Do The Leafs Really Need Kris Letang?

Friday, 28 June, 2013 by Sal Ientile of The Hockey Daily.

 

By now you have heard the rumour. The Pittsburgh Tribune reported Wednesday that the Toronto Maple Leafs are a potential candidate for D Kris Letang if he cannot agree to a deal with the Penguins. The speculation, or rumour if you’d like, suggests that Letang would prefer blue & white maple leafs sweater if he is unable to stay put with the Pens. There is no confirming evidence to back up the claim, however, it is out there now, thus, worthy of some discussion.

Is it worth it for the Leafs?

The initial reaction is, yeah it’s worth it. Kris Letang is a Norris nominee and one of the very best offensive defenceman in the league. Sure, he’s not a dynamo in his own zone but he can play the defensive side of the game better than he’s been given credit for. Since Pittsburgh suffered that embarrassing defeat in the Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins Letang’s defensive play has been called into question. But let’s face it, the Bruins made a lot of good players look bad in that series.

If you bring in Kris Letang, what does that mean for Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly?

At best, it is safe to assume Gardiner and Reilly will one day peak and become what Letang is already. If you want to play it safe it is unlikely both Gardiner and Reilly will one day be significantly better than Letang. That being said, you can’t rule it out either.

If the Leafs acquire Letang and give him millions of dollars they could soon find themselves struggling to keep a very talented defence corps together in a salary cap era. If the play Gardiner displayed in the first round is a sign of things to come then he will be making a hefty pay day when his contract runs out. By the way, Gardiner’s current contract expires at the end of next season, as does Letang’s, and Dion Phaneuf’s as well.

If Letang becomes a Leaf, does Dion get traded?

Can you have both Kris Letang and Dion Phaneuf making top dollar, which is what both will rightfully command before they put the pen to paper on a new contract? Dion’s current cap hit is 6.5 mil a year. Letang is looking for even more than that, and Dion may as well want a raise himself before he becomes a UFA in one year.

The Leafs would be great if they have Letang and Phaneuf patrolling the Blue & White blue-line but for roughly a projected 15 mil a year or more per season, where does that leave the Leafs to fill out a Cup winning roster? They still need to sign Kessel and he’s going to get similarly big money. If you got 3 players locked in for a combined cap hit of approximately 24 mil a season you’re left with little salary space to fill out a competitive team. Every situation is different, but one truth about the Leafs is this – as of now, their biggest organizational weakness both at the high end and in regards to depth is at the centre position. None of the players mentioned above are centremen.

It has been reported by ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun that Kris Letang turned down an offer of $56 mil spread across 8 years. If the Pens can’t get him to sign for that much money, why should we believe the Leafs would pay any less to ink the Penguins star.

How good is Kris Letang?

He’s amazing, we all know that. But how good are Kunitz, Dupuis, Neal, etc? They’re all good players, but made great by the fortune of sharing the ice with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Is it realistic to think Kris Letang comes to Toronto and produces at the same offensive clip he did while manning a power play with the game’s accepted two best offensive players? Seriously, no it’s not realistic. As good as Kris Letang is, his offensive numbers will decline once away from the Crosby, Malkin power-play unit.

We know Letang is not a shutdown guy defensively, rather, he’s a great offensive defenceman. But we also safely assume his offence will decline without Crosby and Malkin. Where does that leave you with a defenceman who wants to make franchise player money? Difficult scenario for the Leafs who enjoy an exceptional pool of defenceman under the age of 23. Defence is by far the strongest position the Leafs organization can boast – should they pay an arm and a leg to acquire Pittsburgh’s ace defenceman? I say, don’t do it.

The expected return for Letang is a good roster player (Jake Gardiner), a prospect and a 1st round pick, possibly more, according to Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune. That’s a lot to pay for a guy whose offensive numbers may be inflated and defensive game is widely accepted as not top tier.

This is a cap era.

In a cap era, a team needs to build from within by drafting and developing. Look at recent champions and you’ll see the formula is pretty similar across the board. Don’t underestimate the importance of a young core growing up together, becoming brothers and then going to war to win a Stanley Cup when they’re ready. The team that becomes a family and loads up with experiences together is the team that will fight until the bitter end for each other through 4 rounds of gruelling Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Leafs are so perfectly set up to develop the promising young talents on the back end within the system, it makes little sense in this era to start trading away these assets for another big contract that could potentially handcuff them in a few years when they hope to truly challenge for the Stanley Cup.

The only thing I’d say in defence of acquiring Letang is this:

1) you know the cap is going to go up significantly.

2) You are fairly certain that Gardiner and Reilly will never be as good or better than Letang.

3) You believe the Leafs can challenge for the Cup within the next two or three years before Reilly and Gardiner at less money are potentially as good or better than Letang is now

4) You’re absolutely sure that Dion Phaneuf is not part of your future plans.

If the Leafs organization believe one or more of those 4 possibilities are likely, then sure, give Kris Letang franchise player money.