30 IN 30 - TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (14th place)
Well well well, finally made it to the Big Smoke. How the fortunes have changed for this franchise in just a year's time. Love 'em or hate 'em, Austin Matthews is the real deal. This kid made quite the impact in year one, finishing t-2 in goals, t-20 in points, and a runaway favourite for the Calder trophy (sorry Jets fans). But let's not forget the rest of his boy band; Mitch Marner and William Nylander also placed within the league's top-40 point getters at the tender ages of 19 and 20 respectively. Boat pics and fedoras aside, this group should be poised for an even bigger 2017-18 campaign after a year of 'seasoning'. Additions to the back-end could definitely help a team that gave up the 3rd most shots per game, but that may need to come via trade as opposed to internal ranks. Whether or not they go down this transaction route will likely be determined by the level of pre-draft hysteria around the league.
PROTECTION LIST STRUCTURE
- Van Riemsdyk
Toronto's in prime position for the 7-3-1 structure. Exemptions appear to block off the team's young core from selection, while a lack of proven NHL-calibre depth leaves at least 3 slots open for prospects and fringe roster players. 8-1 could theoretically be possible, with Marckenko and Carrick tossed into the defensive group and a forward like Tyler Bozak noticeably exposed, but the Leafs could be better off trading Bozak for a pick or prospect than allowing him to be grabbed for nothing. This is obviously where the debate begins for Leaf fans: protect just one of these young D-men or watch a free-for-all selection from the 2nd tier of your forward group? With free agency just around the corner and the trade market flush with moveable defencemen, Leafs management should accept the fact that these two are currently ranked 5th and 6th in their depth chart and easily replaceable/upgradeable assets.
Putting roster discussion aside for a minute, it's important to note the incredible statistical jump the Leafs have made over the last few years. To give a glimpse of their turmoil-turned-success we've plotted the team's 5v5 Corsi and team goal differential from the last four years onto one chart. Although puck possession steadily improved over the years, the Leafs struggled to score until last season. The emergence of the fifth-ranked 5v5 offence in the league sparked a playoff push, overcoming a small regression in team Corsi. Improvements obviously still need to be seen from a defensive standpoint, as the Leafs gave up a whopping 58.60 Corsi chances against per 60 minutes (3rd most in league) and 2.80 goals against per 60 minutes (9th most), but that will hopefully be addressed next season with the benefit of hindsight.
Which d-man MAKES THE CUT?
Connor Carrick and Alexey Marchenko will likely be neck and neck for the last defence spot (barring a trade by the Leafs before the expansion deadline). If you had to choose between the two players in the chart below as one of your bottom pair defencemen, which one would it be?
I'm sure answers will vary depending on your preferences in stats from a D-man. With the height and weights added, those who don't know these two players may well have said player 1 looks to be a more 'shut-down' defencemen, who could use his size in that bottom pair role more effectively than player 2. To give context to those who need it, Marchenko is player 1 and Carrick is player 2. On a 'blind' test, deciding between the two is slightly harder than most would expect. Carrick clearly produces more Corsi events and goals for, over the course of his minutes played, but his zone-adjusted stats Corsi show a player that may be sheltered a bit from defensive zone responsibility. This would allow him to reap the statistical benefits associated with offensive zone opportunity. Marchenko instead appears to allow slightly more shots against, but his on-ice save percentage is incredibly high, meaning the shots he allows may indeed be from lower risk shooting areas.
Overall, the decision between the two won't be franchise-changing for the Leafs. Both players appear capable enough for the limited minutes they will likely play. For the purposes of making a decision, we'll choose to protect Carrick and his extremely cheap contract.
Rounding out the forward group
There's been speculation of late that Tyler Bozak could be left off the Leafs' protection list in order to keep more of the young Marlies breaking into the lineup, out of the hands of the Golden Knights. But after last year's statistical output, the chances of him being left up for grabs without any compensation in return seem pretty slim. However, pulling the same maneuver with Matt Martin is a very different story. Despite his very limited scoring abilities, his goal differential has continued to sit around the 50% mark. Puck possession, in the true meaning of the word, may not be a strength, but he keeps the puck moving out of the defensive zone and brings his Corsi up to a respectable mark, which gets even better once you adjust for his high percentage of defensive zone starts. But $2.5M for a 4th line checker is a lot; add in a 3-year term remaining and Martin becomes a less-than-desirable candidate for the expansion team in Vegas. So for this reason, he remains off our protection list.
The additional protection list spot should serve the Leafs well in protecting their up-and-coming complementary forwards. With huge contracts on the way for Nylander, Matthews, and Marner in the not too distant future, holding onto bargains like Leivo, Leipsic, and Rychel provides the team enormous flexibility. There may be a challenge in keeping these additional contracts at discount rate, but with little NHL ice-time to their names thus far, bridge deals for these forwards should come reasonably low. With that said, only two spots remain, so which two do you protect?
Brenden Leipsic is the most interesting player of the bunch. At only 5'10 he won't be blowing up opposing defencemen with bone-crushing hits, but I would almost guarantee he pisses off the opposition more than the other two. After dominating his competition back in the WHL - 120pts in 68 games dominant - Leipsic has progressed into a point per game player for the Marlies (AHL). Without much else in the form of advanced stats to gauge this group, Leipsic at least appears capable of filling the role of a pest with the likely upside of moderate scoring. Also, unlike the other two, he will be negotiating a new contract with the Leafs this summer with only 6 NHL games to his name, so keeping his cap hit down won't be a problem. This advantage allows him to nab a spot within our protection list.
The final man on the last is Kerby Rychel. A former first round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Rychel forced his way into the NHL early in his career, but took a small step back after the Leafs' acquisition. After a slow start to the season, he was finally able to turn it on and stack up points for the Marlies (AHL). Clearly the most physical of the bunch, he offers the team his unique upside as a power forward. His scoring ability may fall below that of Leipsic and Leivo, but role-specific ability could be too hard for management to pass up. The same is true for us, as Rychel sneaks onto our list.
Josh Leivo has spent the most time with the big club thus far, albeit with minimal usage. 10 points in 13 games is nothing to brush aside, but getting power play opportunity alongside the likes of Austin Matthews and Co. makes it a little easier to get on the scoresheet. His Junior success garners recognition but his point totals are reminiscent of many young forwards who top out as 3rd line NHLers. Although he possesses what may be the best shot of the bunch, Leivo could see his development stall without further opportunity on one of the Leafs' top two scoring lines. With a goal scorer like Carl Grundstrom waiting in the wings, Leivo's spot in the lineup appears to be the most replaceable. For this reason, he falls outside the scope of our protection list.
sIMPLE STRATEGY - SELECT THE BEST PLAYER AVAILABLE
As mentioned, Matt Martin offers little upside to the Golden Knights as they build their core. Management will go with the best player available, which in this case is Josh Leivo. Pretty simple decision really.
Toronto-based media is noticeably fuelling the pre-draft rumour mill. High risk hypotheticals get thrown around everyday, but consideration needs to be given to the impact such transactions have on the Leafs' young core moving forward. With Nylander, Matthews, Marner, and Gardiner all needing extensions within the next two years, it's not hard to envision a cap hit north of $6.5M for all four players. So management should be wary about breaking the bank on a player that could also see his cap number creep over this value. Cheap, young, complementary prospects don't stick around forever.
Next up: Boston Bruins