Photo Credit: Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SPORTS
After their lengthy, yet controversial second day of the draft on Saturday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs added to their run of acquisition by trading for 21-year-old forward Kerby Rychel. We joked about bending the rules to skew the trade further, but in reality, the team will likely stay at giving up Scott Harrington and possibly a 5th round pick.
It’s a good price. But I want to bring up five points involving their new acquisition, if I may.
A lot of successful player development comes from putting those players in a position to succeed. Sometimes that’s forcing them to play against tougher competition to improve their fundamental game. Sometimes it’s letting them beat up on weaker competition to get their creative game going. Maybe it’s playing them with better linemates, or letting them carry a line, or adjusting their zone starts to their play style.
Nobody knows what the hell the Blue Jackets were doing with Rychel.
The young forward had a very solid rookie season with in the AHL and had a strong camp in the fall. Despite this, he was cut from the bottom-feeder Blue Jackets and sent back down, so he followed it up with an incredible start to 2015/16. In 21 games, he scored five goals and added 15 assists, which was near the top of his team. Unhappy that it wasn’t enough to get him up to the big club, it was made public that he had requested a trade at the beginning of the year.
Columbus’ asking price was high, so nobody immediately came to the rescue. So they called him up to the big club in hopes of keeping him satisfied but didn’t really give him any opportunity to show off his talent. He played just 9:31 a game, got no special teams time and started most of his shifts in the defensive zone. When he returned to the Monsters two months later, the team had decided that they were going to focus on the other players in the group, and his role was diminished there too. By the time the playoffs ended, he was a Calder Cup champion, but a roster afterthought.
It’s up to Toronto now to figure out what’s the best way to maximize him. Is it playing him on the Leafs in a sheltered, mostly offensive role? Is it making him the Marlies’ first line winger? By the end of camp, they’re going to have to outline a clear and concise plan to get the player back on track.
No Place Like Home
Even if the answer is “a little bit more time in the AHL for you, Kerby”, he might be willing to take it if its well pitched. For one, Toronto’s development model seems to be a bit better regarded than Columbus’ right now. Two, there’s a proven track record of shared resources and opportunity to go back up and down. Three, changes of scenery tend to create a benefit of the doubt that your bosses aren’t inherently against you.
But Toronto has another advantage, in that Rychel is a local boy through and through. Everybody knows that he was born in Torrence, California; few know that the reason for that was because his father was on the Los Angeles Kings at the time. Rychel plays for Team Canada was raised in Southern Ontario and makes his Toronto biases known. The young man seems genuinely excited to be a part of the Leafs organization, too. If he does, he’ll share an experience with his dad, who wore the blue and white in 1994/95.
I’m not a fan of the Don Cherry’s of the world claiming that Ontario boys are inherently better at hockey. I’m always going to lean to numbers over intangibles. But I can totally buy that there’s another layer of determination and pride behind playing for something a group or organization that you have more emotional attachment to, be it the local team, favourite team, or just the team that isn’t treating you poorly.
Once again, the Leafs have taken advantage of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with this move.
Harrington, based on his AHL and NHL experience, will be waiver-eligible as early as this training camp, and would require protection for the 2017/18 Las Vegas Expansion Draft. The former stipulation is the reason for the conditional draft pick, as Harrington is a high risk to not make the Blue Jackets and require waivers in a few months.
Rychel doesn’t require waivers. Not at training camp, and not at all next year; his exemption holds until the start of 2017/18. But, as a two-year AHL veteran, he’s not protected from the Expansion Draft, right?
Hold the phone.
Teenagers in the AHL are rare due to the CHL transfer agreement; typically, you only see Europeans and North Americans who forgo the NCAA. But you can also jump to the AHL if you finish four full major-junior seasons, a circumstance that only applies to late-year players who jumped into junior as early as possible. Jason Spezza is a famous example of this, and Rychel matches the rule. As such, his first year in the AHL was considered a slide-year, and not a professional season. Like William Nylander, he’s exempt from the expansion draft.
The Risk of Patience
The Leafs waited on this trade, and it paid off. Aaron Portzline reported back in January that the Leafs were one of the teams interested in acquiring Rychel back in January. Many felt that he could return a reasonably high draft pick in return. Elliotte Friedman reported back in October that Columbus wanted Anaheim defenceman Shea Theodore as a send-back. instead, the Leafs gave up a defenceman in Harrington who both hasn’t played in months, and that they likely wouldn’t have developed into an NHLer.
Don’t get me wrong, patience can go the other way too. Teams stayed patient on Jonathan Drouin, and now he’s rebuilt his bridge with Tampa Bay and appears to be in it for the long haul there. But in a situation like this, where the holding team wasn’t doing the player many favours, waiting it out was a power move.
The Leafs have a lot of decision making to do on the wing. Even if you assume that Rychel will definitely stay on the left side, he still has to break through a group of Josh Leivo, Andreas Johnson, Colin Smith, and Brendan Leipsic to get to a level where he has to take on James van Riemsdyk, Milan Michalek, and Colin Greening for spots.
That’s not counting the younger prospects behind them all, like Dmytro Timashov, Martins Dzierkals, and Carl Grundstrom, among others. Right Wing has a similar logjam, with eight players under contract, six waiting for ELCs, and Shane Conacher on an AHL deal.
Toronto’s in a position where they can start packaging a few players to make more immediate upgrades. Does acquiring Rychel mean that a Johnson or a Leipsic gets used as bait with to upgrade a defenceman? Or maybe there’s intent with a logjam; injury replacement and fostering competition are just two ways that a team can benefit from an abundance.
Overall, I believe the Rychel acquisition to be a shrewd one by the organization. They got a gritty yet dynamic player with a noticeable upside at an extremely low cost, which gives them more flexibility to move around wingers moving forward. The organization is set up to develop him, and he’ll with a plan and in place and a local attachment, he’ll be more likely to buy into whatever Toronto has set out for him. It’s the type of move that every team should look to make.