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Photo Credit: © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

First Look: Canucks Pay Sticker Price For Tyler Toffoli

The Canucks continued their trend of acquiring brand-name players yesterday afternoon when they announced they had traded for pending UFA Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings.

The details of the trade took longer to trickle out than the results of the Iowa caucus, and fans were getting more than a little antsy while waiting to hear what would be going back the other way.

In the end, it turned out the Canucks had paid the standard price for a high-end player on an expiring deal: a roster player, a pick, and a prospect. In this case, Tim Schaller, a 2nd, and Tyler Madden. They also gave up a conditional 4th that will be delivered to the Kings in the event that Toffoli re-signs with the Canucks.

That means it’s time to take a quick look at what the Canucks got, the pieces they gave up, and what it all means, as has been customary at CanucksArmy any time the team makes a major deal.

Tyler Toffoli

Jim Benning loves his big-name players, and Tyler Toffoli is no exception. He’s a Stanley Cup winner and three-time 20-goal scorer whose career arguably peaked in 2015-16 when he had a career-high 31 goals and 58 points.

The Canucks have chased players with that kind of profile a number of times in the past, but if recent additions like Toffoli, J.T. Miller, and Tanner Pearson are any indication, they’ve gotten better at identifying players that can at least live up to their household name-status.

This season, Toffoli has been the Kings’ best regular forward by shot share and second-best by expected goal share, which is quite impressive given that the Kings have fared quite well as group by those metrics. As you might expect from a player on a team with strong underlying numbers that’s produced terrible results, he’s been a below-average shooter over the past few years, but there’s reason to believe he could benefit from a change of scenery in that regard, given that he’s been attached at the hip to a declining Jeff Carter all year.

At even strength, Toffoli’s had an excellent offensive impact, and he can definitely help a team’s power play. Defensively, he’s been more permissive than average, which is completely justified given how much offence he produces, but isn’t likely to help the fact that the Canucks have been porous defensively all year.

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Toffoli also fares well by Evolving-Wild’s Goals Above Replacement model (GAR), which seeks to describe how much additional value a player has provided his team over a replacement level player. His GAR of 6 would rank fifth on the Canucks behind Elias Pettersson (18.0), Brock Boeser (13.3), Quinn Hughes (12.2), and J.T. Miller (8.4), which indicates that if he continues to play at the level he has for most of the season, he will likely be one of the team’s best forwards behind the trio of Pettersson, Miller, and Boeser.

When looking purely at boxcar stats, Toffoli has been a consistent middle-six producer of offence, particularly at even-strength. Aside from one down year in 2018-19, he’s basically been a lock to score 20 goals a season provided he plays a full 82 games. He also has built-in chemistry with another former L.A. King in Tanner Pearson, which adds to his appeal for the Canucks. Together, Pearson and Toffoli made up 2/3 of the famed “That ’70s Line” that was arguably among the best in the league for a short period in the mid-2010s. That would seem to make him the best candidate to play alongside Bo Horvat the Canucks have had in quite awhile, although the recent injury to Brock Boeser muddies things somewhat.

All in all, there’s no denying the Canucks got a great player, so let’s take a look at what they gave up to get him.

Tyler Madden

The Canucks technically gave up three (or possibly four) assets to get Toffoli, but it seems fair to focus on Madden, who is the only piece of tangible value we can currently measure. Obviously, we don’t know which player(s) will be selected with the pick(s) they gave up, so there’s not much to analyze there. Tim Schaller is a useful enough depth player who never really found his footing in Vancouver, but he’s essentially a cap dump, so there’s no use spending much time pouring over his underlying profile.

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While the second-rounder certainly has the potential to be a hell of a prospect if the Kings play their cards right, for now, the centrepiece of this deal is Tyler Madden, who has taken the Adam Gaudette development path and gone from unheralded USHL forward to one of the best players in the NCAA.

Madden seemed like a bit of a questionable pick at the time he was selected, but he’s gone on to become one of the Canucks’ best prospects, ranking anywhere from third to seventh depending on who you ask and how much they know about prospects.

Jeremy Davis’ prospect Graduation Probablities System (pGPS) shines a very favourable light on Madden, giving him approximately a 1 in 3 chance of developing into an impact player. With a base expected likelihood of success of 38%, Madden’s value is now roughly equivalent to that of a player drafted in the mid-to-late first round.

Perhaps most impressively, Madden’s expected production rate is just above 50 points a season, provided he makes the show. Some of the more notable names in Madden’s cohort are James Van Riemsdyk, Paul Stastny, Thomas Vanek, Jason Zucker, Cam Atkinson, and Gustav Nyquist. Needless to say, the odds are still stacked against Madden, but if he hits, he could turn out to be a pretty special player for the Kings, who already boast arguably the best prospect pool in the league.

While Madden certainly boasts a strong statistical profile, that’s just one piece of the puzzle, and it takes a sharp eye to tell the difference between a player that’s likely to hit and one that’s likely to miss. Since I haven’t seen Madden play much this year, I decided to reach out to managing editor of EliteProspects.com and EP Rinkside and former CanucksArmy head honcho J.D. Burke for his thoughts on Madden:

“Tyler Madden’s continued to progress at an exceptional rate on a Northeastern team that doesn’t feature much in the way of prospective NHLers in their forward ranks. His production, slightly lower than Gaudette’s at this stage in his development, is at least every bit as impressive in that context, especially when one considers the ratio of even strength to power play points. He’s a fearless transporter of the puck, with a good degree of rush lane diversity for a centre, and a protect-the-puck-at-all-costs mentality. His preference is to distribute north-south, and that’s made him a perfect pivot for Canucks seventh-rounder Aidan McDonough. His two-way game needs works and he’s going to need to get on the J.D. Burke diet, but those are minor quibbles given where he’s at in his development. I’m not sure if he’s a centre at the NHL level, but he projects as a middle-six contributor in the big leagues, wherever he lands.” 

That’s a pretty impressive endorsement considering he was not a popular selection around these parts a few years ago. It’s also a testament to the good work that’s been done by Judd Brackett and co. since the scouting department was restructured after the 2016 draft.

While losing Madden hurts, it’s important to remember that you don’t get a player like Toffoli without giving up a prospect with serious potential, and part of the reason teams want to draft well is precisely to add more bullets to the chamber when a situation like this one arises. While Madden can certainly play the wing, the Canucks dealt from a position where they feel they are fairly deep, at least at the NHL level, so it’s easy to see why they pulled the trigger.

Conclusion

In the short-term, Toffoli is a huge boost to the team’s playoff hopes and a natural fit in the top-six, or potentially to beef up the two-way profile of the third line. In the long-term, he’s yet another player they’re going to struggle to re-sign if they want to remain cap compliant. The Canucks have roughly 18 million dollars in cap space next season to fill ten roster spots and given that Toffoli and his family have laid down roots in L.A., there’s a decent chance he’s a pure rental. It will be unfortunate if the Canucks aren’t able to retain Toffoli, but that’s the kind of thing you have to have to live with sometimes if you’re serious about competing.

It’s easy to see the logic behind this move for the Canucks. The Pacific is as weak as it’s ever been and it’s arguably theirs for the taking if they want it. Adding him to the lineup also mitigates the effect of losing Boeser for the next eight weeks with an upper-body injury. In an ideal world, he’ll come back in time for the playoffs and having two legitimate top-six right wingers will give the Canucks the push they need to win a round.

In a vacuum, this Toffoli deal is exactly the kind of picks-and-prospects-for-an-established-forward deal you expect to see at the trade deadline, and the return the Canucks gave up is completely in line with what you’d expect in exchange for a player like Toffoli. If you take a less narrow view, however, there are some reasons for concern, too.

Any qualms one might have with this trade have less to do with the deal itself and more to do with what it signals about the Canucks’ direction. The Canucks’ are all-in on this group of players and are looking to make hay while the sun shines, future be damned. At some point, any team that wants to contend has to do that, but there’s a strong case to be made that they’ve misjudged their window. Their blue line is relatively weak apart from the obvious exception of Quinn Hughes and aside from the otherworldly Pettersson-Miller duo, the Canucks are getting absolutely caved in at 5-on-5, which doesn’t exactly bode well for their chances in a playoff series. They have an excellent goalie in Jacob Markstrom, so anything can happen, but they’ve been an inconsistent team all year and their record seems to be based a bit more on good fortune than any kind of sustainable model for success.

One wonders if they would have been better served exercising a bit more patience before pushing all their chips in. In the words of former CA Overlord Dimitri Filipovic, this is the kind of move you make when you’re one player away from a Stanley Cup, not one you make when you’re one player away from making the playoffs. There’s no denying that Toffoli makes them better in the short term, but with the weak underlying numbers they’ve put up this year, it’s easy to make the case that their window is still 2-3 years away, which is coincidentally right around the time we’d expect the assets they gave up to start factoring into the team’s success.

Losing Madden and the second rounder has the potential to hurt, especially in a few years when the Canucks have locked up Pettersson and Hughes to expensive long-term deals and are looking for cost-controlled depth. Having said that, there’s no guarantee Madden becomes an impact player, and it’s doubtful he’ll ever hold the kind of value Toffoli brings to this team. The same goes for whatever player ends up being selected with the second round pick. If you go by the old adage that the winner of a trade is whichever team got the best player, the Canucks inarguably came out ahead in this one, even if they are mortgaging the future to some degree.

Ultimately, the Canucks paid sticker price for a high-end player on the last year of his contract, and how the team fares over the next couple of years is likely to determine whether this move is seen as a win or a loss. If the Canucks can get a couple of rounds worth of playoff revenue out of it, they can probably spin it as a win from a business standpoint and because they were able to give their young players a bit of playoff experience. If they exit quickly, or even worse, fail to make the playoffs at all, it will be disappointing, especially if Toffoli walks in the summer.

When you look at the sum of everything the team has done over the past half-decade or so, one could get the feeling that they’re more concerned about making the playoffs in the short-term than contending in the long-term, and that should be enough to give some Canucks fans pause. At the same time, success seems to come more randomly than ever, and the Canucks have enough elite pieces to justify going for it, even if it’s not the most prudent route to take. If nothing else, Tyler Toffoli is a great player, and the team is probably going to be a lot of fun to watch over the next two months. The Canucks are taking us all for a ride, so we might as well enjoy it.