It’s just over four weeks until the draft. Over five until free agency. You’re going to get listicles.
Today I think it’s worth considering how is most at risk for being shown the door now that Kyle Dubas is calling the shots instead of Lou Lamoriello. For the purpose of this exercise I’ll avoid getting into the free agents, as their fate will be decided separately as those under contract, and focus exclusively on the players that Dubas is looking to trade.
1. Matt Martin
This is the least surprising name I could come up with. Babcock has already stopped playing him, and after his $1.5M signing bonus is paid on July 1st, he’s only due $2.5M in salary over the next couple of years. With teams riding the high of seeing Deryk Engelland and Ryan Reaves do stuff in Vegas, it’s entirely possible that there is a market for Matt Martin, at least with teams like Arizona, Carolina, and Florida that want the cap hit, but not the salary. In the case of both Carolina and Florida there is also a certain appreciation for how Martin plays the game too. The bonus pretty much guarantees that Martin will be a Leaf until July 1st, but I’m optimistic that he can be dealt as an asset, but only in the sense that the Leafs won’t have to take something they don’t want back in return.
2. Curtis McElhinney
My personal preference would be to try and deal Garret Sparks as an asset, but given Dubas’ past few years as the Marlies GM, I’d expect that he’s got some loyalty to Sparks, and seeing what the Leafs may have in a young goaltender is far from the worst idea, especially since the return on Sparks might not be significantly higher than the return on McElhinney.
Curtis has a very friendly contract for the next season and given that Montreal was somehow able to land a 4th round pick for Al Montoya, the Leafs could deal McElhinney, whose stock has never been higher, and may be a better fit than the limited options available in free agency.
3. Josh Leivo
I suspect that Kyle Dubas doesn’t particularly hold any kind of grudge against Leivo, and in fact I think the entirety of the 2017-18 front office liked Leivo a lot more than Mike Babcock did. That being said, the most likely olive branch we could see from a new GM to his coach is that he’s not going to force a player on him that he clearly doesn’t want to use.
Leivo is dirt cheap, and finding scoring forwards in free agency is always an uphill battle. How much the Leafs can get for Leivo remains to be seen and I’d imagine if they got close to what they thought Leivo was worth, the Leafs would have dealt Leivo already, so I’d expect to see Leivo either get dealt in a quick move on day two of the draft to a team sitting on a surplus of picks or he’ll be a throw-in player to whatever larger transaction the Leafs try to pull off this summer. No matter what, I’d assume he’s gone.
4. Nikita Zaitsev
This may be a lot of wishful thinking here, but what we do know is that Mark Hunter is the one who courted Zaitsev, and Lou is the one who thought signing him to seven years was a good idea. Dubas has clean hands, as far as we know when it comes to Zaitsev, and can objectively look at Zaitsev as a long term, expensive deal that has to be moved because Zaitsev hasn’t been making the Leafs any better.
The catch here is that Babcock uses Zaitsev. A lot. Moving Zaitsev would need to involve having an upgrade in place for him, and likely an upgrade that fits with Babcock wants to do, not what looks good on paper. (This looks good on paper remark isn’t meant as a criticism of Dubas, but rather a criticism of those of us who will inevitably kick if rocks the new RD doesn’t have ideal stats.)
Finding a good home for Zaitsev should be a top priority for the Leafs, and may require some creativity to get there. The limited right shooting defenseman market may work for the Leafs, but that same limited market is often the best case for keeping Zaitsev as well, and if Zaitsev isn’t departing this season, then maybe Ron Hainsey departing is the next best alternative.
5. Jake Gardiner
Any mention of Jake Gardiner needs to be prefaced with the fact that he’s really good. I think we’ve now established that. I think it’s also safe to say that both Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock are either fans of Jake Gardiner or have become quite comfortable with how he plays on the Leafs. They should be. Like I said, he’s really good.
Now that we’ve covered that off, we can look at the fact that Gardiner is entering the last year of his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent, and with that he’s likely to see a significant raise. We can now also consider the fact that the Leafs are more comfortably situated with Rielly, Dermott, Borgman, and Hainsey on the left side of the blueline than they are with the dark pit of despair on the right side. Gardiner is one of the more significant trade assets the Leafs can part with to help address that situation.
Odds are the team that is acquiring Gardiner isn’t going to be the same team that gives you a shiny new right handed defenseman, but moving Gardiner would give the Leafs additional assets required to make that necessary deal, or additional long term cap space to pursue someone like John Carlson more aggressively.
No matter what, it should be safe to say that Gardiner’s name will come up in rumours over the summer, but the most likely scenario is that he’ll be a Leaf when camp starts.
Honourable Mention: Everyone else not named Auston Matthews
How lazy am I? The reality is that Dubas seems like he’s going to be a busy guy this summer. He’s inheriting the best Leafs team of the post lockout era, with possibly the biggest star player in franchise history. The expectations are high, and he’s already had plenty of time to evaluate this group to know what he wants to do next. Of course stars need to align just right in the NHL for any sort of interesting transaction to occur, but it’s hard to imagine a status quo summer where the Leafs re-sign a few players, draft when they are supposed to, and add depth where they can. If it takes moving a significant player not listed here, I don’t doubt we could see that.
In short, this should be the most interesting Leafs offseason since 2015.