One of the biggest off ice NHL news items right now is the continuing hold out of Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander. Nylander is a 22-year old who has already established himself as a legitimate top 6 scorer with 61 points in consecutive seasons. Right now, he is holding out as a restricted free agent and allegedly asking for $8 million per year to sign a long-term deal. Thus far, the Maple Leafs are adamant that they are not considering trading Nylander, but the longer his holdout stretches, the more likely the team will consider other options.
Making the rounds in that regard is the thought that the Hurricanes and their surplus of right shot defensemen could be a possible trade partner and that the target would be Brett Pesce. Pierre LeBrun from The Athletic suggested the Canes as a trade partner and Pesce as a fit in this article (subscription required).
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe considers the merits of that potential trade.
The Maple Leafs predicament
Many in Toronto are too busy working on parade routes to do math right now, but I actually think the Maple Leafs could be in bad place financially long-term. With Tavares in tow for $11 million per year, and Matthews potentially outscoring him, does Matthews command at least a match for Tavares’ $11 million next summer. And then even if the Leafs meet in the middle with William Nylander for $7 million, can get Mitch Marner re-signed for $6 million and see Kasperi Kapanen cool down and only nets $4 million next summer, that adds about $26 million their current salary structure and puts them up in the vicinity of $93 million. And that is before the Leafs try to upgrade their blue line which is still getting by with 37-year old Ron Hainsey in the top four in ice time.
The team is massively top heavy in terms of salary. This can be manageable. The Chicago Blackhawks had a good run shuffling the deck on a yearly basis and having to part ways with players to make the math work, but they did ultimately hit a wall. And the Penguins have similarly been able to intermittently build winners around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But important to note about the Penguins and Blackhawks is that both teams won Stanley Cups BEFORE they started bumping up against the salary cap. So they at least knew that had a winning formula and needed to tinker around a successful core. On the other side of the ledger is the dreadful situation in Edmonton where they went top heavy out of necessity before success. Now despite having the best player in the NHL, they seem miles away from building a consistent winner and have very little for budget to try to adjust and improve.
So long story short, I do not see how the math will enable the Leafs to keep all of their young forward core intact. If Dubas looks into the very near future with a calculator in hand, he should see the same and at least start to think about what a slightly reduced core looks like. A trade for Brett Pesce would give up a good player in Nylander, but also simultaneously address a weakness and cut salary by a significant $3 to 4 million. So is Nylander part of a slightly reduced core at $7 or 8 million? Or could he be the first casualty of salary cap challenges? Especially with a seeming need to add another top 4 defenseman, ideally a right shot, does Nylander hit the trade market?
The superficial side of the Carolina Hurricanes situation
At least on the surface, the Hurricanes are a perfect trade partner. The team is stacked on the blue line and four deep on the right side with Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk and Trevor van Riemsdyk. In that regard, the Hurricanes could let go of a right shot defenseman and still be able to fill three slots. In addition, at least if the Hurricanes want to jump start the seemingly accelerating rebuild, the team could use another legitimate scorer or two. So at that high level, a trade with Brett Pesce and William Nylander as the principal components makes sense for both teams.
But at a deeper level…
But at a deeper level, I think the situation is more complicated. A built in assumption in declaring Brett Pesce expendable is that he and Justin Faulk or more or less interchangeable. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Though unspectacular offensively in his young NHL career, Pesce has been arguably the Hurricanes steadiest defender over the past couple seasons. Meanwhile, the defensive part of Faulk’s game has dipped over the past couple years to the point where I have him pegged as an offensively capable #5 who really should not be in the line of fire defensively in a top 4 role. There are obviously different opinions on that, but if you take my assertion as correct, then trading Pesce almost puts the Hurricanes back to square one as being short one top 4 defenseman.
So once I dig beneath the surface, I just see a Brett Pesce for William Nylander deal is filling one hole but at the same time creating another.
In addition, the money matters. Brett Pesce has established himself as a steady even if so far offensively unspectacular top 4 defenseman. He is 23 years old and signed for five more years through his prime for only $4 million per year. By any measure that is a bargain if he continues to be a capable top 4 defenseman. If you take at face value the rumors and rumblings that Nylander is asking for $8 million or more for a long-term deal, that is not outlandish, but that reaches up pretty close to the high rent district. Maybe Nylander is worth $8 million or more per year, but the chances of him being a bargain at that price are slim. With the Hurricanes sitting at the very bottom of the league in terms of 2018-19 salary, some might argue that the few million dollars do not matter. But I think that is shortsighted. With Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen scheduled to be re-signed next summer and players like Andrei Svechnikov, Warren Foegele and other rising youngsters in the pipeline, the Hurricanes could be tracking only a couple years behind the Maple Leafs in terms of facing salary cap issues because of good young players rising up. If that proves to be true, Pesce and his modest $4 million salary will be a significant benefit. In addition, Nylander’s next contract will be a comparable for Teravainen and Aho regardless, but if Nylander were to sign with the Hurricanes, that could escalate the cost of Aho and Teravainen’s next deals.
Netting it out – Would I do the deal?
In a word, no. I like William Nylander and also the prospect of adding another higher-end young forward to the mix, but I still would not trade Brett Pesce for William Nylander.
The primary reason is because I think it leaves the Hurricanes one short on defense and related to that I just am not in the long-term Justin Faulk camp.
But what I would do is market Justin Faulk really hard to the Maple Leafs right now. If I could do a deal that included Faulk plus even significant futures to make the deal happen, I would do it in a heartbeat. Further, if Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is intent on keeping Nylander but is now feeling an even greater pinch in terms of making the math work, I would also pitch a deal with Justin Faulk and Nazem Kadri as the principals. Kadri’s $4.5 million salary is not unreasonable, but just maybe if Dubas needs to cut something and really wants to keep the young guns, then Kadri becomes expendable to upgrade on defense without paying the full cost out of pocket. And if Toronto rates Faulk similarly to how I do and is not interested, then I would pass on any Nylander dealings that start with Pesce.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Would you trade Brett Pesce straight up for William Nylander? Why or why not?
2) If you are more inclined to trade Justin Faulk like I am, how much would you be willing to sweeten the pot with futures or other players to make Faulk the centerpiece of a deal with the Leafs?