Toronto Maple Leafs Leverage Flexibility Into Deeper, Better Team

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 28: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates with Andreas Johnsson #18 after beating Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets for a goal during the fist period on December 28, 2018 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 28: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates with Andreas Johnsson #18 after beating Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets for a goal during the fist period on December 28, 2018 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been busy during the opening two days of the NHL Free Agency period.

On Friday the Leafs replaced fourth line winger Kyle Clifford with Wayne Simmonds. Then on Friday night, the Leafs landed a top pairing partner for Morgan Rielly in T.J Brodie.  It was an auspicious beginning to the off-season for the Leafs.

On Saturday the Leafs went even further in remaking their team. They added depth forward Travis Boyd, along with depth defenseman Zach Bogosian.

But the biggest move was sending Andreas Johnsson to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for prospect Joey Anderson.

Let’s dig into all the moves

Toronto Maple Leafs After Free Agency

The Leafs were widely mocked for their cap situation, but I think even their toughest critic has to give them some credit today.  The Leafs addressed team toughness, depth, and their blueline and they were able to come out the other side a much better team, despite the supposed apocalyptical salary cap situation.

The reason the Leafs have been able to maneuver is, as Editor in Leaf has preached all along, and which the team’s GM himself mentioned on Friday, is the flexibility afforded them by having no bad contracts on their roster. 

Sure, you can quibble about what the Toronto Maple Leafs paid their star players, but the team has no interest in getting out of those deals, and we have now seen clear evidence that those deals are not preventing the Leafs from building a contending team.

Many NHL teams (the Leafs, under Lou Lamoriello included) have issues because they overpay for middle-of-the-lineup help.  Last year the Leafs had to pay to get out of the contracts of Nikita Zaitsev and Patrick Marleau because they were negative value contracts.

This year, the Leafs were able to make moves that helped the team improve because the players they had the option to move (Kapanen, Johnsson, Kerfoot, Holl, Engvall, Hyman) all can be expected to outperform their contracts.  This means that not only can you move them if you want to, but you don’t have to pay to do it.  (In fact, in both cases, the Leafs got paid a decent return).

And so Kapanen was sent to Pittsburgh, and Johnsson to New Jersey.  People were awfully quick to complain about having to dump salary, but this is 100% by design. The team’s philosophy of keeping their complimentary players on movable short-term deals is paying off in spades today precisely because of the smart, long-term planning of the Leafs management team.

And if nothing better had of come along, the Leafs could have happily kept both players.  Its all about the options that being flexible gives you.

Credit to Dubas and his scouting team for unearthing Nick Robertson and Alex Barabanov who can replace the outgoing pair of wingers who combined to make $7 million dollars for the league minimum.  That is just solid asset management.

Kapanen was not working out (we rated him an F this year) but Johnsson scored at a first line rate last year and it does hurt to sell low on him after his injury.  However, when you have a good team, you have to make tough decisions.

Depth, Toughness

The Leafs top nine has four obvious core players, and then there were Kapanen, Johnsson, Kerfoot, Hyman, Mikheyev, Robertson and Barabanov.  Its was pretty easy to predict that both Kapanen and Johnsson would be the odd men out due to their salary.

The incredible thing is not only that they replaced them without making their team worse (and adding upside) but that they did it while brining in three prospects, all of whom have at least the same upside as the players they moved.

There is Rodion Amirov, drafted 15th overall, who has top of the draft upside but doesn’t necessarily show it when playing as a 17 year old playing in the world’s second best hockey league.  Add that to his small size and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick: a smaller, skilled forward with a massive ceiling that is a bit of a long shot.

Then you’ve got Filip Hallander, a 20 year old almost sure-thing to play in the NHL, with a high probability of eventually being superior to Kapanen.

Finally there is Joey Anderson, who comes to us in the Johnsson trade. Johnsson is a 22 year old who has already been decent in the NHL and excellent in the AHL.  He’s already scoring more than Andreas Johnsson was at the same age, and while he may never be as good, there is certainly the chance that he is.

In the end, it doesn’t matter.  The Leafs just drafted 12 players (five more than you’re supposed to draft) and they can really use an AHL star for the Marlies who can fill in on the big club in a pinch. Additionally, the team saves a boatload of money that allowed them to get even deeper.

Yes, as a footnote to both this article and the free agency period, the Leafs added Zach Bogosian, a negative value defender whom is extremely huge and mean.

If the Leafs signed this guy to play in their top four, or they paid him any kind of money to do so, I’d be against it.  But, you can never have enough NHL defensemen, you can never have enough depth and you can’t complain about (near) league-minimum deals to anyone.

I am 100% overpaying for “grit” but if you want to bring in some tough guys for a reasonable amount, knock yourself out.  Bogosian, like many slow and defense first players, excels on the PK but can’t cut it when puck-movement is the name of the game (i.e any other time).

I would suspect Bogosian’s main benefit to be silencing critics, but he should also be perfectly fine as Martin Marincin’s replacement as defenseman number seven.  I expect he will fight with Dermott,  Sandin, Liljegren, and Lehtonen for ice time (depending on how many of those guys are still Leafs in three months) and maybe even frustrate the hell out of me by being overplayed.

I really hope, and believe, that the Leafs signed him to be a bench player, but I also thought the same thing about Cody Ceci and they acted like he was good the whole time.  Bogosian – for all I know – could end up on the top pairing a la Ron Hainsey (and to be fair, he is probably better than Hainsey at least).  I hope not, but you never know.

dark. Next. The Trade Rumour We Still Hope Comes True

All in all, it was a spectacular weekend for the Toronto Maple Leafs who are now deeper, tougher, better at defense and still cap compliant. Make no mistake, however.  The only really significant move was adding Brodie. Everything else is just window dressing.

Still, fantastic weekend, and, to top things off, the Toronto Maple Leafs still maintain a ton of flexibility (due to front loading Freddie Andersen’s contract, and having Zach Hyman on an expiring deal).  That is not to say they will still make a move, but only to say they continue to have flexibility and with that, options.