The New Jersey Devils have a lot of cap space. That’s no longer a secret, but what they do with it remains to be seen. The Toronto Maple Leafs, on the other hand, are in a cap crunch and will be hurt by the salary cap remaining at $81.5 million due to revenue loss from COVID-19.
And after another disappointing stay in the playoffs, there will be changes coming for the Maple Leafs. That can’t happen without them shedding some salary, and the Devils may be the perfect team to help them out. Here’s who they could target from the Maple Leafs to improve their roster.
The Maple Leafs acquired Kapanen in the trade that sent Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015. He was a first-round pick of the Penguins but never played in an NHL game for the organization. Instead, he made his NHL debut for the Maple Leafs during the 2015-16 season. He bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL for the next couple of years but was nearly a point per game player for the Toronto Marlies (AHL) in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Kapanen became an NHL regular last season and finished with 20 goals and 44 points in 78 games. He finished 2019-20 with 36 points in 69 games, a 43-point pace over 82 games. That consistency comes from his five-on-five production, as he’s totaled 61 points at that game state, ranked fourth on the Maple Leafs. He’s also averaged 1.90 points per 60 minutes (points/60) while only averaging a touch over 13 minutes of five-on-five ice time.
But if there’s a knock on Kapanen, it’s his defensive game. It’d even be fair to say he’s a defensive liability. He has a total goals above replacement (GAR) of 6.9, though it would be higher if he didn’t have even-strength defensive GAR of minus-5.4. For what it’s worth, that’s the worst number of any forward on the Maple Leafs’ current roster.
The Devils wouldn’t be acquiring Kapanen to be a shutdown defensive forward. The primary focus would be to place him in a scoring role, preferably in the top six. But new Devils’ coach Lindy Ruff would have to shelter Kapanen and keep him out of defensive situations. If he can pull that off, he could continue to be a 40-50 point scorer, which would be solid value since his contract comes with a $3.2 million cap hit for two more seasons.
Kerfoot was an original draft pick of the Devils in the fifth round of the 2012 Draft. He played four seasons for Harvard University (NCAA) but opted for free agency after his senior season rather than signing with the Devils. He ended up agreeing to an entry-level deal with the Colorado Avalanche and totaled 19 goals and 43 points in 82 games as a rookie in 2017-18.
The Maple Leafs acquired Kerfoot last year as part of the trade that sent Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche. He finished with 28 points in 65 games — a 35-point pace over 82 games — this season, his first with the Maple Leafs. He played a bottom-six role, for the most part, with minutes primarily at center.
Kerfoot isn’t a star play by any stretch, but he is an effective two-way center. He’s suppressed shots at a high level and has averaged 1.68 points/60 over the last three seasons. His overall GAR over that span is 21.4, and his impact has been neutral on offense to positive on defense:
The Devils have pretty good depth at center with Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. They also have bottom-six options like Pavel Zacha and Travis Zajac, as well as prospects Mikhail Maltsev and Michael McLeod in the minor leagues.
That said, Kerfoot could be the best choice from those bottom-six options. He’s a more effective five-on-five scorer than Zajac or Zacha. And he’s a better defender than either center. He’s only 26 years old and has a friendly contract that comes with a cap hit of $3.5 million for three more seasons. Plenty of teams build down the middle, and a top-nine anchored by Hischier, Hughes, and Kerfoot would be a decent way to go for the foreseeable future.
Johnsson was a seventh-round pick of the Maple Leafs at the 2013 Draft and has slowly worked his way to becoming an NHL regular. He played three seasons for Frolunda HC in the SHL (Sweden) and had 44 points in 52 games in 2015-16, his last in the SHL. After that, he played two seasons for the Marlies and finished with 54 points in 54 games in 2017-18.
Johnsson became an NHL regular season last season and finished with 43 points in 73 games. He had an injury-plagued 2019-20 and only played in 43 games, finishing with 21 points, though that comes out to a 40-point pace over 82 games.
Over the last two seasons, he’s averaged 2.10 points/60 at five-on-five. While his production may be similar to Kapanen’s, Johnsson has a leg up defensively. That said, the difference isn’t all that significant — he has a defensive GAR of minus-1.5 at even strength. His overall GAR is 10.4, so there’s a decent enough argument to say Johnsson may offer a bit more than Kapanen.
The Maple Leafs re-signed Johnsson to a four-year extension last summer that comes with a cap hit of $3.4 million. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent when the deal expires after the 2022-23 season. But the three remaining years, especially at his cap hit, should make him an enticing trade target for multiple teams.
And one of those would be the Devils. He can play either left or right-wing, both of which are positions of need for the team. He’s not going to play top-line minutes any time soon, but he should help the Devils’ middle six. He could play on the second line alongside Hughes and Kyle Palmieri. Or he could fit in as a third-line scoring winger, something the Devils did not have in 2019-20.
Dermott was a second-round pick of the Maple Leafs at the 2015 Draft. His first pro season came in 2016-17 with the Marlies, where he had 24 points in 59 games. It didn’t take long for him to make the NHL, as he debuted as a 21-year-old during the 2017-18 season, one where he finished with 13 points in 37 games. Since then, he’s seen regular minutes on the Maple Leafs’ blue line, playing in 120 games over the last two seasons while averaging a bit over 17 minutes of ice time.
When thinking of Maple Leafs’ defenders, Morgan Rielly or Jake Muzzin probably come to mind first. But Dermott has quietly been an effective two-way NHL defender. He has an expected goals share (xGF%) of 52.67% over the last three seasons, ranking him in the top 50 of defensemen with 1000-plus minutes at five-on-five. He has an overall GAR of 21.7, as well as an even-strength defensive GAR of 11.2. And his impact at even strength has been positive at both ends of the ice:
Dermott isn’t one of the Maple Leafs’ high-priced contracts. The 23-year-old will be an RFA this offseason and isn’t likely to get a massive pay raise. But the team only has $4.5 million in cap space, with Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci becoming UFAs. Even if they don’t bring back either defenseman, chances are they’ll be looking to make a high-priced addition to boost a lackluster defense.
And with top prospects like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren coming up, that could mean the Maple Leafs are willing to move Dermott. The fact he’s only 23 years old makes him an ideal fit for a team trying to build around two former first overall picks. He won’t fix all the Devils’ defensive issues, but it’s reasonable to think he can play top-four minutes for them. His numbers indicate as much, and he’d certainly be an upgrade over what they had last season.
What About the Big Guns?
There are going to be some changes for the Maple Leafs after losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets in their play-in series. There’ll be plenty of talk about trading one of their high-priced forwards, specifically Mitch Marner or William Nylander. But it’s hard to imagine they’ll trade either winger.
We’ll start with Marner, whose contract comes with a cap hit of $10.8 million through the 2024-25 season. He’d be a fit for the Devils, and they have the cap space to take on his deal. But his contract would take up a large enough portion of their cap space where it may handcuff them a year or two down the road. Plus, the price for acquiring Marner will be astronomically high, and it’s probably not one the Devils will be ready to meet.
Then there’s Nylander, whose deal may be the best value the Maple Leafs have on the books. His contract runs through the 2023-24 season and has a cap hit of $6.9 million. He just finished this season with 31 goals and 59 points in 68 games, and there’s likely room for him to keep getting better. So there’s almost no incentive for the Maple Leafs to trade him, given his contract.
If the two teams connect as trading partners, the Devils have a better shot at adding a depth player rather than a star such as Marner. That wouldn’t be the worst thing, as they need depth on both offense and defense. Johnsson or Kapanen would provide that on the wing, while Kerfoot would give the Devils a strong group of top-nine centers.
If they decide to trade for Dermott, he could give them a top-four, left-handed defenseman, something that’s been a pressing need for a long time. None of those players would push the Devils over the edge. But when you’re a team that has so many needs to address, you have to start somewhere. And they could help the Devils begin laying the foundation to becoming relevant again.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017