The Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes continue to be linked in trade rumours, for obvious reasons.
Each has a surplus of what the other covets. The Hurricanes have four right-shot defensemen in their top-six and the Maple Leafs have been searching for a right-shot blueliner for quite some time. Meanwhile, the Leafs have plenty of scoring depth up front, something the Hurricanes have been public about wanting more of, even after last month’s acquisition of Nino Niederreiter.
The Toronto media circled back to the Hurricanes as a potential trading partner this week partly because Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock changed his pairings halfway through Tuesday’s 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche. He put Morgan Rielly back on the left side with Ron Hainsey, as opposed to keeping Rielly with the newly-acquired Jake Muzzin (which requires Rielly to play on the right).
Leafs D at practice
So, Babcock sticking with the changes made last night
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 13, 2019
Yes, Ron Hainsey plays the right side despite shooting left — he’s done it for much of his career. Rielly tried that with Muzzin and Babcock changed it, saying it’s because “he provides way more offence, way more shots and he’s a better player over [on the left].” Given these changes, and the fact that it means Hainsey will once again log too many minutes, the best solution is to do whatever it takes to trade for that coveted right-shot defenseman.
On TSN 1050 this week, the Hurricanes discussions revolved around two players: 25-year-old Dougie Hamilton and 24-year-old Brett Pesce.
On OverDrive with Bryan Hayes, Jeff O’Neill and Darren Dutchyshen, plus Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie, the Pesce to Toronto possibility was discussed. The clip was later titled “Would Pesce be an Upgrade on Defense Over Zaitsev?” On Wednesday, OverDrive guest host Gord Miller and Dave Feschuk, along with Hockey Insider Darren Dreger, asked if the Maple Leafs should be interested in Hamilton over anyone else.
This article will show why Pesce is the better option of the two.
Yes, Pesce is a Gigantic Upgrade Over Zaitsev
First thing’s first: Nikita Zaitsev has basically had a negative impact on the Maple Leafs this season. It’s not just because he only has seven points in 56 games. I’m talking from a defensive perspective. Zaitsev is just outside the top-20 in the NHL in giveaways-per-60 minutes (giveaways/60) at five-on-five, with 2.85 (min. 750 minutes played). That’s more giveaways/60 than Jake Gardiner! At the same time, he is tied for 12th-last in takeaways-per-60 (takeaways/60) with 0.51. Let’s just say that combination is very poor.
On the other hand, Pesce has averaged 1.33 giveaways/60 (11th-least) and 1.95 takeaways/60 (11th-best).
Thanks to Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz.com, we can also see that throughout Zaitsev’s career (not just in 2018-19), the Leafs allow more chances against at five-on-five when he is on the ice. Compare that to Pesce, who lowers the threat level in the defensive zone.
The great thing about Pesce is all of that blue right in front of the net. That’s where most of the shots against have been mitigated. With Zaitsev on the ice at even-strength, the Maple Leafs threat level against is 10 per cent higher, and a lot of that red is concentrated right in front of the net.
The last reason Pesce is a huge upgrade is his ability to prevent entries.
Pesce’s zone exit numbers are not great, but he sits in the 83rd percentile in breakups per-60 minutes over the last three seasons. He’s also surprisingly good at helping his team enter the offensive zone often, and with possession. Zaitsev, meanwhile, is ugly in all areas.
Pesce’s Acquisition Cost is Cheaper
The only argument that has been laid out so far is that Pesce is better than Zaitsev (duh!). But isn’t Hamilton also better than Zaitsev? Yes, very much so.
One reason Pesce is a better option for the Maple Leafs is because he doesn’t have the same offensive pedigree as Hamilton, which makes the cost to acquire him less. Since 2013-14, Hamilton has scored 69 times, the ninth-most among NHL defensemen. At even-strength, he has 48 goals, which is the seventh-highest total. Pesce, meanwhile, has 14 career goals in 264 games. Hamilton scored more goals last season alone (17) than Pesce has in his entire career thus far.
In my mind, this is important because any deal involving Hamilton will require the Leafs to send back either Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson. For me, that’s what the Leafs want to avoid. Interestingly, McKenzie thinks that will be the same ask for Pesce, as he said on TSN 1050.
If I’m looking at it from the outside in, I’m saying, ‘If you perceive Pesce to be an upgrade on Zaitsev, could you include Zaitsev in the package plus something else’…or does Carolina say, ‘No, we want Kapanen or Johnsson for a top-four right-shot defenseman that’s got multiple years at a club friendly number — that’s the price.’ Then it becomes well do we want to do that deal? Or we that excited about Pesce or somebody like him that we’re going to give up one of our prime young players who we might not be able to afford long-term, but don’t have any issue with right now?
I get that the Hurricanes would ask for one of Kapanen or Johnsson but that doesn’t mean they can’t be talked down. It’s much more likely they can be talked down for Pesce, as opposed to Hamilton, because of today’s emphasis on scoring.
Maple Leafs Need Defender, Not Another Offensive D-Man
We’ve looked at Pesce’s strong defensive numbers at five-on-five already. How do they stack up against Hamilton?
From a defensive perspective, pretty well, in fact. Yes, Hamilton has an extremely positive impact on offence at even-strength (12 per cent higher threat level), but that’s not what the Maple Leafs covet. They need a positionally-sound blueliner who can also help the penalty kill. As the heat map shows, Pesce has a very positive impact on the PK, lowering the threat level by 13 per cent. Hamilton meanwhile, hurts the PK considerably, raising the threat level 20 per cent.
Pesce Has More Cost Certainty
When Hamilton was a member of the Calgary Flames in the summer of 2015, he signed a six-year contract extension worth $34.5 million. That’s an annual-average-value (AAV) of $5.75 million. There are only two years remaining after this season. It’s not a bad contract, but Pesce is on one of the most team-friendly deals in the league. He is signed through the 2023-24 season with a cap hit of just $4.025 million per season and he’s also only 24-years-old.
Related – Maple Leafs: Making Sense of Wacky Stats
For a team with cap issues on the horizon, taking on $5.75 million for the next two seasons won’t be easy, even with Gardiner likely gone this summer. When that contract expires, he will also require a raise. Managing Pesce’s $4.025 cap hit for the next five seasons is much more digestible.
Possible Package for Pesce
In The Athletic this week, James Mirtle outlined the most valuable assets the Leafs have in a potential trade. Prospects Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren topped the list, followed by the team’s 2020 first-round pick, then Toronto Marlies winger Jeremy Bracco and then the Maple Leafs’ 2019 second-round pick. (from ‘Toronto Maple Leafs trade deadline primer: Kyle Dubas’ search for that elusive final piece’ – The AthleticNHL – 2/12/19) Ignoring the fact that the first two are not going anywhere, the problem with Pesce is the Hurricanes have stressed the need for a current top-six forward. They don’t want futures.
They’re not interested in Bracco, Connor Brown and the Leafs’ 2020 first-round pick. It’s not what they want. That’s why the right package requires a compromise: Kapanen or Johnsson plus Zaitsev for Pesce.
This way, the Hurricanes get their guy — one of Johnsson or Kapanen — but they also help the Leafs get away from a really bad contract of their own, one that pays Zaitsev $4.5 million per season until 2023-24. The Maple Leafs would actually free up roughly $1 million, while also getting their right-shot defenseman.
It’s a bit of a steep price to pay, but it might just be worth it. As discussed, Pesce’s defensive impact at even-strength and on the penalty kill is significant, and the Maple Leafs would have him controlled for five more seasons at a reasonable number. Perhaps most importantly, they get out from that awful Zaitsev deal, which might be the biggest win of all.
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.