Toronto Maple Leafs: What Happens When Willy Signs?

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 19: Tyler Ennis #63 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal with teammates against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the second period at the Scotiabank Arena on November 19, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 19: Tyler Ennis #63 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal with teammates against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the second period at the Scotiabank Arena on November 19, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images) /

If the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander ultimately reach a deal by 5:00 PM today, someone will need to hit waivers.

Who’s it going to be?

This has perhaps been the Nylander saga’s true burning with the stalemate now turning the corner into the final hours. And a difficult one at that, considering how not a single player has put forth a compelling case for demotion. Even Frederik Gauthier, who retreated back to the press box on Wednesday upon Auston Matthews’ return, would probably crack at least 20 other NHL lineups.

Such are the struggles of a ridiculously good team.

The question is now less “who deserves to be waived?” and more “who deserves to stay the least?”

Let’s find out.

Andreas Johnsson

Ask this question a little over a week ago and my answer would likely be entirely different.

Honestly, if Andreas Johnsson hadn’t downright torched his former teammate, Calvin Pickard, for a first-period hat trick against Philly last Saturday night – and potentially gotten Ron Hextall fired in the process – he may have very well been the odd man out here. And not from lack of talent, either. Rather, Johnsson’s hypothetical demotion would have been due to the simple fact that, of the Leafs’ bottom-six forward group, he remains the only one still capable of bypassing waivers.

Asset management dictates that it’s better to stash a guy in the AHL than lose another asset altogether.

There’s no way this happens now.

Not only has Johnsson been on a tear as of late, with 5 points in his last 3 games, he was, in turn, given a spot on Toronto’s de-facto first line Wednesday alongside Matthews. Unless we’re talking about Alexander Suglabov (remember him?) it’s highly unlikely to ever see a player go from first liner one night to AHL-bound the next.

Johnsson is safe. Exactly as he should be.

Josh Leivo

This is probably Mike Babcock‘s go-to move if we’re being honest. Scratching Josh Leivo is all but second nature to him at this point – ingrained deep within his muscle memory from years upon years of repetition.

Alright, so Leivo didn’t blossom into the perennial 20-goal scorer everyone thought he’d be if ever given regular minutes. 6 points in 26 games are nothing to write home about and playing the bulk of his time with Frederik Gauthier (we’ll get to him) hasn’t done him any favours either.

Nevertheless, Leivo has still emerged to be an effective contributor.

His 5v5 CF/60 of 50.9% shows that Leivo only continues to demonstrate an innate ability to drive possession, even in a fourth line role, with his positive Corsi rel% of 1.8 backing up that notion nicely.

Sure, his stat line indeed looks a tad bleak. Then again, starting just 39% of your shifts in the offensive zone probably makes offensive production decidedly hard to come by, no matter who your linemates are.

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that Leivo deserves more glory than he’s been given thus far.

Still, of the all the guys on the chopping block, Leivo remains the one most likely to go. Stop me if you’ve hard that one before. He’d have to hit waivers in the event the Leafs ultimately pull the trigger, but I highly doubt that rival GMs would be clamouring to put in a claim for a 25-year-old winger with 6 points on the year.

Just trade him to Edmonton. They need all the help they can get.

Tyler Ennis

What a signing Tyler Ennis has proven himself to be, eh?

While his underlying numbers are less enticing than Leivo’s (a 47.6% CF/60 at 5v5 with a -2.3 Corsi rel%) Ennis still counts just $650,000 against the cap and likely symbolizes the ideal type of depth signing a contending team should make to ease their cap crunch. All in all, Ennis has been perfectly suitable thus far and, once Willy returns, will almost certainly see a spike in offence resulting from the two roaming the second PP unit together.

You could probably make an equally compelling argument that either Ennis or Leivo should be the odd man out and I’d believe you. We’re undoubtedly splitting hairs here. It’s just that, in Babcock’s mind, he’s generally operated under a “tie goes to the veteran” mentality.

Ennis is the vet. There’s a good chance he’s safe.

Frederik Gauthier

Frederik Gauthier has been bailed out by two simple facts throughout most of his career: a) he’s 6’5″ and b) he’s a centre. That trend is likely to continue here.

If the hammer ultimately falls on Gauthier, he’ll need to go through waivers first and will almost certainly get claimed. If there’s one thing GMs love, it’s tall centres with first-round pedigree and Gauthier fits the bill to a tee. The Leafs will have then surrendered an asset for no return at a position group which lacks NHL-ready depth outside of the top-9.

While he may be the most deserving candidate to hit the road upon Willy’s return, Gauthier is a good bet to escape the chopping block for reasons not entirely due to his actual play.

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