By James Mirtle Oct 10, 2020
It has been a busy little Thanksgiving weekend for the Maple Leafs so far, friends.
Let’s list the day’s moves, one by one, in order of significance.
After T.J. Brodie and Wayne Simmonds were signed on the first day of free agency Friday, the following went down on Day 2:
1. The Leafs moved Andreas Johnsson and his full $3.4 million salary (for three more years) to the Devils.
2. They signed veteran defenceman Zach Bogosian for one year at $1 million.
3. They added 22-year-old winger Joey Anderson as the sole return for Johnsson.
4. They signed depth centre Travis Boyd for one year at league minimum ($700,000).
5. Ilya Mikheyev, a restricted free agent, filed for arbitration.
Three players in, one player out. Some much-needed cap space created. And some shuffling at key depth positions that we knew was coming after more seismic moves Friday.
Let’s start with Johnsson and the cap situation and we’ll get into the other ramifications of what happened Saturday further down.
After the Brodie signing, there was going to be a cap casualty for the Leafs. The roster simply wasn’t workable the way it was — no matter how much of a warlock Brandon Pridham is supposed to be.
Johnsson made the most sense to go. And I think the deal with the Devils made sense given (a) the Leafs didn’t have to give up anything extra to sweeten the trade, (b) they didn’t have to retain salary and (c) they received a player who is potentially of some value.
Moving money right now is not simple. The number of teams willing to take on contracts, especially for middle-of-the-roster players, is dwindling, and a guy who scored 29 goals two years ago and just won a Cup (Tyler Johnson) cleared waivers earlier in the day.
That’s a new environment for this league.
I don’t know what Joey Anderson is going to be, but he was one of the Devils’ top prospects. He’s something. He’ll sign for around the league minimum (or take his qualifying offer) and join a growing list of players, including Boyd, who will be battling for fourth-line minutes in Toronto. There’s upside there, given what he did in college and the AHL.
The Leafs are going to have to make more of these manoeuvres in the coming years, trading established veteran supporting types for prospects they project to fill those roles for less money. Anderson isn’t Johnsson today, but he’s four years younger and one-fifth the price. They’re projecting.
So, speaking of cap space, let’s get into the numbers. But before I do, I’ll note that Mikheyev filing for arbitration had my inbox pinging with various execs and agents debating his case. He has played just 39 NHL games, because of injury, and if you look at the comparables for players in that range, they received very little.
I’ve been projecting Mikheyev’s next deal to be in the $1.5 million to $2 million range all offseason, but there’s a possibility it’s far lower. If based just on comps, as would be the case in arb, it falls closer to $1 million. Or maybe even less.
The reality is there’s no real precedent for a player like him going to arb with so few games played. So this is a weird one.
Whether Mikheyev will stay for a low-dollar figure rather than going to the KHL, only the player knows for sure. But the Leafs may squeeze more there if they need to. The outside observers I talked to do not believe arbitration helps his case, especially given Toronto can now elect for a two-year award. If he opts to go back to the KHL, meanwhile, Mikheyev can’t ever come back to the NHL without playing for whatever the puny settlement figure is.
Moving out Johnsson alleviates the need to make that process painful (as arb often is), but I must say that I’m beginning to believe Mikheyev and fellow RFA Travis Dermott could both get less than we were expecting. So I’m going to reflect lower numbers in this roster and cap projection. Your methods may vary.
Here’s the Leafs’ projected 23-man roster with Johnsson removed, the new depth pieces included and new salary estimates for the RFAs.
This lineup is roughly $1.25 million over the cap at this point, but this also isn’t a finished canvas. More moves are coming, which I’ll get into a little later.
Besides, I don’t expect the Leafs to carry a full 23-player roster at all next season, so the overage is almost irrelevant. Demote two players and you’re comfortably under. The Leafs have plenty of waiver-exempt players, and operating at a minimum 20 on the roster at times makes a lot of sense given that any excess cap space will accrue over time.
They can pretty easily get to roughly $1.7 million under the cap by demoting three players listed here. There’s wiggle room.
I talked a little bit about Anderson already, but Boyd and Bogosian are worth examining as well. Boyd gives them another option at 4C, although he’s really struggled to win faceoffs in the NHL (39.5 percent) and at 27 years old has played only 85 games in the league.
Consider him an inexpensive tweener to run out when there are injuries up front.
Bogosian, meanwhile, is a complicating factor. Yes, he just won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning and had some good moments during that run. And the Leafs wanted to add a heavier element to their blue line. He also didn’t cost much. I get it.
But to me, there are way too many NHL-calibre D now on this team. I haven’t even included Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren, who are now buried at eighth and ninth on the depth chart. Then you have Calle Rosen and Martin Marincin at 10 and 11.
And how will you find enough minutes for Dermott, Lehtonen and Holl, if Brodie and Bogosian are pushing them down?
Something sure looks like it has to give there. If Bogosian was simply a seventh D who filled in in case of injury, that’s one thing, but my guess is he doesn’t sign in Toronto on Day 2 of free agency without an understanding that he’s going to play regularly. If he’s in most nights, who’s out?
Add to that the fact there is some real bargain buying about to happen around the NHL. There are still 67 UFAs out there who played at least 35 games in the NHL last season, including a slew of big names.
There are four 20-goal scorers unsigned. Three former Hart Trophy winners. Eleven players who had a half a point a game or better. And the more the money dries up signing the remaining big fish (Alex Pietrangelo, Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman, Tyler Toffoli, etc.) the more those lower down the UFA food chain will get squeezed.
With Johnsson on the roster, the Leafs had a significant opportunity cost problem in which they couldn’t get involved in buying on any of the discounted free agents because they were dedicating $3.4 million to a third-line winger who isn’t dramatically better than some of the UFAs left hanging out there.
Now they have a path to do so, especially if they’re willing to move out players like, perhaps, Holl and Engvall, freeing up their $3.25 million to add impact players for far less than they would cost in a normal offseason.
One player I’ve heard the Leafs kicked tires on was Lucas Wallmark, the 25-year-old Swedish centre who split last season between Carolina and Florida. He isn’t flashy, but he can win draws and play a reliable 13 or 14 minutes a night for a good team. He’s produced at a 30-point pace in the past.
If there are versatile pieces like that signing for $1 million or less, why hold on to players with less upside whom you’re paying more? Why keep a crowded roster intact, preventing young players from getting more opportunity, if you don’t have to?
Johnsson is a good little hockey player, and he may well thrive in New Jersey, where the lineup is wide open. But the way things were when he was signed and the way money is being spent now is dramatically different.
All this leads me to believe the Leafs aren’t done here. In dumping Johnsson, they opened enough cap space to make their situation far more flexible. They also added three NHL-calibre depth pieces. But the landscape around the league is such that it doesn’t make sense to check out early on the market.
Among Brodie, Simmonds, Bogosian, Boyd, Anderson, Barabanov and Lehtonen, the Leafs will have seven new faces play for them in 2020-21, whenever it begins. That’s half their D core and up to a third of their top 12 forwards.
They’re certainly different. And that number could keep climbing here in the coming weeks.
It should be interesting.