The words out of Kasperi Kapanen‘s mouth as he packed up his locker this spring were shocking on the surface.
“Looking at the guys in this room, the talent we have… top six, I don’t think I belong there, to be honest,” the Toronto Maple Leafs forward said.
A rare, candid moment in which an abundantly skilled athlete doesn’t puff out his chest and shoot for the moon.
Sure, the kid is only 20 years old, but he’s an energy drink on blades. An instantly clutch scorer who had deposited the golden goal for his native Finland at the 2016 world juniors, and most recently a double-OT playoff game winner as a fourth-line call-up for the Leafs against the Capitals. A point-per-game AHL star with a nose for the net shoehorned into a checking role.
Shouldn’t he have every right to arrive at 2017-18’s training camp with top-six dreams?
Yet the question has shifted from “How do you keep Kapanen out of your top six?” to “How do you squeeze him into your bottom six?”
The Maple Leafs’ org chart at forward, particularly on the wings, went from deep to deeper upon the Patrick Marleau signing.
Next, Toronto committed four years at a $2.25 million cap hit on Wednesday to Zach Hyman, a relentless forechecker and penalty killer.
We expect fellow RFA Connor Brown, coming off the quietest 20-goal rookie season in Toronto’s history, to promptly follow suit.
Coach Mike Babcock forever holds up Brown and Hyman as the twin pillars of work ethic excellence, and this Leafs regime does not fool around with short-term contracts when it comes to twenty-somethings they trust. (See: Zaitsev, Rielly, Kadri, Andersen and now Hyman.)
Guesstimate for the Brown contract: How does five years at a $3.7 million AAV sound?
The popular sentiment in team sports is that you can never have too much depth. Injuries are inevitable. But the Leafs are so flush with wingers, something must give.
They let Brendan Leipsic (51 points in 49 games this past season as a Marlie) fly to Vegas without blinking.
Which is to say nothing of prospects like Kerby Rychel, Jeremy Bracco, Frederik Gauthier and Trevor Moore, who need time to simmer but will eventually get antsy for their shot.
General manager Lou Lamoriello is on record saying he’s happy to go into camp with the roster as is. We’re certain he’d be happier if a forward or two could be packaged with a draft pick to bolster a blue line that has only improved marginally by swapping Matt Hunwick for Ron Hainsey — a cagey vet who can play in your top four, sure, but would look fantastic as a No. 5.
Plan A, and it was a good one, was to deal 2018 UFA James van Riemsdyk (more expendable upon the Marleau acquisition) to get Travis Hamonic out of New York.
That fell apart, but there are four major trade routes to pursue:
• Anaheim. We’ve long believed the Ducks to be the Leafs’ perfect trade partner, and despite a flurry of trade buzz surrounding right shots Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson in June, nothing materialized. Babcock’s attending the Ducks-Predators series in Nashville was a business trip. The Ducks’ urgency to add a winger has lessened since the Patrick Eaves re-signing, but how concerned is Bob Murray that Corey Perry’s decline will continue?
• Minnesota, where JVR trains in his off-seasons. Chuck Fletcher already shed one young D-man, lefty Marco Scandella to Buffalo, in order to clear cap space for his No. 1 off-season priority: re-signing RFAs Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, both of whom filed for arbitration. The Wild has a right D imbalance and pressure to win now. The Leafs probably covet Matt Dumba and/or Jonas Brodin.
• Carolina, which drafted all the D-men when the Leafs were drafting all the forwards. The Hurricanes are a team on the rise making a concerted effort to climb into the playoffs. Could Brett Pesce or Justin Faulk be moved to Toronto? Would JVR welcome the chance to play with his younger brother, Trevor, on an American team that’s building the right way?
• Vancouver. We don’t believe the Canucks would make JVR’s yes-trade list, but perhaps Toronto could package picks and young forward prospects to pry Toronto native Chris Tanev away from this rebuilding franchise?
Less complicated patch-up options include striking a deal with Vegas for the still-developing RD Colin Miller or speedy LD Nate Schmidt, or looking to what’s left of the UFA class and perhaps bringing back RD Cody Franson if the price is right.
Or, you wait. You bring van Riemsdyk to camp and earmuff the rumours. One good year of JVR’s hands, even if it’s their last in blue mitts, has value beyond just a pick. You see how big of a step the young D core of Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev can take. And you save your futures — all those intriguing Marlies or healthy scratches up front — to go renting at the trade deadline. High-end right-shot targets at that point: (likely) Detroit’s Mike Green and (unlikely) Washington’s John Carlson, if their teams disappoint.
There are many ways to remedy Toronto’s offence/defence imbalance. The fun part will be seeing how it all plays out.
6 stray thoughts on the Maple Leafs
• William Nylander can sign a new contract any day now. It would be in the best interest of the club to strike deal this summer. The forward’s value may never be lower. After his performance in the second half of 2016-17 and his MVP showing at the world championships, is there any doubt the 21-year-old will put the lie to the sophomore slump?
• Much was made about Connor McDavid’s $100 million. But it’s the other numbers — eight, as in years; five, as in days after he was eligible to re-sign — that marks big wins in Edmonton and benchmarks for Toronto. Remember how anxious some Leafs fans got about the Leafs taking a few weeks to sort out Auston Matthews‘ entry-level deal? Multiply that by 34 if he’s not locked up for eight years by July 5, 2018.
• Another reason to get Nylander done sooner than later: Staggering Nylander’s deal ahead of those for Matthews and Marner would prevent a three RFA car pileup.
• If you’re surfing CapFriendly.com and see Toronto in the red, don’t get thrown by the Maple Leafs’ current cap situation. At $78.9 million, they’re currently over the cap ceiling, but when Joffrey Lupul and Nathan Horton hit LTIR, Toronto will be at $68.38 million for 2017-18. That gives the Leafs space to sign Brown and a little wiggle room left to improve the D.
• Bet on Marleau offering something to Brown in exchange for sweater No. 12 — and Brown saying, “Yes, sir, Mr. Marleau. It’s all yours.”
• Who wears the letters next season? My gut says Marleau (a former captain in San Jose) gets the “A” previously owned by Hunwick. You won’t strip an “A” from Rielly. And it would be awkward to snatch one from Bozak or Komarov, who are on expiring deals. But Matthews needs some sort of flair. The more I think about it, the more I believe he gets the “C” this fall.