We, as a society, evolve over time. From horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. From hunter-gatherers to the industrial revolution. From savages to slightly more civilized savages.
And now, following the Toronto’s exit from the Stanley Cup qualifying round, Leafs Nation has undergone perhaps its final evolutionary transition this past week: from a Trade Nylander world into a Trade Kapanen one.
Or Johnsson. Or Kerfoot.
I’m not entirely sure Leafs fans even view that trio as three separate people. They just lump them into this group of middle-six tweeners whose sole purpose is to be used as trade chips to find that elusive defensive fix. Well, my friends, I have news for you: Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson and Alexander Kerfoot are indeed three separate players with separate personalities and dealing either one of them would bring its own unique pros and cons.
So, let’s break those down.
Trade Kapanen: Pros
It feels like NHL front offices are more in love with the idea of Kapanen rather than the player himself.
Sure, Kapanen is both an elite speed threat and effective penalty killer with a 20-goal season under his belt. That’s good and all. Great, even. But this past season also revealed the 24-year-old to be relatively one-dimensional.
Given the opportunity to slot in for an injured Zach Hyman alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner to begin the year, Kapanen struggled mightily in those new top-six minutes and failed to develop any chemistry with his superstar linemates.
This inability to ride shotgun with the big boys isn’t an isolated incident, either. After nearly 700 minutes at even strength together over the past two seasons, Auston Matthews saw a rise across the board in his CF%, xGF% and SCF% numbers whenever he and Kapanen were split apart.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest man alive, hindering the performance of your team’s best players whenever paired with them more or less caps your value.
And speaking of caps, the $3.2 million Kapanen will count against the Leafs’ salary cap for the next two years seems fine on paper, but when factoring in the NHL’s new flat-cap landscape, that number becomes far less palatable for someone with a third-line ceiling.
Not to mention, Kapanen isn’t coming off a season that can be considered “good” by most metrics. His production dipped in every offensive category — including going from 20 goals in 2018-19 to just 13 — and featured a stretch in which he had just four goals in 23 games.
If Dubas can extract significant value for Kapanen — and reports from around the league seem to suggest he can — it might be time to pull the trigger.
Trade Kapanen: Cons
At the same time, finding a player with an elite-level skill is perhaps the hardest endeavour in scouting. Kapanen’s speed fits that bill undoubtedly, and Dubas has famously espoused how he is not in the business of trading away skilled players.
Basically what the front office has to ask themselves, as they do with another yet-to-be-mentioned Leaf, is if Kapanen has any more meaningful developmental runway. He is 24, after all — still young enough to improve in some areas but certainly no longer a conventional “prospect.”
If there is another gear for Kapanen to reach, dealing away someone with his already-defined skillset might be yet another trade that haunts this regime.
Trade Kerfoot: Pros
While he might get all the flack for it — and rightly so, I might add — Tyson Barrie wasn’t the only former Avalanche to come over and struggle in his first season as a Leaf.
No, Kerfoot had quite the nightmare year of his own. Which begs the question: why keep a 26-year-old middle-six tweener fresh off a nine-goal season in the middle of a cap crunch when he’s set to earn $3.5 million for the next three years? Contracts like Kerfoot’s won’t kill you, sure, but they’re precisely the type of luxury the Leafs can’t afford right now, given how tight their finances will be until the NHL expands the cap again.
Kerfoot’s final line of nine goals and 19 assists for 28 points were the lowest totals of his career in each respective category despite getting roughly the same ice time — 14:46 in 2019-20 compared to 14:53 in 2018-19 — he logged in Colorado. The usage was different, and Kerfoot spent a decent chunk of time next to Nathan MacKinnon while up in the Rockies, but this was still an undoubtedly disappointing outcome for a player the Leafs had high hopes for, considering the intent was for Kerfoot to replace Nazem Kadri as the third-line centre.
He didn’t. And with cheaper middle-lineup options such as Pierre Engvall and even Nick Robertson already locked in, Dubas could be best suited to parlay whatever value Kerfoot may have left to either regain some of the organization’s dwindling draft stock or address the blueline.
Trade Kerfoot: Cons
Did Kerfoot adequately replace Kadri as the Leafs’ 3C last season? No, he didn’t. But does that mean he never will? Well…
If Kerfoot can’t play centre, at least on a full-time basis, the Leafs would be best to trade him. But looking at Kerfoot’s most recent season in a vacuum pushes aside some meaningful context that might forecast brighter days ahead.
For one, the injury factor played a huge part. It may have been lost amidst a truly cursed season health-wise, but Kerfoot suffered fractures to both his facial and dental bones in mid-November that sidelined him for roughly a week of action. That is gnarly, dude. The guy’s jaw was so jacked up he was literally drinking Philly cheesesteaks through a straw, and admittedly struggled to put back on the weight he lost mid-season thanks to his new liquid diet.
Between adjusting to his new surroundings and the mid-season coaching change, not to mention the inability to eat solid food for a while, fans and management alike likely never saw Full Strength Kerfoot™ at any point in 2019-20.
Therefore, if the Leafs were to trade the Harvard-alum this offseason, they would be selling him at the absolute lowest possible value, which doesn’t exactly jive with Dubas’s ascription to the Church of Asset Management.
So, maybe take a breath. A year of acclimation and a clean bill of health have all the makings of a potential bounce-back campaign for Kerfoot whenever the puck drops next. And if that indeed comes to pass, and Kerfoot proves to be the centre the Leafs thought he was, his contract suddenly turns from a pricey luxury to one of the best bargains on the team.
Trade Johnsson: Pros
Let’s be real, folks. Johnsson won’t be a Leaf next year. I’d put money on it. And trust me, I don’t have a lot of money.
It’s amazing how much a player’s value can change in such a short amount of time. Two years ago, Johnsson was a promising young winger busting into the Leafs’ top-six whose seventh-round pedigree personified the fruits of the organization’s developmental prowess.
Then the contract came, and with it, expectations. Those which Johnsson failed to live up to.
Are you sensing a trend here?
Johnsson will be 26 whenever the 2020-21 NHL season kicks off, meaning that he has likely reached the peak of what he can offer as a player. What the Leafs have to decide now is if that peak is worth $3.4 million for the next three years.
I know which way I’d be leaning.
Now, Johnsson and Kapanen typically get lumped together by fans due to their similar contracts and production levels, but when determining whether either should be outright traded, the first step is to look at the value they bring to the roster respectively and decide whether that value can be replaced internally in the event of their departure.
In Kapanen’s case, he brings straight-away footspeed that is practically unmatched by any player not named Connor McDavid league-wide, let alone in the Leafs organization. Subtracting that from the lineup instantly makes Sheldon Keefe’s squad a slower one regardless of who they get in return, while stripping them of a penalty killer and breakaway threat, as well.
Taking Johnsson away from the Leafs makes them... less injury-prone? Less likely to scratch a promising rookie in an elimination game?
Frankly, it’s hard to think of one genuinely unique trait Johnsson brings to the table that can’t be replicated by an internal piece like Robertson. Johnsson is a perfectly fine middle-six winger who can jump into the top-six in a pinch. That just isn’t worth the money he’s being paid at the moment, especially during a time when literally every penny counts.
If Johnsson has value — and he’s only a year removed from a 20-goal season while also being locked down to term — the signs are pointing emphatically towards “sell.”
Trade Johnsson: Cons
I’m going to be honest with you, folks, there aren’t many cons to trading Johnsson I can think of here. But I will try my best. You’ve earned that.
As was mentioned a few sentences ago, Johnsson is only one year removed from a 20-goal season, racking up 20 goals and 43 points in 73 games as a “rookie” in 2018-19. Johnsson only played 43 games this past season largely due to the three separate leg injuries he suffered almost consecutively.
One of those would be hard enough to come back from. But three? That’s just cruel.
When you really think about it, Johnsson has only had one season of somewhat healthy runway to prove his worth, and what that turned out to be was a perfectly adequate two-way winger. Johnsson’s 2018-19 underlying value included a 50.04% xGF share to go along with a 53.85% CF/60 and 54.03% SCF at 5v5. Those numbers aren’t anything to scoff at, and serve as exactly what earned him the contract he signed that summer.
What could a healthy Johnsson bring to the Leafs? Well, as the playoffs revealed, they need depth scoring. Toronto’s third and fourth lines contributed a grand total of one goal in their five games against Columbus, and that lone marker came from Robertson, who should’ve been celebrating his senior prom at the time. Getting Johnsson back at full strength could give the Leafs’ bottom-six precisely the offensive jolt it requires.
It just depends on if the Leafs can afford to wait to find out.
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