occurred to take advantage of their waiver status (that is to say, the fact they can play in the AHL as needed and, for the next few weeks, bounce back and forth). Lowe for Samuelsson feels like a change of scenery move for two prospects spinning their tires.

But the remaining two moves, where Michael Stone and Ron Hainsey found new homes, are really interesting. Both are veterans (though Hainsey is much older at 35 than Stone at 27), both had decent but not gigantic cap hits, and both are expected to play in more sheltered roles with their new clubs, who look to not completely overhaul their defensive depth.

The returns? A bit more than anybody expected initially. Stone, who has historically struggled without a top-end defensive partner and started his season off with a concussion, fetched two picks. Hainsey fetched a second round pick due to Carolina's retention of salary. The market has suddenly been reset, after situations like Gilberts, the waiver bouncings and clearings of many young-ish defenders, and the pennies on the dollar movement of Nikita Nesterov to Montreal. That the depth players would be the ones being cashed in for picks this year seems nonsensical at first, but it's reflective of where the league stands right now.

After all, if you want to rent a top player? They're mostly on top teams, or teams that believe that they're in that territory. The Thorntons, Radulovs, even the Jagrs and Kunitzes of the will all likely ride the wave through to July, and possibly even re-up with the groups they're with now. Kevin Shattenkirk might move, but the St. Louis Blues want a very good return if they make that decision; hardly surprising given that the Blues are still very much in the playoff picture and, well, could use a Kevin Shattenkirk to stay there.

Combine this with the fact that most of the league just doesn't have much cap space to work with, and most are within a few contracts of the limit of 50, and it's leading to a situation where assets that can help a team make an extra are driving the market, more so than the ones who can help them make a big leap; especially if they come cheap. That's where the Leafs need to be diligent.

Toronto has seven unrestricted free agent skaters in the organization right now, all of whom currently take on bottom line/pair roles or play on the Marlies. They are as follows:

Player Age Role Cap Hit Today Hit 50%
Ben Smith 28 4th Line C + PK 675,000 168,750 84,375
Roman Polak 30 3rd Pair D + PK 2,250,000 562,500 281,250
Matt Hunwick 31 3rd Pair D + PK 1,200,000 300,000 150,000
Brooks Laich 33 Marlies Middle 6 C + PK 4,500,000 1,125,000 562,500
Milan Michalek 32 Marlies MIA 4,000,000 1,000,000 500,000
Colin Greening 30 Marlies Wherever Needed 2,850,000 712,500 356,250
Andrew Campbell 29 Marlies Top-2 + PK + Captain 575,000 143,750 71,875

With the season now at the three-quarter mark, this core of non-core players can be had at, well, 75% off. This is particularly useful with the Marlies burial trio of Laich, Greening, and Michalek; most notable with Laich, who recently suggested that he'd like to be moved, and least notable with Michalek, who hasn't really been around of late and is likely done playing, at least for the year.

It also brings the costs down in everybody's favourite polarizing third defensive pair: the entirety of "Hunlak" could theoretically be picked up by a team solely focused on their penalty kill for under $900,000. Individually, both players come in at under $600,000 for the rest of the season. If your team specifically wants faceoff prowess, Ben Smith can be had for a song. Lastly, while I think he's probably not being moved given the negligible odds of a return and the value he adds to an injury-riddled Marlies roster, Andrew Campbell also has a peanut-esque cap hit if he starts playing NHL games today.

An advantage that the Leafs also have here is the fact that, like the Hurricanes, they can retain some salary; perhaps even more so since they have more actual money to burn. Toronto has two of their three retention spots available to them (the third used by Phil Kessel), meaning that as long as someone is willing to give up the assets, there aren't really many teams that can't pull the trigger financially on any of these guys.

The debate will obviously rage, especially in the case of Smith, Polak, and Hunwick, as to whether it's better to hold onto them for the stretch. Certainly, those three have moments where they bring bits and pieces of value, and the hope is that their positive traits will rub off on the younger core, but it's not like the team would be devoid of veteran presence without them, and even if you're of the opinion that they are slightly better players than the Gauthiers, Corrados, and Marchenkos of the bunch, the Leafs have an ample supply of tweener depth in the present to, in the worst case scenario, mostly fill those voids, and in the best case scenario, maybe get even better with a more mobile and creative group of replacement players.

The key to this, obviously, would be to get some form of return, be it in additional prospect depth in areas where the Leafs could use more dice rolls (defence and possibly one more goaltending prospect), or more picks to use in this year's draft. While there's been some criticism of this year's draft due to the lack of potential mega-star at the top, a wise scouting department (which Toronto has mostly proven to be recently), can always use more pitches to swing at in the mid to late rounds, and while having seven picks in the draft at the moment is nice, having eight or more would be even nicer.

By no means does Toronto have to go into complete firesale mode. If anything, there may still be alternative areas where they could, and possibly should, be buyers, taking advantage of their massive cap flexibility in over the next 16 months. But, with the market inching towards being one where depth veterans will be the ones that get cashed in, it's not a stretch to believe that Toronto should cash out the group they have, let their current bubble youth take the wheel in those lower-minute spots, and give themselves some more opportunity to restock the cupboards that are starting to empty as their first wave of youth graduates.

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Managing Editor of Hockey Content at the Nation Network. Just here so I'll get the opposite of fined. If you'd like to collaborate or simply have a question, email me at jeff@veillette.me
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