More than meets the eye with latest cuts


It’ll probably be labeled as a “typical Leafs fan” debate given their status as lower roster players but there has been a number of questions arising out of yesterday’s demotion of Christian Hanson and Luca Caputi in favour of John Mitchell and Tim Brent… and rightfully so, in my opinion, given the “earn your spot mentality” conveyed by Leafs brass and that both followed the off-season regimens recommended to them and came into camp by storm looking bigger, faster, stronger and more dynamic offensively.

While it’s too early to judge, I am not saying the decisions to originally sign either player in John Mitchell or Brett Lebda were wise; in the cap sense and numerically, both signings have me wondering, particularly in Lebda’s case. It’s hard to see where Burke arrived at the need for someone of Lebda’s ilk and price tag unless better offers were assumed to be incoming for Tomas Kaberle. But the decision made by coach Wilson yesterday, forgetting arguments about the off-season decisions and shifting to training camp and preseason, can be understood:

  • John Mitchell was signed as an unrestricted free agent. He was left to enter the market as an RFA after the qualifying offer was deemed too pricey, but this doesn’t mean the Leafs or Mitchell’s camp didn’t explore other options. In this sense, the same logic of respecting a signed free agent’s right to an opportunity and upholding organizational reputation apply as they do in Lebda’s case. While roster spots aren’t absolute guarantees, Mitchell signed that one-way contract 1) expecting he’d see regular season opportunity with the big club and a sufficient chance to prove his worth; 2) assuming he would not promptly leave the city he signed in before the regular season even began, as might have been the case if he was passed through waivers.
  • We have not see the last of Christian Hanson this year or potentially this month. Reports have suggested he is still healing from a short-term injury and the Leafs were above the cap with Jeff Finger sticking around as an extra body on defence (with Lebda being injured as well). And yes, he is waiver ineligible; while the two-way contract has been referenced by some as the reason why, it’s amount of experience and not his two-way contract status that makes him exempt (one-way versus two-way  distinction strictly speaks to NHL versus AHL salary differences). Burke referenced the “chiwawa leash” Mitchell and Finger (presumably) are currently playing on, so I don’t expect it will be long before Hanson is back up with the big club.
  • One can understand Burke’s reasoning about evaluating a player’s “body of work” when making roster decisions at this juncture. Rewarding a youth’s strong camp is important and was no doubt acknowledged in the form of praise from the coach and general manager to the player. But at the same time you must evaluate who has been there before when the games start mattering. Mitchell’s inconsistent past and especially poor camp test this logic but when you factor in the first point, it all starts to make a bit more sense.
  • Luca Caputi stands to gain from increased minutes in the AHL. Where Hanson’s ceiling/niche seems to be the third line centre position that was up for grabs at camp, Caputi wouldn’t figure to see much ice time or powerplay time in particular with the Leafs. Working on his net presence on the PP and playing in more vital situations and minutes with the Marlies should help along Caputi’s development, not hurt it. And again, we could see him before long.
  • To be clear, I don’t blame fans for looking back at Burke’s oft-repeated mantra about earning your spot or there being no gimme spots on this roster anymore and smelling some hypocrisy. But you’re never going to say the opposite, either -  is Burke going to say that Mitchell was going to get a shot because he signed him to a new contract over the summer, or that “I never should have signed Lebda?” Burke wants to instill that mentality but he also has to take into account other factors that were at play.