The NHL draft has now come and gone, and while we will continue the offseason gameplan series shortly, let’s pause and review the draft.
Prior to the draft, I wrote:
To me, a successful draft weekend for the Leafs includes shedding salary and adding more draft picks. If they somehow pull off a trade to bring in a quality NHLer? Even better. If Leafs brass shows up, makes three picks, and flies home, it would be an underwhelming draft weekend in Toronto.
Ultimately, the Leafs checked both of those boxes. There was a predictable trade down from 79 to collect picks 95 and 135. We also mentioned that they could consider trading from their capital in upcoming drafts to supplement this one, which they did by acquiring a 2022 fourth-rounder (#122) from the Nashville Predators in exchange for a 2023 fourth-rounder.
As of right now, the Leafs will go into the 2023 NHL draft with picks in the first, third, fifth, and sixth rounds. I know draft picks are not the priority right now, but the Leafs haven’t drafted in each of the first two rounds in three of the past four drafts. They haven’t drafted more than twice in the first two rounds since 2016. We keep saying this, but it’s going to ring true at some point: The franchise will feel it, especially as the Leafs’ elite players are due up for new contracts in the coming years. Young players on entry-level contracts make life a lot easier and provide the currency to pull off trades of significance as well.
We also talked about shedding salary, which the Leafs accomplished, although not in the way we discussed. Frankly, I wish I explored moving on from Petr Mrazek in more detail, but at the same time, I thought it would cost the club more than it did. Shedding Mrazek’s entire contract for the price of dropping from 25 to 38 is not what I expected.
The Oilers sent pick number 29 to the Coyotes, along with a second-round pick in 2024 and a third-round pick in 2025 for them to take on Zack Kassian’s contract. In exchange, the Oilers acquired pick number 32.
In 2019, Kyle Dubas traded away Patrick Marleau and the one year remaining on his contract for a conditional first-round pick in the 2020 draft (Seth Jarvis) and a seventh-round pick in the 2020 draft (Alexander Pashin) in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft (Axel Rindell).
These are the prices I was expecting to see, and they simply weren’t palatable to me given the lack of picks the Leafs had at their disposal to begin with. Clearing Mrazek’s entire contract – which has two years left still – at the cost of moving down 13 spots in the draft is a clear win to me.
The fact that the Leafs watched the first round to see how it was playing out before pulling the trigger suggests to me they didn’t think highly enough of who was available at that point to simply keep and make the pick. Had they made this trade prior to the draft starting, that would have been a different story. It’s a small price to pay relative to many other trades we’ve seen teams make to clear cap space.
Before the trade, Dubas noted:
“If I am forecasting and betting on him, do I bet he was the goalie he was last year in 20 games, or the goalie he was for the 270 before — which was a .910 save percentage guy who can give his team a chance to win? I would probably bet on the larger sample.”
Truthfully, I think Mrazek is a great bet to rebound, but rebounding on a bad team with very little to play for versus playing on a team expecting to chase a Stanley Cup is a very different type of pressure. I don’t doubt the ability of Mrazek – he is a proven, legitimate NHL goalie – but his ability to stay healthy is the issue. This is why, I suspect, the Leafs are hemming and hawing at the thought of qualifying Ondrej Kase as well. It is hard to build a team with continuity when you can’t trust certain players to stay healthy.
In terms of the draft selections, we’ve already analyzed them pretty in-depth, but I will add and reiterate a few things here. They should swing for a goalie in each draft, and they have done that in six of the last seven. The whole goaltending department of this organization should be audited if they can’t eventually turn one of them into a viable NHL asset. It would represent a lot of swings with few results. They haven’t drafted a goalie of consequence since James Reimer in 2006; at some point, that’s not simply because they are only drafting poorly.
This is the second-straight draft in which the Leafs have not selected a defenseman, which is kind of wild when we really think about it. It coincides with some interesting timing with a contract stalemate between the organization and the promising Rasmus Sandin. It’s not like the Leafs have zero other young defensemen. I’m sure they would argue they are simply selecting the best player available and this was how the board shook out, but it’s still zero defensemen in two draft classes. It’s also what happens when a team lacks draft picks in general. They’re going to miss out somewhere, and you have to think it will be felt at some point.
Beyond that, it was nice to see the Leafs select a center high in the draft. A team can never have enough; they are always in demand. They missed out on defensemen on one hand, but they added a goalie and a center on the other.
The Leafs have also generally succeeded when drafting players they have closer ties to. In this draft’s case, the example would refer to Nick Moldenhauer, who plays for the Chicago Steel in the USHL – the Leafs recently hired their former General Manager, Ryan Hardy. Rasmus Sandin was drafted from Sault Ste. Marie, and I’d argue he’s currently more promising than pretty well every player drafted after him. Matthew Knies put together a really promising draft +1 season – the Tri-City Storm’s Director of Player Development used to be the Leafs’ video coach. It doesn’t always work out, but there has been some success in the past when the Leafs have deeper ties to the prospect.
The Goalie Carousel
The draft was almost a secondary story when it came to the Leafs and the draft. To sum up:
- Petr Mrazek was traded away to the Chicago Blackhawks
- Ville Husso was acquired by the Detroit Red Wings
- Vitek Vanecek was acquired by the New Jersey Devils
- Alexander Georgiev was acquired by the Colorado Avalanche
- Marc-Andre Fleury re-signed with the Wild
- Casey DeSmith re-signed with the Penguins
That leaves very little left in the goalie market. We have Jack Campbell and Darcy Kuemper as legitimate free agent starters (and even then, I’d suggest Campbell is no guarantee). There are a collection of goalies that are plausibly available via trade.
This is the type of decision that will make or break this management group. If they botch the goaltending position completely – and they have had a number of misses at the position over the years – this is legitimately the type of decision that gets a GM fired. It’s one thing to put forth a good regular season team that can’t break through in the playoffs; it’s another to miss by cratering the team at the most important position in the game.
There are rumors circulating around about Matt Murray and the Leafs. In the right type of deal with a sweetener and heavy retention, it could make sense. Ideally, double retention takes place (ie Ottawa retains and trades him to a middle team, who then retains further and sends him back to the Leafs), and his cap hit falls in the $2-3 million range. But even if that is the case, the Leafs would have to bring in a viable backup option of note.
Murray hasn’t played more than 38 games in a season since the 2018-19 campaign. He signed a huge contract in Ottawa and essentially played himself out of the league at one point. Even if the Leafs want to bet on him rebounding – fine enough; he has a career .911 save percentage, is 28, and has won 2 Cups – they can’t fully bank on him capably handling a full starter’s workload and then performing well in the playoffs. That’s a big ask.
If the Leafs trade for Murray and bank on him, it’s not much of a backup plan to simply let Erik Kallgren and Joseph Woll battle it out behind him. There has to be a hedge made on a goalie with actual NHL credentials.
Conversely, if the Leafs were to acquire an actual proven starter, I’d argue they could justify running with the young backups. However, even if it was Darcy Kuemper, he has started over 50 games twice in his career and he’s now 32. It is hard to find starting goalies who are proven workhorses in this league.
In the absence of one, acquiring Matt Murray at a discounted rate and bringing in another legitimate goalie as a hedge is something that could make sense. Petr Mrazek was a plausible option to pair with some other goalie with upside, but the Leafs cleared the deck and decided to go in a completely different direction. As noted above, we can see why they wanted to do so, but now the slate is empty of any sort of goalie with a real NHL pedigree.
There is also the question of how the Leafs are going to improve the forward group to go along with sorting out the goaltending position. A fascinating week of high-stake decisions lies ahead for Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs.