Maple Leafs Mailbag: Could a trade bring Bozak back to Toronto?

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly spoke about the team's upcoming series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Take a bow, Leafs Nation.

For you have dug deep and found a way to submit a fine smorgasbord of queries for this week’s edition of the ol’ mailbag — even though this is the ninth consecutive edition without a single game, trade, or full team practice to (over)analyze.

Could a familiar face like Tyler Bozak, of the cap-crunched St. Louis Blues, be the upgrade the Toronto Maple Leafs need at third-line centre? What yet-to-be-invented NHL award do we need in our lives? Why is Nick Robertson eligible for the return-to-play action but not Kirill Kaprizov? No fair!

Let’s dive in.

“Trade block” is a stretch, especially for an important piece in the Blues’ attempt to run it back this summer, but Bozak should not be considered an untouchable whenever the 2020 off-season begins.

Doug Armstrong is in a pickle, and a flattened salary cap won’t do him any favours. With important defencemen Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn both seeking justifiable raises, the GM has admitted he will need to get “creative” to duck under the ceiling.

If Petro and Dunn are re-signed, the three most popular trade candidates that pop up to accommodate their raises are Alexander Steen, Jake Allen and Bozak. All three carry a cap hit of at least $4.35 million; all three won’t come off the books until the 2021 off-season.

In 2020-21, Bozak will be playing out the final season of his deal at $5-million cap hit. He holds a modified-no trade clause. While Bozak loved his time in Toronto, and the Leafs would love a dependable checking centre who can kill penalties, win draws (55 per cent) and chip in with some secondary scoring, the math is tricky.

Would Dubas give up on a younger, cheaper forward with cost certainty (Alexander Kerfoot, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson) for essentially a one-year rental of Bozak? Especially after his last one-year rental, Tyson Barrie, didn’t go as hoped?

I doubt it. There is a “buyer beware” element here, too. Bozak is 34, and his production is on the decline (29 points this season). He’s eating a significant slice of the pie for a third-liner.

More likely, Dubas looks within the system or finds an inexpensive free agent to plug that third-line centre spot.

During the process of filling out my NHL Awards ballot (due today), I’m reminded how hard it is for a defenceman to get a Lady Byng vote, a goalie to get a Hart vote, a winger to get a Selke vote, and a defensive defenceman to get a Norris vote.

We’ve gone 36(!) years since the Norris champ registered fewer than 50 points in a full season (P.K. Subban put up 38 points, but it was in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign). And that trend will continue whenever one of 2019-20’s two top-scoring D-men, John Carlson (75 points) or Roman Josi (65), lifts the prize.

Way back in 1982-83 and 1983-84, Washington’s Rod Langway won back-to-back Norrises with 32- and 33-point campaigns, respectively. In ’82-83, Langway only scored three goals—the fewest of any Norris champ in history and a mark that will surely last forever.

Let’s officially bring back the Rod Langway Award for the best defensive defenceman, which now stands only as a PHWA mid-season acknowledgement. (Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin took this year’s honours.) Better yet, let’s have all the active NHL players vote on the award the way they do with the Ted Lindsay.

Until Austin Martin showed up, Robertson was the greatest thing to happen to Toronto sports. People love hope and possibility almost as much as they love ice cream in a pandemic.

At the tender age of 18, an undersized Robertson has proclaimed himself “ready right now” for the NHL. But stepping from the OHL directly into an elimination series against the rugged Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the very best hockey teams at taking away prime scoring opportunities and punishing attackers who dare venture to the slot? That’s a tall order.

While I hate to pour cold water on the kid’s potential this August, the safer bet is that Ilya Mikheyev — who skated to the left of John Tavares last week — gets first crack at second-line left wing.

For Robertson to make an immediate impact, he’d have to be used in prime offensive situations. And unless there’s an injury, or he outshines Mikheyev in camp, securing those minutes will be difficult. Not impossible.

Better question: Come October, how long will Nylander’s beard have grown?

With media prohibited from the Leafs’ practice facility during Phase 2, my ace reporting skills pull me to Instagram. Nylander’s most recent posts showcase a moustache-only look.

Five-alarm man rocket alert.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by William Nylander (@williamnylander) on

They continue to squeeze the “middle class” of their roster while leaning on inexpensive veterans (can Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford be re-signed for cheap?) and young talent on their entry-level contracts (Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Robertson). They let UFAs Barrie and Cody Ceci walk, squeeze RFAs like Travis Dermott and Frederik Gauthier to re-up for modest raises and short term. They sign smart, low-risk KHL gambles Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen to one-year deals. And they consider trading a middle-six forward like Kapanen, Johnsson or Kerfoot in order to free up the dollars necessary to upgrade the right side of their blue line.

I dive into the effects a flattened salary cap will have on the Maple Leafs in greater detail here.

None.

Bracco was not invited to be part of the Leafs’ taxi squad, and as an RFA he doesn’t yet have a contract for 2020-21. This raises questions about where he fits with the organization.

The frustration here is that no clause in the current CBA prohibits NHL teams from signing their own blue-chip KHL prospects like Kaprizov (Wild), Alexander Romanov (Canadiens, and Ilya Sorokin (Islanders) in advance of the 2019-20 post-season and making them eligible for action, provided they were already on the club’s reserve list at the trade deadline.

The league implemented a unique rule this spring, due to this unprecedented pandemic, preventing Kaprizov from joining this summer’s tournament, however. It appears teams are hesitant to register 2020-21 contracts in hopes that 2019-20 contracts may be permissible prior to the playoffs.

The Players’ Association is taking issue here, while the Bill Guerins play wait-and-see but don’t sound optimistic. Expect a definitive answer to be part of the full return-to-play agreement.

I asked our friends at CapFriendly.com for clarity on the latest.

“There is a deadline to sign players who are viewed as free agents to the NHL but are signed to IIHF-related league contracts for next season. That date is June 15 (today). The league is keeping this deadline,” CapFriendly’s Jamie Davis informs.

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