With free agency just a few weeks away, it appears that talks between star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and the St. Louis Blues have hit a low point. Multiple reports say that Pietrangelo is more likely to head to the open market after 12 years with the Blues organization.
Of course, as a Leafs fan, it’s second nature to connect the King City native to the Toronto Maple Leafs. I mean, when was the last time we saw a hometown player leave the team he captained to enter free agency and head to Toronto… oh, right.
Still, as hard as it is to just say no to the idea of bringing one of the best defensemen to Toronto…
Signing Alex Pietrangelo just ignores the Maple Leafs’ biggest problems.
If you asked me a few months ago, there’s no way I would’ve said no to another star player. It’s Alex Pietrangelo, for crying out loud!
However, the Play-In series vs Columbus exposed a huge flaw for the Leafs.
Even with (what I would consider) one of the best supporting casts in the league, they couldn’t show up when they were actually needed.
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With the Leafs’ biggest stars desperately trying to get a goal in a must-win game, when the surrounding players came on, they killed any momentum the big players had gained.
And with Jake Muzzin out, the Leafs defense wasn’t able to keep enough together.
Having stars doesn’t mean as much when everyone else isn’t able to perform. Hockey is a 60-minute game, not just 20-25.
The issue isn’t with the Leafs stars, even though some of them had a down year, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Morgan Rielly weren’t the problem for most of the playoffs, even if you wish they got a few of those shifts back. There are 18 skaters out there every night. They can’t just hope that someone like Auston Matthews rifles one in.
Take a look at the teams in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals. Even with Tyler Seguin underperforming, they have players stepping up. Even with Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, Miro Heiskanen, and John Klingberg performing, their supporting cast is still going off. Guys like Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz are stepping up to the plate, and Denis Gurianov and Joel Kiviranta picked an insane time to breakout, arguably having their best performances of their young careers in these playoffs.
Even the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are seeing exceptional performances from guys like Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Victor Hedman, are seeing their supporting cast step up in the absence of guys like Steven Stamkos, and, at times, Brayden Point.
Sometimes, the solution isn’t to stockpile stars. Your core players can only do so much. You need to be able to expect something from your supporting cast.
Great Now, Handcuffed Later
The idea of getting a star defenseman is amazing. The idea of locking up a star defenseman until they’re 37 is… less than amazing.
According to CapFriendly.com’s Contract Comparable tool, I searched for comparables for a potential Pietrangelo deal, one where he signs an $8.5 million deal for 7 years.
The matches over 60% are concerning.
A lot of them look like handcuff deals for the teams that signed them, ones that will take a lot to move, and ones that they likely wish they could.
The Arizona Coyotes are actively trying to move Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Jared Spurgeon, Justin Faulk, and Keith Yandle’s contracts aren’t actively hurting their teams right now, but with the latter two’s teams having cap issues already, they have the potential to land in a similarly terrible category.
None of those guys have won Cups with the team that signed them to those deals.
The only contracts that I think look good in that list are those of Roman Josi and John Carlson, who, like Pietrangelo, are some of the best defensemen in the league. And the only player who I think will win a Cup with the team that signed him on that list is Ryan McDonagh, currently playing in the Stanley Cup Finals on Tampa Bay’s third pairing.
But the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a very different position than the teams that signed those deals. The truth is, the Leafs are still young. When your core players are 23, 23, and 24, they haven’t even reached their prime. That puts you in a very different position than the teams that signed those deals. For Burns, Seabrook, Vlasic, and Doughty, their teams were nearing the tail end of their contention era, they needed to lock those players up to have another shot with their core (spoiler alert: they didn’t get that shot).
Byfuglien, Ekman-Larsson, and Phaneuf were re-signed as existing main core players. Something similar could be said about Spurgeon and Yandle, to a lesser extent.
As for the teams that signed Josi, Carlson, and McDonagh, they’re trying to win now, this is their time, not a few years from now. In Nashville, star Filip Forsberg isn’t getting younger at 26, and the rest of the core/main supporting cast are in their late 20s to early 30s. In Washington, John Carlson could fall into the Doughty/Burns category soon enough, he was re-signed to extend the contention era of Washington’s ageing core that won a cup in 2018. In Tampa, this is quite literally their time to shine. After what feels like ages of regular-season dominance, they needed that extra step now. Even though Brayden Point is young, guys like Stamkos, Kucherov, and Hedman aren’t going to be this good forever.
The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t there yet. They shouldn’t be in desperation mode right now, and they won’t be any time soon. Going into desperation mode this early would be a huge mistake.
Two Intertwining Eras
I’ve dwelled on the point of the Leafs’ young core a lot, but you’ve probably thought: “Well, what about Tavares?”
That’s another issue. I love Tavares, and unlike some people, I don’t think signing him was a mistake at all. But signing Pietrangelo puts the Leafs into a pretty ugly dilemma, especially with the looming threat of a flat cap affecting the cap structure in the future.
Signing Pietrangelo gives the Leafs two distinct cores. The first one is the Leafs’ young core, consisting of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. You could make a case for guys like Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, and even Timothy Liljegren to be a piece of that core. Those are guys whose bests are ahead of them, young players who haven’t reached their peak yet.
The second is the Leafs’ older “core”, which would consist of John Tavares, Alex Pietrangelo, Frederik Andersen (or whoever the Leafs’ goalie is next season), and Jake Muzzin. One could make a case for Justin Holl and Zach Hyman, but I think that’s a stretch.
The Leafs’ young core is what they’ll focus on to find success. But that older core is what they’ll need to get there. I completely understand that. However, the issue lies in how the Leafs view their young core.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs believe that their window of success lies in how long the Leafs 1. Have their young core locked down and 2. Have their older core playing close to their best, and not necessarily after that, then I completely understand.
But, at least in my view, the Leafs’ best window of success is after they (fingers crossed) re-sign their young core. If they haven’t already won a cup before that, it’s at that point where you gear up for a multi-year win-now run. The future is then, not after that.
You don’t want to have to worry about going all-in for your prominent ageing core, only to be handcuffed when your stellar future finally reaches their “now”.
The Pietrangelo deal is the type of contract that you sign when your stars are in their prime and are looking to win today, with no mind for the future.
That’s where the Tampa Bay Lightning are right now. Most of their core is entering the tail-end of their prime, they’re locked up for the next few years and they need to make the most of it. That’s why they signed guys like Ryan McDonagh. They don’t care about how that contract will look at 37, they signed him because they need him right now, at 30-33.
The Leafs aren’t there yet, they’ll need to try to win while still giving themselves an opportunity to truly dominate when guys like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander are at their prime.
What Should They Do Instead?
I’ve been talking about what they shouldn’t do, so you’re probably thinking, what should they do.
Well, I think the Leafs should focus on one of their biggest defensive issues. A lot of their defensemen just aren’t that great right now.
Going into 2020-21, I think there are only 2 spots that are pretty much locked barring a trade.
Morgan Rielly is the Leafs #1 defenseman until further notice. Jake Muzzin is the Leafs’ #2 defenseman until further notice.
To fill those spots, you have Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Rasmus Sandin, Mikko Lehtonen, Timothy Liljegren, and Martin Marincin. I like those players, I think most of them are very promising. However, that’s not a group of players you want taking some of those spots this year.
The Leafs are currently on pace to ice some variation of:
So, yeah, I understand the concern with the Leafs defense, to say the least.
But people need to understand that, while signing Pietrangelo makes that first pairing pretty much unstoppable, it further depletes that already nauseating supporting cast.
There are other routes to improve that defense!
This year’s free agency class offers a few players the Leafs can pick from.
That gives the Leafs a lot of options if they want to. And given the flat cap, amount of capable defensemen on the market, and the financial impact of the pandemic, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the Leafs could get a discount on whoever they choose to sign.
The Leafs don’t have to sign someone. They have the assets to trade for a player to fit the role they need.
Trading for a defenseman may mean having to take from the supporting cast, but it wouldn’t mean absolutely gutting it as a Pietrangelo signing would.
The Leafs have guys like Travis Dermott, Andreas Johnsson, and even Alexander Kerfoot that would make teams pretty interested, and guys like Pierre Engvall and Justin Holl are guys who the Leafs would explore adding to a trade.
The Leafs also have a number of prospects that could be used as a sweetener, with the only prospects that I likely wouldn’t trade as just a sweetener being Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and Mikhail Abramov.
They also have their top two picks in the next three drafts, with Pittsburgh’s first this year, along with their 2021 and 2022 first round picks and 2021, 2022, and 2023 second round picks.
In other words, they have some leeway to acquire a #4 defenseman at the very least.
Who Do They Replace
Best case scenario, you acquire two defensemen to take those #3/#4 roles. That pushes out two of Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Mikko Lehtonen, and Rasmus Sandin from the lineup.
That gives you a few possibilities.
One is that they ship out Travis Dermott, likely to acquire one of those potential #3/#4 defensemen. However, shipping out a young promising defenseman may not be the Leafs’ move of choice, especially considering that Dermott has proven earlier in his career that he can play the right side as well as the left.
One possibility is also that Rasmus Sandin doesn’t spend the entire season in the NHL. Instead, the Leafs could have him move between the AHL and NHL for at least the first half of the season. This allows the Leafs to have some leeway when figuring out what their defense will look like for the year, and it’ll allow Sandin to refine points in his game as he figures out what does and doesn’t work in the NHL.
The most likely possibility, in my opinion, would be moving Justin Holl. Holl showed promise in his first full NHL season. However, the 28-year-old had his fair share of rough spots throughout his season. When he signed his three-year, $2 million AAV contract, he was in the midst of an unbelievable showing as a shutdown defenseman. However, his inability to carry his success for a consistent time period might ultimately be what makes him a cap casualty in Toronto.
That leaves you with:
Which looks a lot more solid than what the Leafs are set to ice with no further moves.
I understand! It’s so tempting to want to pursue the hometown star. However, I do believe that signing Alex Pietrangelo would be a mistake for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the long run. I think the Leafs have the opportunity to make short-term moves to help them win now and let them make a push to win later.
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