Let’s face it. when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the rumours and speculation never rest. Most of it is fan driven, but when the media gets hold of a sound bite, it’s usually good enough to keep the discourse strong for a few days. With the trade deadline quickly approaching, albeit a little over a month away, there’s been an uptick in speculation about what the Maple Leafs will do.
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The need for a bonafide top-six forward is at the forefront, and it seems feasible, especially with Timo Meier, Bo Horvat, and Ryan O’Reilly all expected to be up for grabs. But, on the other hand, there’s been speculation that the Maple Leafs are in the market for a defenseman, one who could bring a similar style to Jake Muzzin, who’s likely not going to play again this season. And, of course, there will be some housekeeping and plugging of holes on the depth front.
I was originally going to zero in on one specific rumour, but since they seem to be changing daily, I decided to map out everything that’s being talked about so far. However, please remember that these are just that – rumours. I’m simply going to be analyzing what I’ve seen and heard.
Maple Leafs Had Interest in Jake McCabe, But it’s Dwindled
DailyFaceoff and former ESPN hockey insider Frank Seravalli joined Sportsnet the Fan 590 and The Nation Network’s Leafs Morning Take in recent days to discuss the trade deadline, and he revealed that the Maple Leafs have had their eye on Chicago Blackhawk Jake McCabe “for a while.” He also stated that their major concern with him is his durability. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound defenseman had cervical spine surgery in the off-season and tore his ACL and MCL in 2021-22.
The cost to acquire McCabe is said to be a second-round pick and a B-level prospect if he’s traded with his full cap hit, which is $4 million, or in the first-round pick range if the Blackhawks retain half of his salary. It’s worth noting that he’s under contract for two more years after the 2022-23 season.
However, Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman joined Leafs Morning Take a few days later to discuss the Maple Leafs’ deadline plans, and he said that he doesn’t believe the Maple Leafs want to give up their first-round pick for McCabe and given the play of their defensive corps in recent months, their deadline priority might be shifting toward a forward.
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My take: The thought of seeing McCabe on the Maple Leafs’ back end is tempting, and not just because of his namesake. He’s a strong defenseman who throws hard hits, provides solid defence, and can contribute offensively now and then, much like Muzzin. The problem outside of the asking price and his durability is that I don’t see how they can find room for him. They aren’t touching Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano, or Timothy Liljegren. That leaves Justin Holl and Rasmus Sandin.
The former, under normal circumstances, would be the easy option to deal. He has played well above his standards over the past few months, and given how much head coach Sheldon Keefe likes him, I can’t see management moving him at this point. Sandin, on the other hand, would be an interesting candidate because if they can acquire McCabe, they could then use Sandin as the centrepiece in a trade for a star top-six forward like Meier. Having said that, the Maple Leafs will soon have an aging left-side defence, and Sandin is a big part of keeping that left side fresh.
The Maple Leafs’ biggest need at this deadline is a top-six forward, and if backing away from McCabe means they’re going to focus their assets on acquiring a forward, then I’m in full support of it. Calle Jarnkrok has worked fine in the top six, but that’s not sustainable all season and the playoffs. If they’re serious about making a deep run, they have to know that if they don’t pounce on some of the big names, the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning will.
Top Prospect Matthew Knies is Untouchable…For a Rental
There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not the Maple Leafs will or should part with Matthew Knies if a big-name deal comes along. If they want to acquire someone along the lines of Meier, Horvat, or O’Reilly, he is the one teams will ask about first. His combination of size and skill is something that any team, especially the Maple Leafs, could use. But, according to Friedman (in that same interview on Leafs Morning Take), general manager Kyle Dubas isn’t willing to part with Knies, at least not for a rental.
Knies, a 6-foot-3, 209-pound Arizona native, is having a great season with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, with 15 goals and 27 points in 26 games so far. He was also recently nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, presented to the top NCAA men’s hockey player.
My take: This is absolutely the right call, and, truth be told, I’d even be wary of trading Fraser Minten, the Maple Leafs’ second-round pick in 2022. We know GMs have to part with quality to acquire quality, so if it came down to it, I’m sure fans would be able to stomach the possibility of losing Knies, especially if it meant that whoever was coming back would be in Toronto for longer than a few months.
However, the ideal situation would be for the Maple Leafs to acquire a quality player without having to deal Knies, whether it be as a rental or a player with term. As I said before, not only does he have lots of potential, but he brings an element that their prospect system desperately lacks. If they can add and extend someone who plays the same way, like Meier, then it’s easier to justify trading Knies, but moving on from a prospect of his calibre is not worth it for a rental.
Keefe Reportedly Standing in the Way of a Kerfoot Trade
I’ll admit this is a slightly misleading heading, but there is some truth to that claim, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean that Keefe is single-handedly vetoing possible Alex Kerfoot trades. In the same interview, Friedman was also asked about the possibility that the Maple Leafs would move a player like him or Pierre Engvall to upgrade the forward group. The point he arrived at was that Dubas and the rest of the front office have been known to get Keefe’s opinion on organizational moves, and he may not be so eager to lose Kerfoot, specifically. Here’s the full quote.
“I know the organization listens to Keefe on this kind of thing. They trust their coach and his opinion. My belief is before they move on from Kerfoot, they have to convince Keefe there are other options. I think they would like Holmberg to be one of those guys. They were really hoping Holmberg would be a player this year. Even though faceoffs are a bit of a struggle, he is showing he is going to be something. In Kerfoot’s case, in particular, I think they are going to have to convince Keefe that someone can do the job better.”Elliotte Friedman
Kerfoot has had a bit of an underwhelming season but turned it around, to a degree, with a solid December. He has 22 points in 49 games this season.
My take: I’m not going to read into this too much because, like everything else I’ve written about here and anything else you may have read on social media, it’s all just speculation. I don’t doubt that Keefe likes Kerfoot and would prefer to keep him on the team. But, if there was an offer on the table for a player like Meier or Horvat, and he had to be included in the package to make the cap hit work, I highly doubt Keefe would refuse the deal.
Having said that, if something like that happens, and the Maple Leafs pass on a highly-touted target because of their hesitancy to move Kerfoot, it would be a grade-A blunder, and it would be grounds to fire Dubas if another first-round exit follows. That being said, I don’t see that being the case. The Maple Leafs didn’t renew his contract last offseason for a reason, and with the stakes being where they are this season, I can’t see something as simple as that preventing them from taking a big swing.
Bottom Line – Maple Leafs’ Top Target Should Still Be a Forward
There will be those clamouring for a forward, while others still think the Maple Leafs’ biggest need is a big, tough, top-four defenseman. I agree that it’s a need, but the organization needs to prioritize acquiring a genuine top-six forward at the deadline. They’ve scored only two goals in their last three series-deciding games, and while the addition of a forward likely won’t single-handedly fix that problem, it will give them more options to lean on down the stretch.
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If the Maple Leafs end up going for that top-four defenseman, it would definitely help them, but only if they trade for a forward as well. The bottom line is that they won’t be able to justify going into the playoffs with one of Jarnkrok, Engvall, or Kerfoot on the second line. They just can’t. At least not at this stage of the new era. Either way, it’s going to be fun keeping track of who ends up where after the deadline, and based on nothing but my own thoughts, I think they’re going to go for a bigger fish than they have at any recent deadline.