2019 Draft Looms Large for the Toronto Maple Leafs

The 2019 NHL Entry Draft might be a defining moment in the Maple Leafs journey towards playoff success.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs own exactly zero (0) first-round draft picks in this year’s draft. That’s probably why, if you’re a Leafs fan, you haven’t heard much about this year’s crop of prospects. Honestly, other than the top-prospects, I don’t know anything about this year’s draft-eligible players—aside from a few names that have been the subject of twitter arguments in the days leading up to the draft.

However, the Leafs need to make their seven picks—one second, one third, two fourths, one fifth, and two seventh-rounders— count for their competitive window to stay open as long as possible. The Leafs are already entering salary cap-hell, and as they continue to swap out depth players like Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev for low-cost rookies like Trevor Moore and Calle Rosén, one of Kyle Dubas’ main priorities lies with keeping the pipeline flowing.

Currently, with the Leafs’ lack of drafting success under ex-Assistant GM Mark Hunter, and the mass promotion of prospects that came with the rebuild, the teams cupboards are bare. They have minimal talent up front with just Pierre Engvall, Jeremy Bracco, Mason Marchment, and (maybe) Adam Brooks as potential solutions that are close to NHL ready. Their future on the blue-line looks brighter mostly because of their past-two first round picks, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. After them, all they have is last year’s fourth-rounder, Mac Hollowell, and their only other promising back-end prospect, Sean Durzi, was shipped out in the Jake Muzzin trade. However, only Sandin is regarded as NHL-ready or close to it, and the Leafs may only begin next season with two of their top-six defenders from last year as Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey are unrestricted free-agents, Nikita Zaitsev will very likely be traded, and Travis Dermott will be out for at least the first month as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery.

The Leafs’ goaltending pipeline is strong, as both Joseph Woll and Ian Scott are highly regarded and had successful seasons this year. The latter is coming off a season in which he won the WHL’s Del Wilson Trophy, the WHL Playoff MVP award, and the CHL Goaltender of the Year award. Somehow, even after a season after that, he is still seen as an inferior prospect to Scott. An that’s not an indictment on Scott; it’s a testament to just how good Woll—and the Leafs’ future goaltending picture—is.

The Main Focus

While fans will expect a good draft haul at the draft, all eyes will be on Kyle Dubas as there are plenty of trades he could make. With that said, let’s explore all possible trade candidates that could be sent out in a deal.

Mitch Marner

Mitch Marner‘s agent, as you likely know, has been making waves in the media, claiming that they will accept an offer-sheet if the Leafs don’t cave in to their demands of more than $11 million AAV. The possibility of a trade will be very real until this situation ends one way or another, but it won’t be at the draft—especially since free agency hasn’t even started yet. They are making calls, though. Now, onto the real candidates for a trade at the draft:

Nikita Zaitsev

To the bewilderment of most hockey analysts, Zaitsev is highly regarded by some teams, with the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks reportedly the front-runners in a potential deal. Zaitsev is the Leafs’ only right-handed defenseman that played in the playoffs, and the stars aligned for the Leafs when he requested a trade for personal reasons that reportedly do not have to do with Mike Babcock or his system. He is very good at stopping the cycle in the defensive zone and recovering the puck, but his issue lies in transition, where he can’t make a pass to his forwards if his life depended on it, and on offence, where he has floundered since being taken off the power play after his rookie season, as he often takes bad point-shots into the shin-pads of opponents, turning the puck over. He did play well in the playoffs with Jake Muzzin against the Bruins’ top line, but it should be noted that Muzzin’s possession numbers fell when paired with Zaitsev.

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After getting 36 points in his rookie season, then-GM Lou Lamoriello signed him to a seven-year deal with a $4.5 million AAV. However, Zaitsev has only had 27 points in the last two seasons, and his contract is in the way of the Leafs signing their restricted free agents like Marner, Andreas Johnsson, and Kasperi Kapanen.

Dubas’ asking price is reportedly a bottom-pairing defender, a mid-round pick, and a prospect, which would be a complete steal of a trade for Kyle Dubas. Hell, before I knew how much interest there actually is in Zaitsev, I would’ve thought getting his contract off the books with no salary retention in exchange for a seventh-rounder is great value. By now, it’s a forgone conclusion that Zaitsev will be dealt; it’s just a matter of for what and when.

Dubas may want to wait until after July 1 to trade Zaitsev, when his $3 million signing bonus will be paid. Zaitsev also has a 10-team No Trade List that kicks in on this date, but he will not use it as he requested a trade.

I’d be comfortable with a trade to either Edmonton or Vancouver with how they’ve managed their teams the past few years. But, with the news that Peter Chiarelli may join the Canucks front office, bring it on, Vancouver!

Connor Brown

The Leafs’ are likely to move Brown for cap relief, as he is an expensive fourth-lined with a $2.1 million cap-hit. Dubas has plenty of options in a potential Brown trade. Brown hasn’t been able to match his 20-goal rookie season in the two since, with 14 and 8 goals the past two years. He has played all 82 games in each season. Perhaps with a larger opportunity, his production will increase back to his rookie levels (and maybe even higher). According to Bob McKenzie, Connor Brown will not be a Leaf next year because of the cap crunch.

The Edmonton Oilers are said to be interested in Brown. This would be an interesting fit as Brown and Connor McDavid were line-mates in the OHL with the Erie Otters. Maybe Brown is the solution to the endless cycle of line-mates for McDavid. He could be included as a sweetener in a Zaitsev deal or a (less likely) Patrick Marleau deal. He also could be paired with Kasperi Kapanen, and the Carolina Hurricanes are said to be interested in this possibility.

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A potential deal with the Oilers could include Matt Benning, who the Leafs have previously been linked to, and he has a cap his of $1.9 million. Jesse Puljujärvi could also be involved in a trade, as he has demanded a trade and threatened playing in Europe is he is not moved. However, he is a RFA and the Leafs would need to ink him to a new deal. Something like Zaitsev + Brown for Benning + Puljujarvi could work for both sides, affording the Leafs some valuable cap space.

According to TSN’s Ryan Rishaug, the Oilers would trade Puljujärvi for a third-line forward. Depending on how they view Connor Brown, he could fit this qualification.

Elliotte Friedman says that the Leafs may also be willing to trade Brown straight up for a second round pick. This would be a great trade for Dubas to make as he continues to replenish the Leafs’ depth through the draft. Could a draft-day trade be in the works, or could he trade for a future pick? Only time will tell.

Patrick Marleau

Patrick Marleau has clearly regressed, and as the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated. The Leafs’ winger will be 40 years old at the beginning of next season, and his cap-hit of $6.25 million keeps getting worse for the Leafs. Marleau has requested a trade back west near San Jose, but his contract puts the Leafs in a tricky situation, as any trade involving Marleau will probably require the Leafs to include a ‘sweetener’ to account for Marleau’s cap-hit.

Potential destinations for Marleau include Colorado, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Marleau reportedly only wants to return to San Jose, but in the wake of Erik Karlsson‘s albatross contract and their slew of free-agents that need re-signing, a reunion seems unlikely unless the Leafs can find a third team to buy Marleau out, similar to the Brooks Orpik deal between Colorado and Washington last year.

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Marleau put his house on the market earlier this month and his family has moved back to San Jose as they reportedly found the transition to Toronto difficult. Yeah, I think he’s gonna waive his no movement clause.

Dubas recently said that there is “a good chance” that Marleau will remain a Maple Leaf next season, but Pierre LeBrun believes that this is solely a media ploy to find more teams willing to take on his salary.

Because Marleau’s deal was signed after the age of 25, a buyout does not get rid of hit $6.25 million cap-hit, which complicates the deal for some teams. Additionally, according to James Mirtle of The Athletic, the final year of his deal is oddly constructed with his $3 million signing bonus split between July and December, and only $1.25 million left to pay in base salary (PAYWALL).

Depending on how much the Leafs are willing to give up, the scope of a deal can vary widely. The Avalanche have reportedly made Tyson Barrie available for trade, and the Leafs could use a good right-handed defender like him. How much would the Leafs need to give up to get a return like this, though? The Leafs are reportedly considering using Brown and/or Kapanen as sweeteners is a potential deal, so they may be able to work something out. According to Mirtle, “Colorado [is not] interested at this time” (PAYWALL), but if their cap situation is alleviated, maybe they would take a second look at Marleau.

Los Angeles is said to be interested in completing a deal, but they would want something in return for taking on his contract. They reportedly want to send a big salary the other way though, which makes it difficult for a trade to materialize. Perhaps the Leafs could pry Tyler Toffoli and his $4.6 million cap-hit out of Los Angeles with a sweetener in the form of Kapanen, Johnsson, or a pick.

The structure of Marleau’s deal makes it more likely for a team near the cap-floor like Arizona to trade for him and complete the buy out. With the Coyotes recent sale to Alex Merulo, their demands have lessened from Kapanen or Johnsson to just “something good to get Arizona to blink.” They reportedly want a prospect in a potential trade, which makes me wonder if the Leafs can sell high on Jeremy Bracco. In his sophomore season with the Marlies, the skilled right-winger has a career-year with 79 points (22-57). He ran the power play from the half-wall in the Mitch Marner role, and although he could impact the Leafs second power-play next year, his 5v5 play left much to be desired. Jeff Veillette’s data has Bracco at a -5.7% Corsi Rel in the regular season, and he was last out of all the Marlies’ regular forwards in the playoffs. With public perception around him still high with his inflated point totals, the Leafs could sell high on Bracco and ship him out to Arizona with Marleau. One wrinkle in these plans is that John Chayka is a staunch supporter of analytics and may not value Bracco highly as a result of his shaky 5v5 play.

Kasperi Kapanen

The Leafs are taking calls on Kapanen, and there is a possibility that he can either be used as a sweetener in a Zaitsev or Marleau deal, or as a centrepiece in a deal for a defender. He is a RFA, so the Leafs would be trading his rights in any deal.

According to Darren Dreger, the Leafs would only deal Kapanen if they receive back-end help in return. Pierre LeBrun says that Carolina has interest in Kapanen and Brown, and that the two teams recently discussed a deal that would send a package based around Brett Pesce to Toronto for Kapanen and Brown. Talks quickly ceased as Carolina wants to keep Pesce.

Earlier in the offseason, LeBrun said that the Hurricanes could have interest in doing a Kapanen + Zaitsev for Pesce/Dougie Hamilton/Justin Faulk, so the interest in Kapanen is apparent. Any of those defenders would greatly help the Leafs next year and undoubtedly step into the top-line with Morgan Rielly since all of them are right-handed.

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Another rumour has the Leafs trading Kapanen for Zaitsev for Kris Letang. Kevin McGran said that Pittsburgh “was one possibility that “makes sense” according to a source.” The Penguins have told teams that any trade would any trade would need to include a package of at least “an impact player on a controllable contract and/or a projected future salary-cap hit that was reasonable” (PAYWALL), according to The Athletic’s Rob Rossi. He also said that two unspecified teams, both from the Eastern Conference, have recently contacted Penguins GM Jim Rutherford about Letang, and that Letang would accept a trade to either team. One of these clubs could very well be the Leafs.

No matter what, expect the Leafs to receive a right-handed defender if they choose to trade Kapanen.

Nazem Kadri

Nazem Kadri most likely will not be traded. They’re taking calls on him, and would need a centre back in any trade, according to Dreger.

Kyle Dubas said that it is his “full intention” that Kadri will be back with the Leafs next year.

Most of the chatter was sparked by Kadri getting suspended in the playoffs for a retaliatory hit for the second year in a row in Game 2 of the Leafs’ first round series against the Boston Bruins.

Garret Sparks

Garret Sparks is being shopped after a horrendous year as the Leafs’ backup. He was sent home the day before the Leafs’ first playoff game to focus on the basics as the Leafs’ recalled AHL goaltender Michael Hutchinson. Yeah, it was that bad.

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Our Matthew Ricks wrote about Sparks being shopped here. I don’t expect for Sparks to get anything more than a late pick, but given his age and the fact that he is only two years removed from his career-year in the AHL, he could hold more value. If the Leafs were able to get a seventh-rounder for Jhonas Enroth in 2017, I’m confident Sparks could net them at least that, or maybe even a fifth or sixth-round pick.

Other Trade Chatter

I’m not sure who the Leafs would trade for him, but TJ Brodie seems like a prime trade candidate and the Leafs have shown interest. Not so sure what the Leafs are going for here given that he is a left-hand shot, but hey, anything’s better than Ron Hainsey, right?

Each of the names above, with the exception of Kasperi Kapanen, are on the TSN Trade Bait board, with Zaitsev coming in at #1. All eyes are on them and Kyle Dubas will most likely be busy on the phones these next few days at the NHL Draft in Vancouver.

Contract details taken from capfriendly.com

Statistics taken from eliteprospects.com, hockey-reference.com and NHL.com

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