Late Wednesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs made a trade many have deemed as necessary. Some have called it a potential overpay, others a steal, but the deal includes two pieces the Maple Leafs desperately needed in a backup goaltender and a player who could add much-needed toughness to the line up.
Because the actual trade has already been looked at by fellow Hockey Writers’ contributor Peter Baracchini, I won’t dig into a review of it. Instead, what might be important to talk about is what comes next. Based on the interview GM Kyle Dubas did while a guest on Sportnet’s Tim & Sid Thursday, if we read between the lines, perhaps very little.
Dubas Comments on the Deal Itself
A significant trade but hardly a blockbuster, Dubas commented on the length of time it took to get his latest deal to come together. Saying he’d been speaking to the Los Angeles Kings over the course of the season, it was in the last week or so that talks amplified and the Maple Leafs found a package that worked for LA.
Dubas admitted he’d prefered to have had these two players with the club longer but the reality of the trade market is that trades aren’t easy to make, nor are teams eager to make moves until the deadline nears, considering all the factors at play.
Sid asked Dubas if Frederik Andersen’s injury played a role in the deal and the GM replied no. This was something he’d been digging at for some time. So too, in response to the question about team toughness, Dubas admitted, contrary to popular belief, the organization did want the kind of grit a player like Clifford provides. It just took time to add the “right” piece, one that could actually play and add that element without sacrificing skill.
In short, a backup netminder and a bottom-six rental took weeks, if not months of work to make happen. With that in mind, how hard will it be to land a top-four defenseman?
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The Real Issue: The Maple Leafs Defense
Tim and Sid asked about the trade deadline and how it complicates things considering the status of defenseman Morgan Rielly. Keep in mind, he asked after news fell that Cody Ceci is out with an injury and wouldn’t be available for at least a month and as the team tries to stay in the playoff hunt.
Dubas admitted how important updates on his blue line are when he said, “I think it complicates things pretty significantly.” In other words, despite knowing the team could use a d-man or two, he danced around the idea the team could do anything about it. “If any of your guys on long-term injury reserve are going to come back between now and the end of the season, you really don’t have that space to bring other players in between now and the deadline,” he added.
Dubas spent most of his time talking about the salary cap, LTI and how it affects NHL teams this time of year. It’s not that there aren’t defensemen out there — Brenden Dillion, Matt Dumba, Jeff Petry, Alec Martinez, Sami Vatanen and Shayne Gostisbehere, come to mind. It’s that with every possible option the Maple Leafs might look at, they have to weigh to cost of acquisition and paying that player against the likelihood Rielly and the other missing d-men could return before the end of the season.
Dubas called it a lose/lose situation. First, missing Rielly for any length of time is a lose because he’s critical to the Maple Leafs’ success. Second, if he’s out for most of the season, the Maple Leafs have to guess at the odds he returns. They can’t simply spend money if there’s even a remote chance he comes back before the playoffs.
As such, Dubas is forced to wait until as close to the deadline as possible. At that point, he has to know, almost with certainty, where Rielly and the others stand. Without that information, his hands are essentially tied.
But, What If He Knows Rielly Won’t Be Back?
If Reilly is ready before the playoffs, the Maple Leafs might be able to add, but it won’t be easy or pain free. Any trade will include subtracting an active and potentially significant piece from the roster. That then opens the door to two important questions: ‘Is what they just did enough?’ and ‘What might Dubas have to move to get the piece he really needs, should it not be?’
But, what if Rielly won’t be back in the regular season?
As Frank Seravailli reports, if Rielly, Ceci and Ilya Mikheyev are all out until the playoffs, the Leafs would be able to absorb a full $9 million salary cap hit before the Feb. 24 trade deadline without having to move out any other salary. All three could then return after the regular season comes to a close and the Maple Leafs wouldn’t be hit with any salary cap implications because there is no salary cap in the playoffs.
So, here’s what this means: What fans saw on Wednesday might be it for trades Dubas makes in the regular season. That is, unless, Rielly is known to be out for the rest of the season. If so, Dubas should have his hooks into a defenseman already and has likely been working on that type of deal for a while. From there, spend the money and hope Rielly is good to go by the playoffs.
Missing Rielly for the rest of the season isn’t ideal because he’s a big part of the Maple Leafs getting into the postseason. But, if they get in and he returns after the season ends, Dubas may have stumbled upon a giant loophole that is of tremendous value to the team. It’s a loophole that could turn the Maple Leafs into a team with too few defenseman into a team with too many.
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