Just before last night’s game against the Flyers began, Pierre Lebrun of The Athletic floated a potential trade of Toronto Maple Leafs RFA forward William Nylander to the Panthers for a package centered around defenseman Michael Matheson during a radio hit. Naturally the hockey twitter world immediately went into overdrive because anything involving the largest fan base in the NHL is going to create a frenzy.
For those of you who don’t know, the 22 year old Nylander is currently a restricted free agent that has not signed his RFA tender or agreed to a new contract with the Leafs. He is coming off back to back 61 point seasons and is demanding a contract that will pay him roughly 8 million dollars AAV. After shockingly signing John Tavares to a 7 year $11 million AAV contract this past summer and with both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner needing new contracts after this season, the Leafs know longer have the cap space to pay Nylander what he is demanding. If you are wondering why another team hasn’t signed Nylander to an offer sheet to lure him away from Toronto, just read the next tweet.
So if a team wanted to sign Nylander to an offer sheet for 8M AAV, they would need to send the Leafs their 2019 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick. Here is the problem. The NHL treats non-first round picks like candy and most teams have already traded their 2019 2nd or 3rd round picks. The Panthers have traded both away already. I believe under 10 teams in the entire NHL have the required picks to even offer Nylander a contract. Add in that the NHL GM group is an exclusive country club where respect among the group is valued over doing what is best for the team you are employed by, and therefore you very rarely see a team offer sheet a player.
So now back to how the Panthers fit in to the Nylander situation. The Panthers project to have $16.5 million in cap space for next season without needing to re-sign any major pieces. They could afford to give Nylander his $8ish million AAV contract without shedding any money. However, that scenario isn’t possible as the Leafs are trying to win now and won’t take future assets in return for Nyander. As Lebrun mentioned, if a deal between the Panthers and Leafs was going to take place, Michael Matheson would certainly be the player the Leafs demand be part of the deal. The Leafs are desperately searching for a cost controlled top 4 defenseman and Matheson is exactly that. He is in year one of an 8 million $4.875 million AAV contract. Matheson checks every box of what the Leafs are looking for but as LeBrun stated in his article (behind a paywall) published on the Athletic this morning, he doesn’t see the Panthers as a realistic destination due to how highly the Panthers organization values Matheson.
In my opinion, a trade between the two teams would require more then Matheson heading to Toronto. I could see the Leafs asking for a young top 9 forward and another future asset. Now should the Panthers do it? Let’s look at it from both sides.
The Panthers Should Stand Pat
The Leafs are desperately searching for another top 4 defenseman to shore up a very shaky defensive group. The Panthers also were in the market for a top 4 defenseman this past offseason. As both teams found out, there weren’t many available this offseason and those that were traded for a king’s ransom. After signing Tavares, the Leafs mostly exited the market for a top 4 D-man and the Panthers took a gamble on Russian defenseman Bogdan Kiselevich from the KHL. (Side note, that is the first time I was able to correctly spell Kiselevich on the first try without having to look it up.) Now that Nylander has made it clear he will not sign for less money to stay in Toronto, the Leafs are back in the market while the Panthers have been satisfied with what they have gotten from Kiselevich.
Michael Matheson is 24 years old and growing into his role as a top 4 offensive defenseman nicely. He possesses great skating ability and good offensive instincts. Assuming he keeps growing as a player, that 8 year contract could be one of the best in the NHL. Trading Matheson to the Leafs for Nylander would make an already good Panthers offense a whole lot better (maybe even one of the best in the NHL), but it would re-open that desperate need for a top 4 defenseman. Another move would have to be made to fill the hole left by Matheson. Borgstrom would likely be dangled to bring in a replacement for Matheson and now Tallon is worrying about winning two big trades instead of one. All of a sudden the Panthers are re-making their roster on the fly and that isn’t something a team playing very good hockey usually does.
Another concern is the lack of depth on defense in the system. The Panthers have drafted forward very heavily over the last few drafts (they haven’t taken a defenseman in the first two rounds since they took Aaron Ekblad #1 overall in 2014. They could attempt to slot 25 year-old Jacob MacDonald into Matheson’s slot but that is quite the risk. MacDonald to his credit had a great pre-season and has continued that strong play in the AHL with 3 goals and 5 assists in 9 games for the Thunderbirds. There is a lot to like when watching MacDonald, but slotting him next to Aaron Ekblad on the 2nd pairing may be too big of a risk to take for a team trying to make a deep playoff push this season. After MacDonald, the only other possible option in the organization is to put Mark Pysyk back into the lineup but he struggled mightily last year when deployed in a top 4 role and he doesn’t have the offensive game the Panthers are looking for out of their top four defenseman. Ian McCoshen projects to be a good future bottom pairing defenseman but is not ready to be in the NHL full time.
Putting it simply, the allure of having a dynamic offense just isn’t worth opening up a gaping hole on their defense. This seems to be the Panthers mindset even though there are plenty of people who are calling them crazy for being unwilling to trade Matheson for Nylander.
Exciting Offense>>>>All. DO IT!!!!!
Elite offense is one of the hardest things to find in the NHL. Just behind that, top 4 defense. Even if it hurts the defense, if you have an opportunity to get an elite offensive player, you have to do it. Acquiring Nylander gives the Panthers the ability to roll out a top 6 of Hoffman-Barkov, Dadonov and Huberdeau-Trocheck-Nylander. That’s 6 players who you can expect to finish with 60+ points a season each with all of them under 30 years old. You could get elite production out of that entire group for at minimum 4 seasons. Good luck defending against that. Add in Borgstrom eventually cracking the lineup and you are talking about potentially the best offense in the NHL. Even if the hole created on defense can’t be filled, the Panthers will be exciting on offense every shift for the first time since the Russian Rocket was blasting off for 50+ goals a season.
Another reason to seriously consider this deal, remember the Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall trade? Everyone knew the Devils won that trade immediately. The Devils got an elite offensive player for a defenseman people expected to keep improving but wasn’t the caliber of Hall at the time of the deal. Despite the fact that Matheson is a few years older than Nylander, it’s Nylander who has had the greater impact on the ice so far in their respective careers. Matheson is on an upward trajectory with his game, but the fact still is that he is coming off a 27 point season and is currently on pace to finish in the 23-27 point range for this year. He has only played 13 games so far this year so there is a lot of time for him to go on a run and finished above 30 points for the first time in his career, but the point still stands that the Panthers would be trading a 24 year old 30 point defenseman for a 60 point 22 year old forward. It’s not hard to make the argument why you have to make that trade. If Matheson doesn’t take that next step I fully expect him to take, the trade becomes a massive win for the Panthers. If he does take that step, it likely becomes one of those deals where both teams get what they wanted but Toronto wins overall because they now have that top 4 defenseman they have been craving to balance out one of the most talented rosters in the NHL.
What should Dale Tallon do? I am honestly torn. While writing this article I have fallen on both sides of it, so I will cop out and say that it’s not my job to make that determination. I do know that Tallon is fiercely loyal to the guys he drafted and Matheson is one of his draft picks. For that reason alone, I don’t expect their to be a deal between the two teams. Add in that trades between teams in the same division are always a bit more complicated because of the very real fear of possibly losing the trade and having to be reminded of it multiple times a year when the two teams play. The Panthers are in the middle of a 5 game win streak and while he hasn’t been lighting up the score sheet, Matheson is playing good hockey to contribute to that win streak. It would take some major guts from Tallon to pull a move like this while the team is playing this well.
What do you guys think? Let us know what you would do if you were in Tallon’s seat. What else do you think is needed to get a deal done if you would do that trade? As always, follow me on Twitter @CF3234 and thanks for reading.