Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas made a significant move after the team’s 6-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues. The Maple Leafs acquired Ilya Lyubushkin and Ryan Dzingel from the Arizona Coyotes for Nick Ritchie and a choice of the Maple Leafs’ third-round pick in 2023 or second-round pick in 2025.
During the second intermission of the Maple Leafs and Blues game, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that Lyubushkin didn’t dress for their game against the Los Angeles Kings and that it was something to keep an eye on. Hours later, the deal was complete. This was a move that needed to be done, both from a cap and roster standpoint.
Maple Leafs Get Strong Defensive Depth
The Maple Leafs improve by bringing in a strong and responsible player who can assume a role as a second or third pairing defender. I had Lyubushkin as a player that the Maple Leafs could target, albeit a different scenario.
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Lyubushkin isn’t an offensive threat as he has only nine assists in 46 games this season. He doesn’t have the best underlying numbers, given his strength and ability to be a shut-down defender while also being on a team that’s at the bottom of the standings. His Corsi For percentage at five-on-five is 45.93 (ninth on the Coyotes) and an expected goals for percentage of 45.53 (eighth).
However, Lyubushkin does have a tremendous impact defensively to suppress shots and can be a factor in transition when breaking up plays. He does a good job at denying entries and does a great job at pressuring in puck battles. He’s a big-time minute eater that can log minutes in a prominent role, even if the offense isn’t there. He averages 18:06 of ice time per game, while also being a factor on the penalty kill with 2:32 per game. He does a really great job at getting into the lanes and sacrificing his body to block a shot. He has 60 blocks this season and would put him third overall on the Maple Leafs in that category.
The Maple Leafs have already done a great job at mitigating the amount of goals against as they’re sixth overall in the league with 131. They average 30.8 shots against (12th overall), but they’ve shown to improve and provide shut down defense. Bringing in Lyubuhskin will add to that.
The thing that stands out for Lyubushkin– he’s mean and very difficult to go up against. He isn’t afraid to play a very punishing and physical game as he stands at 6-foot-2, 208 pounds. He’s great at tying up the opposition in the corners or clearing out players in front of the net. He doesn’t give up a whole lot for the opposition to work with while he’s covering them. He has good speed to keep up with players and knows when to execute a perfectly timed hit to deny anyone from setting up.
Lyubushkin has played significant minutes with puck-moving defenseman Jakob Chychrun, spending 286 minutes together as a pair. This move certainly gives the Maple Leafs more depth on the backend. Another defensive-minded defenseman with good mobility is also valuable for head coach Sheldon Keefe to try to utilize him as best as possible.
Given how the second pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl have struggled this season, it wouldn’t be wise to have another defense-first player with Muzzin as he hasn’t been consistent with his decision-making and play. If Muzzin replicated his play from last season with his two-way play, you could make a case to have Lyubushkin on his right side as he would be a perfect replacement for Holl. Then again, that could be in Keefe’s game plan.
The most ideal situation is to have him with a more offensively minded player to have the balance like T.J. Brodie with Morgan Rielly. Could Lyubushkin be paired with Rasmus Sandin on the left side as strong third pairing? It’s very possible given Sandin’s speed and strong transitional game. Or, does Rasmus Sandin move up to the right side with Muzzin as he felt comfortable against the Pittsburgh Penguins? Does Travis Dermott assume the left side and Lyubushkin serve as his partner on the third pair? The options are there.
Dubas Sheds Ritchie’s Contract
The biggest talking point was Ritchie’s contract and whether or not Dubas was able to move it. He hasn’t performed well with nine points in 33 games and has really struggled to keep up with the quickness of the Maple Leafs lineup. Dubas was able to do just that and shed contract that wasn’t providing much value.
Ritchie was given every opportunity to succeed– including time on the top line to start the season with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. However, it just didn’t work out. There were times where he was finding his footing, but the consistency wasn’t there. As a result, he was placed on waivers in January and the experiment came to an end.
The Coyotes have stated that they would take on contracts for assets. They were able to get a player under contract for next season, while getting a second or third-round pick in the process. The Coyotes have the space to take on his contract and the Maple Leafs gain two valuable assets that can prove to be key additions to their success down the line.
Both Lyubushkin and Dzingel are pending unrestricted free agents, but their contracts ($2.45 million) total to just under what Ritchie was making in the NHL with his $2.5 million contract. Moving that out to clear space for the future, is a major win in itself.
Dzingel Compliments Maple Leafs Style
While it’s not a critical piece of the deal, bringing in centre Ryan Dzingel helps out with the forward depth. A former 40-point player with the Ottawa Senators back in 2017-18 and 2018-19, his production hasn’t been the same since. Coincidentally, two of his four goals this season came against the Maple Leafs.
However, he does fit the mold of an impactful, defensive-minded player in a bottom-six role. He plays with pace and can be a thorn in the opposition’s side.
Dzingel plays with a lot of speed and energy similar to that of David Kampf and Ondrej Kase on the third line. Given the success of the bottom-six so far, it provides insurance having an impactful player that can come in and out of the lineup. The Maple Leafs would like to have him in the lineup but he also serves as an option to be sent down to the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League. As TLN’s David alter reports, Dzingel was placed on waivers.
It’s interesting to see if this will be Dubas’ only move. He came out well by clearing up cap space while bringing in two valuable assets. The attention now focuses to Travis Dermott and what his fate will be. Could Holl’s spot in the lineup be in jeopardy, especially if Dubas brings in a true top-four defenseman?
This could be the beginning for Dubas’ deadline moves.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.