Heading into their bye week, the Toronto Maple Leafs have lost back to back games, both of which came in incredibly frustrating fashion, and haven’t won a game in regulation since December 28th.
Fans are ticked off, and deservedly so.
Leaf fans have a reputation of being, well… over-reactive. When Toronto’s winning, it’s time to ‘plan the parade’. When they’re losing, it’s time to tear ‘er down, trade this player, fire that coach, etc.
Whether or not that’s true isn’t for me to judge. The reason I bring it up, though, is because there’s one position, overreaction or not, that you’ll never hear from Leaf fans: ‘trade Auston Matthews’.
Not only is Matthews regarded as a generational talent, but given his age/position/salary, he’s also likely one of the three most valuable assets in the NHL.
These types of players just never get traded, plain and simple. Hell, the chances of them even making it to free agency before their early-to-mid-30’s is extremely rare. That’s why when ESPN’s Rob Vollman published an article outlining the case for trading Matthews, many were taken aback.
The premise of the article is simple: the Leafs are on the cusp of something special and by trading Matthews for the right return, it could put them over the top. Here are Vollman’s three main points he lays out in the piece:
- Moving Matthews would free up the large amount of cap space required to keep him when his entry-level contract expires at the end of the 2018-19 season.
- It would help the team acquire the top-pair defenseman it needs far more urgently than a high-scoring forward.
- The return could be an Eric Lindros-like windfall of picks and prospects — including that top defenseman — if a bidding war were to erupt due to the gap between his perceived and actual value.
Alright, so now that we understand where Rob’s coming from, let’s discuss this for a second.
When you get past the shock of the initial proposal, the points he presents do make sense. The Leafs undoubtedly need a legitimate top-pairing defenseman, something they’ve been lacking for years. They also have a number of high end (and in some cases, elite) scoring options, which could significantly soften the blow of losing a Matthews-type player. Lastly, the return that Toronto could command in a potential deal would be absolutely staggering. This is the point I want to focus on.
Look, I love Auston Matthews. He’s very likely the best, most skilled player to ever wear the Maple Leafs sweater. I love him with all my heart and the emotional side of me wants to see him retire as a Leaf. Still, when you think about what Toronto could potentially demand in a trade… man. It would be unbelievable. No one’s untouchable, don’t forget that.
So that got me thinking… Is there even a team out there that has enough high-end assets to make a (realistic) play for Matthews? If so, which team and who could they offer?
Alright, let’s get this one out of the way.
Matthews has been linked to Arizona his whole hockey career. Even before he was drafted, there was talk about the Leafs trading the first overall pick to the Coyotes for a U-Haul’s worth (all U-Hauls have Arizona license plates, look it up) of prospects. Of course, that never ended up happening, but he will be linked to that franchise until either 1) the franchise moves, or 2) he comes out and says he doesn’t want to play there.
The thing about the ‘Yotes, though, is they actually may have the pieces to get a deal done.
I think all of these trade proposals have to start off with a top-end defenseman, since that would really be the only incentive Toronto has to make any sort of deal. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the obvious name here and Jakob Chychrun is a really nice piece, but I’ve got another player in mind: Rasmus Dahlin.
Out of the teams I chose for this article, right now Arizona’s the only one with a realistic shot of nabbing the first overall pick. We’ve all seen Dahlin’s highlight reel. We all saw what he did at the World Juniors. Want TSN analyst Ray Ferraro’s take?
“He defends like Lidstrom, skates like Karlsson.”
Yeah. That pretty much sums it up.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed, and although Arizona’s likely going to have the best odds of landing that ever so coveted first overall pick, there’s still a much greater chance they don’t. Dahlin’s the golden ticket, and any trade negotiations have to start with Arizona’s 2018 first rounder.
Vollman mentions in the article how he thinks the Leafs are close, so there has to be some established talent coming back the other way. If I’m Toronto, there’s no chance I’m making a deal without some sort of assurance I’m getting a top end defenseman, which is why Ekman-Larsson would have to be part of this as well.
As I mentioned, it’s not at all promised that Arizona’s pick turns into Dahlin, so Toronto would need some sort of fall-back plan. Best case scenario? The pick turns into Dahlin, him and OEL form the best pairing in the NHL, and the Leafs reap the rewards. Worst case? The pick doesn’t turn into Dahlin and the Leafs have to settle for someone else while still having Ekman-Larsson patrolling the blueline.
Lastly, if I’m the Leafs, I would be pushing very, very hard for Clayton Keller to be included in this deal. Arizona would absolutely be the team most likely to “overpay” for Matthews, so there’s no reason that Toronto shouldn’t be pushing for the young, skilled American.
Again, it sounds like a lot when you think of it as OEL, Keller, and Dahlin. In reality, though, it would be OEL, Keller, and a ~20% chance at Dahlin, and that’s assuming Arizona finishes dead last. If Arizona’s pick falls out of the top two, there’s got to be some sort of assurance from Toronto’s end that they’re getting elite pieces coming back the other way.
Would I make this trade? No, because it’s way too risky. There’s essentially a 1/5 chance that this trade works out in Toronto’s favour. Even then, if Arizona’s pick does turn out to be #1 overall, Dahlin still has to prove himself at the NHL level.
Boston’s an extremely interesting option.
I can’t remember the last time a big-time player was traded within his own division. For Toronto to even consider trading Matthews to a long-time Atlantic division rival… Yeah, that would take a lot.
Enter David Pastrnak.
David Pastrnak is one of my favorite players in the NHL. I know we all love to anoint player X as ‘the most underrated player in the league’, but I really do think he’s up there as the most underrated player in the league. He’s only 21 years-old, already has over 200 games of NHL experience, and has scored at basically a point-per-game pace over the last two seasons.
There are a few things that make me pause with him, though. First off, he plays on a line with two of the best players in the world in Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Pastrnak’s a great player, no doubt, but just how much of his success is influenced by the Corsi God and the Supreme Pest?
Second, Pastrnak’s a winger. Matthews is a center. Now, Pastrnak has proven to be one of the rare wingers that can actually drive play, but would the Leafs be able to move him to the middle of the ice? If so, great, then you’re just hoping he’s 1) able to play the position and, 2) able to drive his own line, which I’m sure he is.
However, if he’s not able to make the transition, is William Nylander ready? All signs point to ‘yes, he is’, but that’s my take, not management’s. Actually, all signs pointed to ‘yes’ years ago when he was called up as a 19-year-old and performed very well down the middle.
Even with the (very few) question marks that come with him, there’s one thing that makes David Pastrnak even more appealing: his contract.
Remember, a large part of Vollman’s article was centred around the fact that Matthews is going to be eating up a large chunk of the cap once his ELC is up. Pastrnak, however, is signed to one of the most team-friendly deals (maybe the most team-friendly) in the NHL.
With five years remaining at just over $6.5 million per year, the Bruins have one of the best bargains in the league. The deal runs right through Pastrnak’s prime, expiring when he’s 27-years-old, at which point he’ll be due for a massive raise. The idea here, though, is that the Leafs buy an extra few years of cheap control, giving them much more flexibility cap-wise. Plus, if they decide they want to pay him when his deal’s up, they can do that as well.
Toronto would need to ask for more than just Pastrnak, though, which is why Charlie McAvoy would have to be part of the deal.
McAvoy’s a young, right-shot defenseman, and he seems to have all the tools to be a number-one someday. Still, he’s just 40 games into his NHL career and while it looks like he’ll be great, you just never know for sure.
I posted a poll on twitter which asked, ‘if Boston offered Pastrnak and McAvoy straight up for Matthews, would you make the deal?’. Out of 164 votes, 74% say no, 26% say yes. I believe most of my followers are Leaf fans, so it seems like a no from them.
On the other hand, I’ve talked to a few Bruins fans about this proposed deal. Every single one that I’ve talked to said they wouldn’t make that trade either.
I heard a saying this one time, (I’m paraphrasing) “if both fanbases say no to a proposed trade, it’s probably a fairly even proposal.”
That’s where I think I’m at with this trade.
Would I make this trade? Honestly, if this was on the table, I’d have a really tough time turning it down. There’s not going to be a single deal to be made where Toronto’s getting a better player than Matthews in return – Pastrnak’s as close as they’ll get. Plus, add in a potential number-one in McAvoy and they’re laughing. Then, factor in Pastrnak’s cheap contract and that McAvoy’s still on his ELC for another year. Yeah, I’d do this.
This is probably the team that matches up the best with the Leafs in any potential trade, not just for Matthews. Let’s go back to Vollman’s second main point for a second:
- (trading Matthews) would help the team acquire the top-pair defenseman it needs far more urgently than a high-scoring forward.
Justin Faulk. Noah Hanifin. Jaccob Slavin. Brett Pesce. Haydn Fleury. Roland McKeown. Any of those names intrigue you? If there’s one team that has a glut of good defensemen, it’s the Carolina Hurricanes, which is why these two teams make such great trading partners.
Sure, the names aren’t as sexy as a David Pastrnak, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, or Clayton Keller. That doesn’t mean, though, that they’re any less effective.
Noah Hanifin is a name that has always been linked to the Leafs. They passed on him when they opted instead for Mitch Marner in the 2015 draft. Hanifin’s name has also been rumored to be in trade talks, and the Leafs have naturally come up as a possible landing spot.
Some say that defensemen take longer to develop. While I don’t necessarily buy into that, it’s definitely true in Hanifin’s case. His first two seasons in the NHL were pedestrian at best, but he’s taken massive strides this season and looks to be evolving into the real, top-end d-man that many envisioned him being. He’s also incredibly young, cheap, and controllable – three things that work well with Vollman’s idea of creating a better, sustainable team.
Next, Toronto would be foolish to make any deal not involving one of Brett Pesce or Jaccob Slavin. I’m having a tough time deciding which one of the two I’d rather have as they both bring their own advantages. Personally, I think Slavin’s the better long-term option, but it’s close. They’re both very young and locked into long-term, cheap contracts.
Pesce seems like he has slightly more offensive upside and he’s a right-handed shot, whereas Slavin, a lefty, projects to be more of a (super-effective) shutdown-type player who can log huge minutes. I think Slavin’s value is higher than Pesce’s, so it really depends on what else Toronto’s asking for. Either way, in any talks surrounding Matthews, one of the two, preferably Slavin, has to be included.
I know asking for two top-end defensemen is a lot, but I’m not done there. Remember, Matthews’ value is through the roof and Carolina would be dealing from a position of strength.
Lastly, in an ideal world, the Leafs would be getting Sebastian Aho. Since that’s highly unlikely (as part of this package, at least), Martin Necas would be my last target.
— NHL Daily 365 (@NHLDaily365) December 28, 2017
If you’re not familiar with Necas, you will be soon. He’s an ultra-talented player who projects as a center. He had a great showing at the World Juniors and is doing exceptionally well in the Czech League as an 18-year-old. Carolina is desperate for some top-end offensive talent, and the allure of an Auston Matthews-type player may make it easier to part with a young, talented, but raw prospect.
Would I make this trade? As we’ve talked about, there’s an inherent amount of risk in every trade. When we’re talking about a deal of this magnitude, though, the risk meter is cranked up to 10. The Coyotes deal was extremely risky. The Bruins deal is also extremely risky because you’re making the deal under the assumption a player progresses how you think he should.
In this case, though, I think the risk is significantly lower. Pesce/Slavin and, to a lesser extent, Hanifin, are all proven commodities. Sure, they’re all still young and progressing, but there’s clearly reason to believe their success at the NHL level isn’t a fluke. It’s easy to look at what Carolina’s giving up here, but it’s important to remember that Matthews is a franchise changer with legitimate 50+ goal potential. If the deal was Hanifin, Slavin, and Necas, yes, I think I’d do it. Swap out Slavin with Pesce, though, and I’m not so sure.
Can you imagine a team with Matthews, Stamkos, and Kucherov? The Leafs might actually be doing themselves a disservice by making that happen but nevertheless, Tampa has the pieces to get a deal done.
I’m trying to be realistic here, so I won’t include Victor Hedman in the proposal. Not because I don’t think the Leafs wouldn’t be able to get him in a trade, but because it just doesn’t make sense for either team. Tampa’s in a position to compete, and trading away arguably their most important player isn’t going to help things. Furthermore, Hedman’s on a long term, high AAV contract. Yes, he’s an elite defenseman and still has some prime years left, but he’s 27 and doesn’t necessarily fit the Leafs’ window.
Instead, Mikhail Sergachev would be my target.
After being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for Jonathan Drouin this past summer, Sergachev has been in the Calder conversation since day one of the season. He’s currently sitting at 26 points through 44 games, an excellent number for a rookie defenseman. He’s sheltered, starting more shifts in the offensive zone (45%) than any other Lightning d-man, but that’s extremely common for young defensemen. He still projects to be a big time point producer, can move the puck extremely well, and is good defensively.
Next, Tampa Bay’s 2017 first rounder, Cal Foote (Adam Foote’s kid) would have to be on the table.
I’m not going to pretend to be a junior hockey aficionado but from everything I’ve seen and heard about him, he looks like a fantastic prospect.
First off, he’s got a great bloodline for anyone who thinks that matters. His father, Adam, played well over 1000 NHL games and is known as being one of the better shutdown, stay at home d-men in NHL history. Cal can move around well for his size, although it’s not his strong suit. He produces points, something his father didn’t do. However, just like his father, he’s known as a very good defender who can shut down the opposition’s top players. He’s really a two-way threat.
Lastly, there’s zero chance that the Leafs can even think about making a trade with the Lightning without asking for Brayden Point as part of the package.
The amount of offense lost with a Matthews-type player is substantial, and Point would need to be included to soften the blow. As you’ll notice with all my proposals, there’s at least one higher-end forward coming back the other way. Point is nowhere near the type of offensive talent Matthews is, but he’s still a very nice piece. He’s also a center, which helps in terms of moving players around.
Would I make this trade? I think the real question is if Tampa would even make this trade. It’s also important to remember that this is who I would be asking for if I’m the Leafs, not necessarily who I think the other team would offer. Anyways, the idea here is the Leafs would be getting two shots at a really good defenseman, with both Sergachev and Foote having long-term, high-end potential.
I’m not convinced that I would make this deal if I’m Toronto because I don’t know how sold I am on Sergachev. I think he’s going to be really, really good, but I don’t know whether that’ll be as a powerplay quarterback who doesn’t play tough minutes/competition or as TOI-eater who matches up against the other teams’ top lines. If Tampa were to throw in a Dotchin-type player, yeah, I’d probably make the trade. However, I don’t think that’s something Tampa would ever offer so it’s kind of a moot point.
Of course, there are several other teams that could make plays for Matthews. Philly could offer a package around Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, but I know they wouldn’t do that. Same with Winnipeg – they wouldn’t trade Trouba and Laine +. I tried to be realistic here and work within the parameters that Vollman outlined.
While I do think Vollman using Matthews as an example is kind of clickbaity, I like the thought process behind the idea. It’s so, so hard to win once you’ve started paying your best players the money they deserve. Teams really need a second wave of talent to come in and do significant damage while on their ELCs or bargain contracts.
Again, while I’m absolutely not advocating that the Leafs trade Auston Matthews, it’s hard to ignore the potential haul. A Stanley Cup is a Stanley Cup is a Stanley Cup whether Matthews is on the roster or not.
Let’s be honest, though, when the Leafs win one of several championships with Matthews, do you guys think he’ll get his name or ‘Papi’ engraved on the cup?