Under Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs have adopted an ideology much different than what they’ve had in years past. The team has shifted toward acquiring depth with more upside and, on paper, it’s a smart route to follow. They did exactly that to start off their 2021 offseason, acquiring Brennan Menell and Josh Ho-Sang, two high-potential grabs. However, three years into Kyle Dubas’ tenure, we’re yet to see the fruits of this practice. What gives?
The Toronto Maple Leafs keep making smart moves… but they’re not giving them the opportunity to blossom. Smart reclamation projects are forced to be ditched before the Leafs help them to their full potential. More importantly, it looks like the Leafs are simply unable to integrate their lower-level reclamation projects into their NHL plans.
The Jeremy Bracco Effect
Before I start with the article, I want to introduce the Jeremy Bracco Effect, named after the former Maple Leafs prospect who never played a game with the big club.
In my last article on Jeremy Bracco, I speculated that his performance declined as a result of his lack of a shot at the NHL. While I also argued that his playstyle wouldn’t have let him stick in the NHL anyway, his play greatly declined between his insane 2018-19 campaign and his 2019-20 season. That can be best shown by his dip from having the 2nd most points in the league (behind current NHLer Carter Verhaeghe, coming off of a breakout season) to having only the third-most points on the Marlies.
To me, there wasn’t an issue with his game in the AHL. He didn’t just suddenly become worse. My theory was that Bracco’s performance declined after it became clear that he wasn’t getting the call-up to the NHL. That 2019-20 season saw Bracco request a trade just a couple of months in, and Bracco missed the last month of the season due to personal issues. The pandemic ended his season before he was set to return (he started practicing again just two days before the pandemic shut the season down), and he moved on from the organization.
Jeremy Bracco, now slated to play in Germany for the 2021-22 season, is the poster child for this phenomenon. He’s not the only Leaf who I think has displayed this phenomenon recently. Kenny Agostino, Nic Petan, Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen, and Kalle Kossila all displayed this to varying lengths this past season.
Anyway, I just wanted to introduce this idea before I continue, as it does become a major factor. When a player doesn’t see any hope of making the NHL even after they’ve exceeded expectations, their performances tend to drop in the AHL.
I reference the idea of "smart moves" at the start of this article… What is a smart move?
In this article, I want to focus on a very specific type of move that the Leafs pull off.
Something that the Leafs frequently do is acquire NHL depth-level players with potentially untapped upside, bring them into their system, and work with them as they try to discover their potential.
The Leafs are also able to equip themselves with proven NHL depth players to stock the farm system with readily available players in case of emergency.
So far, none of those moves have paid off… and the Leafs have made a lot of them!
A common theme in these moves is that the Leafs get NHL-capable depth, and they simply refuse to give them time in the NHL.
The Toronto Marlies’ last two leading scorers (Kenny Agostino and Kalle Kossila) have earned a combined 4:08 of NHL ice time in the past two seasons with Toronto, despite both being more than capable depth options.
Denis Malgin, who people do forget has played the majority of each of his four seasons in North America in the NHL, was sent to Switzerland and kept there for most of this season. He hasn’t been given an opportunity to play a full season in the Leafs’ system, and there’s no wonder many fans have a bitter taste in their mouths watching Mason Marchment get ice time in Florida. The truth is that I genuinely believe that Denis Malgin was the best player in the trade that brought him to Toronto, but if he isn’t even given an opportunity to settle into the organization, then the Leafs are simply doomed to lose that trade.
Nic Petan played what I felt was his best hockey to date when he got the call-up to the big leagues, having a couple of great games beside Jason Spezza and Travis Boyd. He didn’t end up seeing a game after March 4th, and he has since signed with the Vancouver Canucks after the Leafs didn’t give him a qualifying offer.
Even their most successful reclamation project, Alex Galchenyuk, is set to leave for a new destination as a free agent after a solid campaign with the Leafs ended on a sour note.
The Leafs have a handful of other examples of this, but it would just be boring to go on and on about wasted AHL depth.
European free agents Mikko Lehtonen and Alexander Barabanov were shipped out after playing a combined 21 games with the Leafs. While I understand why they were shipped out, I can’t help but ask what the Leafs were looking for them to do for them to realistically beat a roster player out for a full-time spot.
That last sentence begs the main question here. What are the Leafs looking for from these players?
There comes a certain point for these players where it’s just not clear what the Leafs want them to do to earn a spot in the NHL.
The Leafs need to do a better job of actually giving their projects a shot at the NHL. I’m not in an NHL front office, so maybe teams already do this, but there needs to be some sort of set target for their players. Do you want to try and make Denis Malgin a top-six player, or are you content with him being a borderline depth option? Is Mikko Lehtonen going to beat out Travis Dermott for a spot in his first season in North America, and what will you do with Travis Dermott then? And what did they even want from Nic Petan?
We already know that the Leafs are good at locating talent. But if you can’t get them into the lineup, then what’s the point?
One thing that I would love the Leafs to utilize is this idea of a "Pontus Aberg Slot." Pontus Aberg was signed as a Leaf for the 2019-20 season. He finished 2nd in points with the Marlies, and he appeared in 5 games with the Leafs. While his tenure in blue and white was more or less insignificant, it was his usage in the NHL that made him unique. The Leafs slotted him on the top line with Auston Matthews and William Nylander after Andreas Johnsson was sidelined with injury. Aberg didn’t do amazingly, but he didn’t look terrible.
That is something that the Leafs should continue to do, especially in cases of short-term injury. In 2020-21, the Leafs had a couple of options who weren’t in a full-time NHL spot but possessed abilities that could help them succeed in a top-six role. Rather than slotting Wayne Simmonds in a top-6 spot due to injury, would a Nic Petan, Denis Malgin, Kalle Kossila or even a Nicholas Robertson serve as a decent bandage?
The salary cap complicated things, as the Leafs planned on accumulating cap space, but they ended up relying on LTIR in the end. If they find themselves with more flexibility this year, I’d love for them to try stuff like that out.
Why the Leafs Need to Take Care of It
Acquiring underrated talent isn’t just a plus for this team, it has become a bit of a necessity. The Leafs are starting to feel the pains of missing on so many draft picks during the Mark Hunter era. The majority of their picks were wasted on low-potential players who didn’t end up achieving the minimal upside they had.
Meanwhile, when you look at the Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, you start to understand just how important it is to have that kind of depth. The team is led by Nikita Kucherov (2nd round pick) and Brayden Point (3rd round pick), plus a supporting cast including hidden gems such as Erik Cernak (2nd round), Anthony Cirelli (3rd round), Alex Killorn (3rd round), Ross Colton (4th round), Ondrej Palat (7th round). The Leafs need to find hidden gems to supplement their roster… which the Lightning also did, finding guys like Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, and Jan Rutta as undrafted free agents.
If the Leafs want to contend, they need to buy-low on breakout candidates while their new, more promising wave of prospects develop.
It’s also important for the team to figure out how to effectively integrate prospects who may not be well suited for a depth role to start off with. As the team drafts and signs more high-potential prospects, they will need to start to show that they can reward their prospects with bigger roles if they’ve earned it. So far, they’ve only really had Pierre Engvall and Adam Brooks as hidden draft gems projected to be with the big club for the 2021-22 season, and both are at risk of being squeezed out of the lineup.
Ultimately, the Leafs need to show that they can successfully find and develop players into key parts of their roster, and it’ll pay off big time when their current crop of prospects develop into NHLers.
Hopefully, new Marlies GM Ryan Hardy will aid with this. He has a stellar track record with player development, and I wonder if he can bring a fresh perspective to how this team uses their reclamation projects.
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