The plan for the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs was plain from the start of the season: Fill the roster with players on expiring contracts, then flip those players for picks and prospects that will help lay the foundation for sustainable success down the road.
A week ahead of the trade deadline, it looks like that approach is paying off.
The Leafs announced on Monday morning that they’ve dealt defenseman Roman Polak and forward Nick Spaling to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for second-round selections from the 2017 and 2018 drafts along with roughneck forward Raffi Torres.
It was the second deal Toronto has made in as many days. On Sunday, the Leafs shipped forward Shawn Matthias to the Colorado Avalanche for a fourth-round selection in the 2016 Entry Draft and minor league center Colin Smith.
The acquisition of that Colorado pick left the Leafs organization with a league-high 12 selections in 2016: Two firsts, a second, two thirds, two fourths, two fifths, two sixths and a seventh. And thanks to the Polak deal, Toronto also has eight selections in 2017, including three second-rounders. And that stockpile is about to grow larger. Toronto still has goalie James Reimer and forwards P-A Parenteau, Brad Boyes, Michael Grabner and Mark Arcobello on expiring deals. All are likely to be moved ahead of the Feb. 29 deadline and Toronto’s depleted roster won't hurt its lottery chances in the Auston Matthews sweepstakes.
If all five of those players are dealt at similar value, the Leafs will be ideally situated moving forward. Fair to say they made out better than expected in this swap.
To be sure, Polak is a significant add for the Sharks, the sort of fierce competitor every team looks for ahead of the playoffs. He eats minutes (he's averaged more than 23 per in the five games since Dion Phaneuf was traded), he blocks shots, he’s hard in the corners and he’s adept at handling forwards who try to set up shop around his net. That kind of physical presence will come in handy for a team that is hoping to go head-to-head against Western Conference heavyweights like the Kings and Ducks.
Polak, who'll likely slide onto the third pair alongside Brenden Dillon, makes the Sharks a better team, but in acquiring him San Jose may have set a surprisingly high bar for this year’s market. GMs dangling defensemen like Kris Russell, Dan Hamhuis and Keith Yandle have to be drooling at the potential.
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The other two players involved in Monday's deal were essentially throw-ins. Spaling, a 27-year-old center, has scored one goal and seven points in limited duty with the Leafs this season. He’ll provide playoff depth for the Sharks. Torres’ inclusion was strictly about the Leafs taking on the final year of a contract that will pay him $2 million next season. The 34-year-old will be “re-assigned” to the San Jose Barracuda of the American Hockey League, the same team he has skated in six games with this season since returning from a 41-game suspension.
The Sharks might not be done dealing, either. It's expected that they'll add a veteran backup netminder ahead of the deadline to support Martin Jones. Reimer might be a good fit here, although San Jose's cap situation would require that any deal includes a contract going the other way or the opposing team retaining some salary.