With each victory, the Toronto Maple Leafs inch closer to the Stanley Cup playoffs. New head coach Sheldon Keefe has done something right, and the team’s elite players are playing as if they’re truly elite. In addition, secondary scoring complements scoring from the top lines.
For example, in Friday night’s game in New York against the Rangers, nine different Maple Leafs players hit the score sheet. Both William Nylander and Mitch Marner scored twice. The team got a goal each from Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev. And, of course, Frederik Andersen stood tall in goal.
Things are on the right path, and the team’s moving towards the playoffs. They’re far from a lock, and there’s lots of hockey still to play. Still…
As you’re reading this post, at this point you might expect some dire prediction or caution that suggests a playoff run isn’t a sure thing and there’s a chance the Maple Leafs won’t make the postseason. Honestly, I don’t believe that for a second.
Instead, I want to explore another possibility. Even if the Maple Leafs make the Stanley Cup playoffs, should they be sellers at the trade deadline?
Elliotte Friedman Is a Hockey Thinker
I’m not sure Elliotte Friedman ever laced up skates in his life, but I’ve come to respect him as a hockey thinker. Every once in a while he throws out something that simply defies traditional ways of hockey thinking and culture-in-action (what hockey teams seem to accept as the way things should be done). He makes me think.
A few days ago, in his 31 Thoughts, Friedman was pointing out how interesting the “rental market” is – even the idea of it. Indeed, in the shadow of the salary cap, most successful hockey teams tend to be maxed in terms of the upper limit of the salary cap. That makes player movement not only likely but required to reward player success. Few players, except for the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon, seem willing to sign team-friendly contracts.
Teams Likely to Miss the Playoffs
Furthermore, at the trade deadline, if a team certainly won’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs it will likely trade players with expiring contracts if there’s no chance that player will re-sign next season because of a lack of salary-cap space prevents a higher contract.
When a team won’t make the playoffs, it usually becomes a trade-deadline seller. It’s accepted that it’s better for a team to throw in its cards for the season and to get something by trading a player to another team that believes it’s on a Stanley Cup path this season.
That, specifically, was the case with Taylor Hall’s move from the New Jersey Devils to the Arizona Coyotes this week. The Devils were not going to make the playoffs; Hall was on an expiring contract and New Jersey had little chance of re-signing him; and, the Coyotes were first in the Pacific Division and believe Hall – even if only as a rental for a half of this season – could provide that extra boost the team needs for a long playoff run.
At the same time, typically a team that knows it will make the postseason playoffs chooses to keep players on expiring contracts – even if the team knows it can’t re-sign those players during the offseason – because it wants the strongest roster it can ice for the playoffs. That was the situation with Jake Gardiner last season. When the Maple Leafs lost in the first round to the Boston Bruins, Gardiner was likely gone without a return. Indeed, that was the case.
Different Way to Think About Selling at the Trade Deadline?
But, are there cases where a playoff team should be sellers at the trade deadline? Friedman suggested there might be. Specifically, he named teams who wanted to win but who still might “shuffle their deck.” He noted the Calgary Flames who might trade expiring contracts T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic, the Florida Panthers might trade Mike Hoffman, and the Nashville Predators – although they aren’t likely to make a playoff run even if they made it – might trade Mikael Granlund.
So, let’s consider the Maple Leafs, who have two very high-quality defensemen on expiring contracts – Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin. Is there any chance the Maple Leafs might both make the playoffs and consider themselves potential sellers this season, given that both Barrie and Muzzin would be high-value rentals who might bring a high return to the team.
Friedman pointed out how many potential rentals currently play for teams trying to win the Stanley Cup, which typically negates their availability. Usually, as I noted, these teams let these players finish the season, get nothing for them, they sign with another team in the offseason, and the team deals with the problems later.
Is Friedman Ahead of the Curve?
Friedman’s speculation interests me. Perhaps he didn’t purposely try to generate a reconsideration of the NHL’s rental system as it currently plays out, but he’s a smart guy and might have been thinking just that. In addition, given that general manager Kyle Dubas is also intelligent, one has to think the consideration of both going for a Stanley Cup run and getting good return value by trading expiring contracts has at least come up in his thoughts and conversations.
Dubas, similar to any NHL general manager, has at least two issues to deal with yearly. First, he has to consider the shorter term “How do we win this season?” question. Second, he has to think of the longer term “How do we build a competitive team season after season?”
As well, there’s the upper limit of the salary cap – especially given that the team has huge investment in four players who make almost $40 million of that $81.5 million. Dubas probably can’t re-sign either Muzzin or Barrie during the offseason. He also needs salary cap relief, which having younger players on entry-level contracts would allow.
So, here’s my thought. Why not become sellers at the trade deadline and get high-quality prospects in return for Barrie and Muzzin and build your team for the future? And, do it at the same time as you take this team into the playoffs. It means trusting young Marlies’ players or seasoned bottom-pairings veterans. But, would it be worse than last season?
Where the Maple Leafs Stand Right Now
As it stands now, the mood on the Maple Leafs seems optimistic, and I don’t see the team trading anyone because they are firmly in a playoff hunt. However, even if things don’t go south, the Maple Leafs have interesting decisions to make. The team can hardly be a buyer, given its salary structure. But, should they be sellers?
Should the team think longer term, rather than shorter term? What’s the cost? What’s the benefit?