By the numbers: Did the Leafs get better? Assessing Toronto’s latest free-agent signings
by Dom Luszczyszyn, 6 hours ago
With a few signings over the weekend, the Maple Leafs have made a statement early this off-season: the rebuild is over and the time to contend is now. The team plugged some holes at centre and on defence by signing Dominic Moore and Ron Hainsey and then landed their big fish on Sunday, signing Patrick Marleau.
The Leafs spent a lot of money with the intention of taking the next step. The big question now is whether these additions will make as big of an impact as the price tag warrants. They spent more than $7 million on upgrades — most of that went to Marleau — and a team should be adding roughly two wins of value with that kind of money based on my model. I'm not sure the Leafs got two wins better over the past two days.
Here’s a look at who they added and what value they likely bring to the table next season.
Ron Hainsey Contract: $3M x 2 years Age: 36 Role: Second pair right defenceman or third pair left defenceman Replacing: Matt Hunwick Salary Difference: +$750,000 GSVA Difference: -0.24 wins
This year's defensive market was a wasteland, especially for right-shot defencemen, which is what Toronto desperately needed. Hainsey is left-handed, but played some minutes on the right side for Pittsburgh during the post-season. Compared to what other teams got and what they paid for, the Hainsey signing looks fine for Toronto.
Hainsey, however, is really loathed by Game Score, but it’s possible he has attributes that are overlooked. My model struggles with two things: defence and usage. That’s going to make Hainsey, a defensive defenceman who plays tough minutes, look a lot worse than he actually is. Hunwick grades out as a better player right now, but I think most of that is usage related, which is something our editor James Mirtle dug into after the signing.
When Hunwick went from playing top-pair minutes last season to third-pair minutes this season, his GSVA (projected Game Score translated to wins) rose by a half a win. It's only one data point so the effect may be smaller than that, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence he got better as he fell down the depth chart. The fact that the difference between the two is negligible while Hainsey plays top-pair minutes suggests he’s probably a better player. That’s exactly the case, according to goals above replacement, which factors in context like competition and teammates. Hainsey’s 5.6 GAR trumped Hunwick’s 2.5 last season. It also suggests that Hainsey could benefit from a slide down the depth chart.
Hainsey’s puck-moving ability and mobility is highly questionable, but he’s got strong defensive instincts, and that’s what Toronto’s blueline desperately needs. It might be tough to watch at times, but at $3 million for two years, it’s a fine stop-gap solution until the team can find someone better. I would’ve preferred Cody Franson, who’s better and will probably be cheaper, but for an extra $750,000 more than what Hunwick got in Pittsburgh, the deal looks reasonable.
Dominic Moore Contract: $1M x 1 year Age: 36 Role: Fourth-line centre Replacing: Brian Boyle/Ben Smith Salary Difference: -$1.55M/+$350,000 GSVA Difference: -0.67 wins/+0.07 wins
This deal is one year and can easily be buried in the AHL. But think the Ben Smith experience was bad? Moore, who turns 37 in August, isn’t that much better, and he’s been getting worse as he gets deeper into his 30s. His relative Corsi over the last 10 years looks like a roller coaster. Last season looked like the part when you ask to get off the ride.
Those are relative numbers and as a bottom-six forward that isn’t exactly fair to him, but the last time he had a Corsi percentage above 49 per cent was in 2011. While he gets his fair share of defensive zone starts, a lot of that is his own doing from poor possession play. It’s not like he’s being used against top guys either.
Of course, not all of his results are poor. Take one look at his Hockey Reference page, and it's clear why he was signed: He wins faceoffs. Leafs coach Mike Babcock loves faceoffs and needs a centre who can win them in the defensive zone. According to his past experience, 55 per cent of the time he’ll get that with Moore. But the other 45 per cent of the time, he’ll get a poor player trapped in his own zone.
Moore just isn't a great player at this point in his career. At the same time, it’s hard to get too worked up about the deal. The Leafs needed a fourth-line centre because they lack organizational depth at that position. There weren’t many better options, either. Brandon Pirri would’ve been a good add, but outside of him the market for centres was like a field of landmines. It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been Chris Kelly or Vernon Fiddler. It could’ve been another Leafs reunion with John Mitchell or Jay McClement. It could’ve been Nate Thompson who will cost Ottawa $650,000 more than Moore.
Still, the Leafs will be trotting out two negative value players on the fourth line on a nightly basis. It’s an old-school tactic when the rest of the league is moving towards icing four skilled lines. The Leafs were a better team after adding Boyle. This will be a noticeable downgrade. He didn’t put many points up, but the fourth line finally looked like less of a liability with him in the fold.
Patrick Marleau Contract: $6.25M x 3 years Age: 37 Role: Top six left winger GSVA: +0.65 wins
This deal shows the Leafs understand they have a window to win in the next two seasons with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on their entry-level contracts. Toronto had cap space and they wanted a player who can push them over the edge. Is Marleau that player? Well, they’re certainly paying him to be. But it looks unlikely Marleau is the 30-goal scorer he once was, and compared to other guys making similar money, this signing doesn’t look great.
Now, most of these contracts aren’t great value either (and bigger term pushes their cost down too), so Marleau being rated low isn’t a great sign. At $6.25 million, Marleau should bring the Leafs extra value next season and he likely falls one win short of what he’s being paid to do. According to Matt Cane’s salary projections, Marleau’s worth was closer to $4 million, meaning this is a steep overpayment for his services.
This isn’t the 2014 version of Marleau, who scored 70 points or the Olympics version of Marleau, who impressed Babcock. The Leafs will be getting the 2017-18 version of Marleau, a second line 45-point winger that’s veering closer to middle-six territory as he ages. And that’s just in year one of the deal — what will year two or three look like?
I wrote about Marleau when the Leafs were rumoured to be interested in him last week. I concluded the Leafs should neither overpay or overcommit. They did both. They’re betting a lot on Marleau defying the age curve and performing like he’s three years younger than he is.
Supply and demand made this contract worse than it should’ve been, but it’s unlikely it affects the team’s future situation too much. The Leafs have lots of flexibility and this deal is front-loaded, meaning it won’t be hard to get out of in year three.
The contract is highly questionable, but at the same time, it’s hard to picture the Leafs finding a player who fits this team and its system better than Marleau does. Toronto is built on speed and transition, which is not an ideal setup for most older players, who are usually slower skaters. That won’t be a problem for Marleau, though, who still has wheels and should be able to keep up with the kids.
Marleau should fit this team like a glove, but every player is connected to his contract and with that comes expectations. Toronto paid the price for the player Marleau used to be. The player they will get likely won’t live up to his contract and won’t provide the value they’re expecting.
Did the Leafs get better?
Yes. Enough to justify the cost? Probably not.
Marleau alone adds 0.65 wins, although there’s room for that to go up with better teammates and a more offensive system, so let’s say somewhere between 0.6 to one win.
The Moore addition loses all of that when compared to Boyle, but he was a deadline rental. This is an upgrade over Smith, but a marginal one at that. We’re up 0.7 to 1.1 extra wins.
Hainsey over Hunwick is tricky. My model grades it as a loss of 0.25 wins, but I’m willing to give some benefit of the doubt towards Hainsey when considering usage. If that has as large as an impact as it did with Hunwick, it would mean an extra 0.25 wins.
In total, the Leafs are probably getting between 0.95 and 1.35 extra wins with their free-agent signings compared to their pre-trade-deadline lineup, and between 0.3 and 0.7 wins compared to their post-trade-deadline lineup. That’s not a small step, but it’s not as significant as the cash they added.
It doesn’t put them over the top. They’re closer to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference now, but there are a lot of teams around them. The NHL has a lot of parity around the league and my preliminary projections for next season have around 21 teams in the 90- to 98-point range. The Leafs sit somewhere close to the top.
What the Leafs have going for them is youth. If Toronto’s kids can take another step forward, they can compete for the division. But if their development slows, it’s much more likely they’ll be a second or third seed in the Atlantic. They’re not a solid Stanley Cup contender yet, but they’re not far off. The Marleau signing likely means they’re not done building, either.