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Despite debate, Leafs expansion situation better than most

In just a few hours, we’ll know which member of the Toronto Maple Leafs will be getting a fresh start to their career with the Vegas Golden Knights. The upstart expansion franchise submitted their list of players that they’ll be taking from each team to the league this morning, and now we wait to see who goes where followed throughout the week by finding out which of those claims might get flipped.

Heading into the day, Toronto’s protection list was one that caused much debate, from months before it was submitted to the day it was released. A key contention point was whether Matt Martin was the preferred seventh forward; some felt he wouldn’t get claimed and that using a spot that could have been used on a younger player seemed pointless, others felt that he was an essential player to lock in, while many also felt that it didn’t matter much anyway because all the kids involved in the discussion are waiver-eligible in October, making it possible that the Leafs lose everybody anyway. As well, there was a bit of debate as to who forward 6 would be; the one of Josh Leivo, Brendan Leipsic, and Kerby Rychel who’s career in town was safe for another day.

Within the Toronto vacuum, that conversation is interesting because it brings up a lot of questions about asset management and team philosophy. It also gives Leafs fans and media something divisive to argue about (“How great is Auston Matthews?” gets boring after a while). But now that the dust has settled on it a bit, it’s pretty evident that Toronto is in an extremely positive situation heading into today compared to the rest of the league.

After all, we can argue all we want about the last forward on the list, but that list could’ve been so much harder to decide if not for the fact that four forwards in Toronto’s top three scoring lines were exempt from needing protection. If the KHL, the world’s second best league counted as “professional”, Nikita Zaitsev would be needing protection, throwing Connor Carrick into the vulture pile. Because so much of the Leafs’ core is so early into their North American pro career, we’re not talking about players like Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, or Connor Brown being exposed; which would require some extra handiwork to avoid. Toronto doesn’t even have significant UFA’s to potentially lose to the early window; the worst case scenario there is that the Knights were to sign Brian Boyle, who was effective in his role, but his role was as a fourth-line centre.

You can’t say the same for other teams. When names like Marc-Andre Fleury, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Colin Miller, Jonathan Marchessault, Jason Demers, Reilly Smith, Matthew Dumba, James Neal, Nate Schmidt, and David Perron are on the board, it’s hard to look back at Toronto’s 4th liners and bubble prospects and act like the situation is a disaster.

That’s especially so when you realize how many of those wounds are self-inflicted by their teams; Kevan Miller over Colin, Alex Petrovic over either Demers or both the Florida forwards, Dmitri Orlov over Schmidt, and most similar to Toronto’s situation, enforcer Ryan Reaves over 46-point winger Perron. These teams are now either going to have to lose quality players or pay a premium to keep Vegas from selecting them.

Toronto’s pool of potential losses? Quality guys that most teams would like to have in their pool, guys that could probably make a bunch of NHL teams better next year, but with Toronto’s surplus of wingers and left-handed defencemen, nobody the Leafs is at risk of losing today is worth giving an extra asset up to protect.

Not that it necessarily means that the Leafs made the right call (or the wrong one), or that “we did better than the people who did bad” is a bar that you should set for yourself. But if we’re going to argue about what the right decision was, and probably end up arguing about whether it was smart of the Leafs to let themselves lose whoever gets selected today, it’s also worth remember that the Leafs are getting away among the most unscathed of any of the league’s long-term competitors. Champagne problems, man.