Toronto Maple Leafs Expansion Draft Preview

NHL insider Luke Fox tells Sportsnet's Starting Lineup that he's been taking some heat on Twitter, but feels the Maple Leafs should protect Matt Martin over guys like Josh Leivo and Brendan Leipsic.

Unlike some of their competitors, the Toronto Maple Leafs will have relatively easy protection choices on their back end and in goal when it comes to next week’s expansion draft. But there may be some hair-pulling and nail-biting as the Toronto front office debates which forwards to expose to the Vegas Golden Knights’ greedy palms. Such is the price of establishing one the best forward cores in the NHL.

Here is who we think the Maple Leafs will protect, and which player we think the Golden Knights will pick.

FORWARDS
Nazem Kadri
James van Riemsdyk
Tyler Bozak
Leo Komarov
Connor Brown
Brendan Leipsic
Matt Martin

Considering the Maple Leafs operate the fifth-best offence in the NHL, it should come as little surprise that the most difficult protection decisions will be up front.

Kadri, van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Komarov and Brown are all set to be fixtures in the Maple Leafs’ top nine for the duration of 2017-18—or carry enough trade value that losing them for free would be foolish. (JVR, Bozak and Komarov are all entering UFA contract years.)

While you’d love Vegas GM George McPhee to take a veteran like Joffrey Lupul, Eric Fehr, or Ben Smith, that would require heavy incentive (draft picks) from Lou Lamoriello.

Brian Boyle, Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, and Colin Greening are all UFAs heading out the door. Seth Griffith is an impending RFA who’s been waved more times than SkyDome.

So, whom do you protect with the final two spots? It comes down to Leipsic (23, RFA 2017), Martin (28, $2.5 million cap hit), Josh Leivo (24, RFA 2018) and Kerby Rychel (22, RFA 2018).

Tough call.

Even if you expose Martin, you’re still likely to lose an intriguing prospect on the wing. Leaving four-line enforcer Martin and the three years and $6.5 million remaining on his deal exposed doesn’t send the right message to the player or to a room in which he’s beloved.

The kids need a dad tougher than your dad, and Martin—who flips from knuckles and shoulders to jokes and wisdom with ease—fills an important role with the group, despite what your chart says. So, yes, we’ll use a spot on the slower, older guy here.

Of the remaining three wings, we’ll protect Leipsic in a bit of a toss-up. He spent all season with the Marlies, where he tore up the AHL: 18 goals and 51 points in 49 games.

Saying that, we loved Leivo’s 13-game, 10-point look with the big club last season, and Rychel (19 goals, 33 assists) is coming off his best year as a pro.

Vegas can snap up a promising, young winger, and Toronto will be left with one.

DEFENCE
Morgan Rielly
Jake Gardiner
Connor Carrick

Rielly and Gardiner are no-brainers. Entrenched in Toronto’s top four for the foreseeable future, they are the club’s best and most-relied-upon D-men until the I’s are dotted on that Drew Doughty trade (we’re kidding).

Rielly, 23, is locked up through 2022 at a fair $5 million cap hit, and Gardiner has taken huge strides under Mike Babcock, proving he’s worth more than the $4.05-million average annual salary he’ll cash until 2019.

Of the remaining defencemen who qualify for the expansion draft, Matt Hunwick, Steve Oleksy, Roman Polak and Andrew Campbell are all impending UFAs, so there’s no use wasting a protection slot on one of them.

So the choice comes down to Carrick, Martin Marincin (25, $1.25 million cap hit) or Alexey Marchenko (25, $1.45 million cap hit). All three will be restricted free agents in 2018.

At 23 with a $750,000 cap hit, Carrick is the youngest and cheapest of the bunch. Babcock likes Marincin’s penalty-killing work, but we see Carrick as the better long-term investment. He was a plus-8 in his first full big-league season (67 games played) and is a student of the game driven to get better.

Let’s be honest. The defencemen debate is essentially moot. Vegas will have much better blueliners to pick off other teams and should target a scoring winger from trigger-happy Toronto.

GOALIES
Frederik Andersen

Overcoming injury and an adjustment to the T.O. spotlight, Andersen solidified himself as a No. 1 goaltender in 2016-17. He’s locked up through 2021 at $5 million per season, and both sides are committed.

The Leafs’ struggles to identify a backup they can trust are well known. The serviceable Curtis McElhinney is an impending UFA. And although 23-year-old prospects Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks (both RFAs this summer) have shown flashes of promise, neither demands protection over the great Dane.

VEGAS PICK PROJECTION
Kerby Rychel, F

Of the players we’ve left available, Vegas’s real debate should be Rychel vs. Leivo. Rychel, 22, is a bigger body (6-foot-1, 213 pounds) who put up better numbers in junior (he was a 40-goal, 70-point man twice over with the Windsor Spitfires). He’s also two years younger than Leivo and represents a better chance for a home-run pick. So much so, we wouldn’t be overly shocked to see the Leafs protect Rychel and expose Leipsic instead.

Bottom line: Vegas should get a good forward in his early 20s, and Toronto will lose one from its stable full of them.

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