The Toronto Maple Leafs remain at a contract impasse with William Nylander.
The contract dispute between the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander has highlighted two specific topics about NHL roster construction that I find extremely interesting. The first is the concept of the package trade, and the second is the idea of roster balance.
Virtually all trade proposals, ideas or rumours about Nylander and the Leafs involve trading him for a package of players rather than one specific player. They virtually all centre around the fact that the Leafs, while strong up front, are considered rather weak on the blueline.
I think these are two faulty ideas, and I’ll explain why.
In the NBA, where you play your best players for the majority of the game, it wouldn’t make any sense to have three elite players at any position. Let’s assume you have three elite centres. Sure, you could live with moving one centre to power-forward, but you are almost certainly better off trading the third one for a small forward or a guard. It is extremely obvious that an elite player on the bench is not as good as one at another position that could play the whole game.
But hockey is different.
The large roster size means that the importance of positional balance is lowered. This is why the Leafs pursued John Tavares despite already having Kadri, Matthews, Marner and Nylander. Adding Tavares doesn’t have to take any time away from any of those players *(and Babcock should actually do a better job of getting Kadri to 20 minutes per night, even if he has to play some wing shifts).
Some people say that the Leafs should have forgone Tavares to acquire a defenseman. Forgetting for a second that no comparable defenseman was available as a UFA, the fact is, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
If Tavares is worth x wins per season, and you add a defenseman worth the same, there is no difference. Since so many players take to the ice, it doesn’t matter where you add wins. (Worth noting: WAR or Wins Above Replacement (corsica.hockey), a one-number stat used to estimate how valuable players are says that in the last three years combined, exactly zero of the 30 most valuable players in the NHL were defenseman).
Additionally, while the defenseman might play more minutes, adding Tavares means that teams are forced to select between sending their best players against him or Matthews, creating a preposterous matchup situation in favor of the Leafs. If they had of instead added Erik Karlsson, this would not happen.
And this brings me to William Nylander: If you have to trade him, limiting yourself to only a right handed defenseman in the trade is stupid. For instance, if the Leafs had the option of trading him straight up for either a forward or defenseman, they should pick whoever they think has the higher ceiling and ignore what positions they play, because the fact is, it doesn’t make a difference.
The second concept I wanted to talk about was the idea of trading one elite player for a package of lesser players. The idea is the Leafs would send Nylander to Carolina for a package built around Brett Pesce (he plays on their third pairing, btw) or to Anaheim for Brandon Montour (excuse me, typing that made me puke and I had to take a timeout).
While there is no doubt that both Pesce or Montour would push a current Leafs defenseman out of the lineup, the upgrade wouldn’t be as much as you might think.
The difference between NHL players is microscopic. Even the ones we make fun of, Roman Polak for instance, would blow our minds if they came to our men’s league game. If you played pick-up with Roman Polak, I would guess that you would say he is the best hockey player you’ve ever seen up close. You might consider him better at what he does than anyone you’ve ever met is at the thing that they do.
We forget just how good NHL players are. The elite ones are insane. But the gap between elite players and very good players is bigger than the gap between very good players and replacement players.
As proof, I offer you this: over the last three seasons, there were 1050 players ranked on their WAR. The most valuable player, Connor McDavid, was worth 15.58 WAR, while the worst player in the NHL, Kevin Bieksa, was worth -3.8 WAR. Now, out of over 1000 players, only FIVE had WAR over 10. The other 1040 players had between -3.8 and 10. Only 59 players over three years were worth over 5 WAR.
Therefore, it is a fact that elite players are extremely rare, and should never, ever be traded.
That means that if you have to dump Connor Brown and Zaitsev in order to afford to sign Nylander, and you replace them with rookies, you come out ahead. Forget hockey, in any game getting elite pieces is the most important thing. It’s better to have just Boardwalk and Park Place than to have just a few crappy places. Think about poker, where being last to act gives a decent amateur an advantage a pro.
So even if they traded Nylander to the Hurricanes for Pesce and three other NHL quality players, the Toronto Maple Leafs would lose the trade. This is because the difference between Brett Pesce and Igor Ozhiganov isn’t worth the difference between Nylander and the guy who made the team in his place. Even if you add to Pesce, you still have to take away another player off the Leafs current roster.
Say they got Warren Foegle and Michel Ferland too. Sounds like a good package, but now Leivo and Johnsson are cut. So the trade isn’t just Nylander for Pesce, Foegle and Ferland, it’s also Nylander, Leivo, Johnsson and Ozhiganov. The Leafs get killed.
There is simply no package they can throw at you, within the realm of what is reasonable, that would make it worth it. Since the Leafs are very much in win-now mode, futures don’t even make sense to balance it out.
The bottom line is this: William Nylander for any package of players is an automatic loss. Trading for position just makes it worse.
stats from corsica.hockey