I saw Elliotte Friedman on HNIC this past Saturday, where he commented that IF Toronto ultimately decided to trade William Nylander, the Carolina Hurricanes would be “all in”. Naturally, the Twitterati began to speculate on what the return should be (leaving aside the fact that Dubas still seems pretty determined not to trade Willie).
On the face of it, Carolina seems an ideal trade partner on the grounds that Carolina has an abundance of young, talented, cost-controlled defencemen but is deficient offensively, whereas the Leafs seem to have the opposite problem. I just think this is becoming a lazy narrative: i.e., the Leafs are “stacked” on offense, but weak on the blue line. The reality is that the blue line has been pretty solid. When they have lost, it’s because the offense has gone cold. It’s early days, but so far this season, it is fair to include Morgan Rielly in the Norris Trophy conversation. At a minimum, he can finally be spoken of as one of the elite defenceman in NHL. So let’s cease throwing about this idea that Toronto doesn’t have “an elite d-man”.
Beyond Rielly, Igor Ozhiganov increasingly looks like a shrewd acquisition (maybe even better than his Russian counterpart, Nikita Zaitsev), Travis Dermott still has great upside, Gardiner is a 50 point player and looked dominant against Pittsburgh (yes, he still makes the odd “Jake mistake”, but this is more than offset by all the good things he does). Justin Holl offers an excellent depth option and an obvious replacement when Ron Hainsey’s contract expires.
In the minors, the Marlies offer Toronto further long term options which speak to the team’s depth here (a point that Kyle Dubas himself has made many times). It’s early, but Rasmus Sandin has been a revelation, Timothy Liljegren is developing nicely (and is still only 19 years old). Plus, you still have Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen (both of whom offer depth on the left-hand side, as well as different skill sets – toughness and speed and elite passing ability, respectively).
So this idea that Nylander has to be dealt for an elite defenceman is questionable. Nylander is an emerging offensive talent, and if Toronto can’t secure a comparable player, let him sit. There’s no point giving him away, even if it ultimately means you lose a year of him, UNLESS TORONTO CAN SECURE SOMEONE OF COMPARABLE VALUE. In the case of Carolina, that’s not Brett Pesce. That would be Sebastian Aho.
But why would Carolina trade Aho when they want to upgrade their core of forwards? (As an aside, Aho wouldn’t solve the Leafs’ cap dilemma either, so I am only suggesting this as a means to show what comparable value for Nylander would represent). Remember, once you’ve dealt Nylander, that’s it. You never get him back. And if he’s seen to have “won” this dispute, it will make life very tough for Dubas when he has to do contracts for Matthews and Marner.
Kyle Dubas should be focusing much of his energy now on getting Auston Matthews signed up to a long term deal so as to establish the top of the pay pyramid for the team going forward. His injury time off means he likely won’t collect many of his contract’s incentive bonuses (which makes Dubas’s job easier, even if that’s not an ideal way to manage cap challenges). The injury (Auston’s 3rd in less than 2 years), is a nice reminder that a career can be ended with one serious Tom Wilson/Matt Cooke style hit (something, btw, that Nylander’s father, Michael, knows all too well). That might make Matthews more amenable to thinking of his long term economic security via an 8 year deal with the Leafs. Equally important, it will establish the pay parameters for Marner AND Nylander going forward, whilst reducing the leverage of the latter 2 by getting the biggest of the “big three” sorted once and for all. Three potential contract disputes on simultaneously would complicate Dubas’s life considerably and Marner himself is likely waiting on Matthews to see what is left in the “salary cap pie” for him.
The injury to Matthews, and the holdout of Nylander has reversed the prevailing narrative somewhat. Perhaps Toronto isn’t as “stacked offensively” as the pundits and fans originally thought, but happily has more defensive depth. For the most part, when the team has lost games this year, it has largely been a product of not scoring goals, as opposed to shoddy defensive play. I’m sure Kyle Dubas needs no advice from me going forward, but he has eyes and must have noticed something similar. That should guide his actions going forward, at least as it relates to William Nylander.
PS: Leafs’ fans who criticise Nylander for exercising his one ounce of leverage in securing a good long term deal should relax. If the owners hadn’t been so greedy in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, they could have offered players in his position immediate arbitration rights, which would have resolved this situation far earlier. But Willie Nylander shouldn’t be blamed for that.