The Leafs will be fine if they move on from Van Riemsdyk and Komarov

A lot has been made regarding the future of veteran Toronto Maple Leafs forwards James Van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov.

Van Riemsdyk, Komarov, and, another longtime veteran, Tyler Bozak, have appeared in just over 1,200 combined games with Maple Leafs embroidered on their chest. All three are slated to become free agents this summer. Of them, Van Riemsdyk and Komarov’s current roles have been discussed at length, but for entirely different reasons.

Van Riemsdyk is younger (28) and of Toronto’s pending free agents, carries the most value because of his ability to score and drive possession. Prior to Monday’s game, he led the Leafs in Corsi For at even strength (55.9%). It’s been debated whether or not the Leafs brass should re-sign Van Riemsdyk to a contract extension, and it’s not hard to see why. A strong argument can also be made for the Leafs to trade him prior to or at the February 26 deadline. The final option, simply keeping him as a “rental” for the stretch run, is easily justifiable.

Komarov’s performance this season is another story. Head coach Mike Babcock loves him, though one has to wonder why. Babcock’s favoritism for Komarov is clear, as he currently sits fourth on the Leafs in ice-time ahead of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri and Bozak. Komarov’s usage is particularly puzzling if you look at how he’s set the Leafs back when he’s been on the ice.

Komarov has been, by far, the Leafs worst possession player (45.1%). He also doesn’t produce enough to justify his playing time (13 points and four goals this season). This has left a negative effect on his teammates as almost every single one of Toronto’s forwards, including Komarov’s current line mates Patrick Marleau (50.1%) and Kadri (54.5%), have possessed the puck more with Komarov on the bench. With him, it dips to 48% for Marleau, and 46.7% for Kadri. Go down the board, and Komarov’s usage becomes harder to understand, with three of Toronto’s most talented players — Auston Matthews (32%), Nylander (41%) and Marner (42% ) — all under-performing when they play with winger.

As Van Riemsdyk yields considerably better results than Komarov, you’d think the decision to keep the former, and drop the latter, would solve the Leafs’ recent issues. Of course, it’s never that easy. There are, however, two viable alternatives waiting in the wings and can be found in their own backyard.

Toronto Marlies’ Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, who conveniently, and perhaps coincidentally, are wingers, could be the answer, this season or next. If Van Riemsdyk and Komarov were both under-performing, the youngsters’ arrivals would be imminent. Because Van Riesmdyk is producing, and because Babcock insists on using Komarov on the penalty kill and in key situations, among other reasons, both players remain in the AHL.

Kapanen, who was acquired by the Leafs from the Pittsburgh Penguins as part of the Phil Kessel trade in 2015, has been brought along slowly. Unlike Johnsson, Kapanen has had a taste of the NHL and impressed, particularly with his speed. It’s hard to believe he’s only 21 years old, another reason for the Leafs’ overly cautious approach. With other prospects graduating to the NHL before him, it doesn’t appear Kapanen has much left to prove. After piling up 43 points in 45 games last season, he’s managed an impressive 22 points (12 goals) in 27 games this year. He’s been called upon when a Leafs player goes down with an injury, but has yet to receive an expanded role (around 12 minutes of average ice time in 23 career NHL games). Kapanen has also been a positive possession player in limited action with Toronto (51.9%).

With Van Riemsdyk, Marleau and Zach Hyman operating as the Leafs’ top-3 left wingers this season, Komarov has been relegated to right-wing duties. Kapanen — a more natural right winger — could slot in as his replacement either this season, if the Leafs ditch the Komarov experiment, or next (assuming, of course, they stand pat in free agency).

Johnsson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2013, has been turning heads since his debut with the Marlies last year. In his first full-season in North America, Johnsson was one of the Marlies’ most reliable scorers, tallying 47 points and finishing second on the team with 20 goals in 75 regular-season games. He continued to show off his knack to score in the playoffs, with six goals in 11 games. Johnsson has taken another step this season. He’s currently second on the team with 29 points and 17 goals in 37 games. Of the 123 games he’s played for the Marlies, including the playoffs, he’s scored at a 35-goal pace. As a potential replacement for Van Riemsdyk, that’s significant. This is where it gets complicated.

Unlike Kapanen, Johnsson has yet to prove anything at the NHL level. It’s easy to plug Kapanen in the bottom-six and rely on his speed and offensive potential. It’s entirely different to replace Van Riemsdyk with Johnsson. If Kyle Dubas, the Marlies’ general manager and the one with an inside track on a player’s development in the AHL, is confident Johnsson will be ready next season, he’ll get every chance to prove himself. If not, the Leafs’ decision with Van Riemsdyk becomes more crucial.

Signing Van Riemsdyk to a contract extension would block and impact Johnsson’s path to the NHL. That wouldn’t be as bad if Van Riemsdyk were to continue to produce into his 30’s. It’s not every day you find consistent 30-goal scorers, after all. If the Leafs went down that road, they could trade Johnsson as part of a package for a defenceman. That aside, it’s Toronto’s cap situation, and not so much Van Riemsdyk’s future value, that could serve as a stronger influence for the Leafs to replace Van Riemsdyk with Johnsson.

Komarov is all but gone. This we know. Kapanen has earned a role in the Leafs’ bottom-six, maybe not this season, but definitely next. If Toronto and Co. hope to keep all of Matthews, Nylander and Marner long term, letting Van Riemsdyk go this summer would be a difficult, but integral step. It doesn’t make sense for the Leafs to trade him this year, either. He’s a key piece and will be relied upon for the rest of the season, and hopefully, into the playoffs. It’s equally unlikely that he’s offered an extension. On the open market, Van Riemsdyk is expected — and has earned the right — to command a five-or-six-year deal. There are reports he’s willing to stay in Toronto for six years and roughly $36 million. If true, that would be a bargain for the Leafs. Still, the development and play of Johnsson and Kapanen is hard to ignore, and with the possibility of Toronto freeing up close to $7.2 million (more if Bozak walks, too) by letting Van Riemsdyk and Komarov go, the Leafs can afford to bite the bullet.

Zach Hyman— Auston Matthews — William Nylander

Patrick Marleau — Nazem Kadri — Mitch Marner

Andreas Johnsson — Tyler Bozak — Connor Brown

Matt Martin — Frederik Gauthier — Kasperi Kapanen

This includes Kapanen and Johnsson as replacements to Van Riesmdyk and Komarov, with the assumption that Bozak returns for less than he’s being paid right now ($4.2 million). Kapanen is an obvious upgrade on Komarov, so that is already a win for the Leafs. Losing Van Riemsdyk would hurt in the short term, but is necessary to see what the Leafs have in Johnsson at the NHL level. Assuming Van Riemsdyk’s production tails off into year three or four of his prospective contract, Johnsson — who will be a restricted free agent this summer — could sign a cheap deal ensuring him a spot on the roster, similar to the recent extensions handed to Brown and Hyman. Best case, in a few years, Johnsson is a cost-effective piece providing similar value to Van Riemsdyk.

With cap space at the front office’s disposal as a starter for new deals for Matthews, Nylander, and Marner, paired with the need for signing or trading for a defenceman, moving on from Komarov and Van Riemsdyk is worth it. The risk is there, but the reward could be substantial.

Statistics courtesy of Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick

Photos courtesy: Getty Images