Brooks is back, baby.
The Toronto Maple Leafs brought one of their former draft picks home on Wednesday afternoon, claiming forward Adam Brooks off waivers from the Vegas Golden Knights to cap off the 2016 fourth-rounder’s wild year-long journey.
This is the third time Brooks has been claimed this season.
The 25-year-old’s whirlwind trip around the league began back in October when salary cap constraints forced the Maple Leafs to waive him more or less against their will, allowing the Montreal Canadiens to swoop in and pluck Brooks off the wire from their divisional rivals for themselves. Brooks wouldn’t last long as a Hab, though. Before he could even find himself a french tutor, the Canadiens waived the Winnipeg-native in mid-November, with the Golden Knights then jumping at the chance to add him as a center depth the next day.
Now, Vegas finds themselves in a cap predicament of their own, needing to perform some serious roster gymnastics to allow Jack Eichel to come off of injured reserve, and therefore forcing Brooks back on waivers where he’d eventually land back where it all began.
I’m winded just writing all that.
Brooks’ return is not just a feel-good story, either. This is a player who can help the Leafs through the second half of the season, with Brooks having performed admirably as the team’s fourth-line center prior to leaving town. He’s not going to make a seismic impact, of course. The guy is a depth piece. But Brooks has spent parts of five seasons in the Maple Leafs’ system since starting his pro career, practically all of which came under Sheldon Keefe, and can be trusted for solid minutes in spot duty if/whenever called upon.
And that might be needed more than you’d think.
Outside of the Matthews-Tavares-Kampf-Spezza/Engvall conglomerate down the middle, the Leafs are actually quite thin at the center position as it stands today — concerningly so, even — with very few NHL-ready replacements to step up in the event of an emergency.
At the very least, Brooks gives them an option to turn to.
But of course, with every Leafs roster move come the cap implications.
Brooks would need to clear waivers before being sent to the AHL. And at this point, offering him up to the rest of the league for a fourth time this season would be cruel and unusual punishment — not to mention a needless risk when taking into account that teams clearly value him.
So, for now, he’s on the big-league roster. But something has to give.
The Maple Leafs sent Timothy Liljegren down to the Marlies in a corresponding move this afternoon to clear the space for Brooks. This isn’t a reflection of Liljegren’s play, of course. Rather, the 2017 first-rounder is one of two waiver-exempt players on the Leafs’ roster at the moment. And considering how Rasmus Sandin, who has more or less been Toronto’s number four defenseman for the bulk of this season, is the other, Liljegren obviously draws the short straw.
But sending Liljegren to the AHL just as he’s begun to hit his stride as an NHLer doesn’t seem wise. Sure, the Leafs could do it. But at what cost? After fighting injury and roster uncertainty for the bulk of his development, why would the Leafs rob Liljegren of the stability he’s both craved and needed for so long?
They wouldn’t. Which means there is something else afoot.
The most plausible answer to that million-dollar question is an imminent trade, one likely involving Nick Ritchie and the $1.375 million cap hit that remains on their books after sending him down.
What would a Ritchie trade look like? Your guess is as good as mine.
Ritchie has been an abject disaster in Toronto after arriving over the summer, with his two goals and nine points in 33 games earning him a one-way ticket to the press box, and, now, Coca-Cola Coliseum.
Convincing a team to absorb the $2.5 million due to Ritchie both this season and next would absolutely require a sweetener. And with the Maple Leafs holding just three picks in the 2022 draft, that might need to be a prospect.
When you spend as close to the cap as the Leafs do, every little move, even a waiver claim on a center with 11 career points, leads to a domino effect that ripples throughout the entire roster.
The Maple Leafs likely aren’t done making moves in the next few days. What those could end up looking like remain to be seen.