The expansion draft is quickly approaching and for many teams it means scrambling to make sure their top stars are protected from being stolen by Las Vegas. But in Toronto’s case, it’s almost the opposite.
The Leafs are one of a few teams in the odd position where many of their top players are actually exempt from the draft. Rookie sensations like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner as well as Nikita Zaitsev won’t even take up one of Toronto’s protection spots, because they’ll each only be wrapping up their first NHL season by the time the draft takes place.
What this means is the question in Toronto shifts from “who should the Leafs protect?” to “who should the Leafs expose?”
Out of the 13 forwards who have played over 10 games for the Leafs, six are automatically protected, and one will become an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Frederik Gauthier and Nikita Soshnikov are all safe from being selected, while Ben Smith’s contract will be up.
This leaves James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin who need to be protected. The two options for protecting players in the draft are a formation of seven forwards, three defenceman and one goalie or a formation of eight skaters and one goalie. If Toronto went with the 7-3-1 formation, they could actually protect all six of these players, even if the league rules that Nathan Horton needs to be protected and Horton refuses to waive his no move clause.
However, the rules for the draft state that each team needs to expose at least two players who have played 40 games this season or 70 between this season and last and are under contract for the 2017-18 season. This is where things become interesting.
Between the six forwards the Leafs have, they’re going to have to expose two. Toronto would have been able to cheat a little and use Brooks Laich as one of their exposed players, but his contract ends at the end of the season, making him ineligible.
Taking a look at the six forwards, Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown are basically a lock for protection. Kadri signed a long-term deal this summer and has been one of Toronto’s best two-way forwards this season, while Brown is young and has also been a standout for the Leafs thus far.
Besides Kadri and Brown, James van Riemsdyk is almost certainly safe as well. Though he only has one year left on his contract, he’s tied for the team lead in points and is too valuable to give up in the expansion draft. Toronto still may be looking to sign him to a long-term deal, but if they are set on moving him, they’ll wait until they can get a sizeable return.
This leaves Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin. Between the three, it’s likely that Bozak is the one protected. Bozak and Komarov are in the same spot as both of their contracts will be up in 2018, but Bozak brings more value to the team. There’s a good chance that Bozak gets dealt before his deal expires, and in a trade, Bozak can bring more in return than Komarov can.
In terms of Martin, he’s filled the hole the Leafs needed in a gritty forward who’s able to protect the Leafs’ young talent, which is exactly why he’ll be exposed. The chances of Las Vegas picking up a player like Martin aren’t very high, which is why Toronto may take the chance not protecting him. So with Bozak getting protected, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin are most likely to be exposed by the Leafs.
The Leafs are in a very similar spot on the blue line as they are up front. They can protect all their defencemen, but won’t be able to due to the exposure rules. This is because even if the Leafs still have open forward spots using a 7-3-1 formation, they’ll likely protect AHL stars Brendan Leipsic and/or Kerby Rychel instead of using a 4-4-1 formation.
As for the Leafs current defence core, Zaitsev isn’t eligible, Hunwick and Polak will be UFAs, and Rielly and Gardiner are locks to be protected, leaving it to either Martin Marincin or Connor Carrick to be exposed.
It’ll be interesting to see which of the two is left exposed, but right now the best guess is probably Carrick. Though Carrick is a young right-hand shot defenceman, a position hard to come by in the NHL now, Marincin still has the edge on Carrick.
Marincin has six inches on Carrick height-wise and has a much better points per game average at 0.35 compared to Carrick’s 0.14. Marincin also ranks fourth among Leafs’ defenceman in ice time, with an average of 18:38 minutes per game, while Carrick ranks seventh at 16:26. So with that, Connor Carrick will likely be the defenceman to be left exposed.
In terms of goaltending for the Leafs, it’s pretty straightforward. Frederik Andersen is getting protected while either Antoine Bibeau, Garret Sparks or both will be exposed. The exposure is going to depend on who, if not both, receives a qualifying offer to stick around with the Leafs next year if they’re not picked up in by Las Vegas in the draft.
Something Toronto could do to avoid having to expose players like Komarov, Martin or Carrick could be to trade for veteran players who they could expose in the draft instead. The dilemma with this however, is if they’re not picked up in the draft, Toronto will have to keep them for next season. Someone like Antoine Vermette could be perfect for this because he is still producing and carries a low cap hit for only one more season. That being said, Toronto would have to give up something for a player who they’re hoping isn’t even with them next season, which doesn’t make a ton of sense either.
Despite Toronto having enough spots to protect their players, that was never the issue. Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Connor Carrick look to be the frontrunners which the Leafs will reluctantly have to leave unprotected going into the expansion draft.
So it seems that all there is left to do now is hope that Las Vegas sees the value in Joffrey Lupul instead.