The one thing recent games have shown is that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ biggest weakness appears to be on defense. The fact is that team defense is more than just who’s playing the defensive positions. Defense involves a total commitment by the forwards as well.
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On most of the goals the Maple Leafs gave up on the recent road trip, likely a forward failed to cover an opposing player. But, we also can’t ignore the fact that, if we look at the New York Ranger’s game played without Jake Muzzin or Justin Holl, the four Maple Leafs’ defensemen on the ice for all but the last empty-net goal were Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Travis Dermott, and Alex Biega.
The Maple Leafs Likely Need a Right-Side, Gem Defenseman
As we stated in our recent “Love It or Leave It” post, despite the criticism Muzzin and Holl have received for their play this season, it was obvious how much they’re missed when they’re not in the lineup. That said, should the team engage in trade deadline activity, that activity is likely to be focused on bringing in a physical defenseman.
For the Maple Leafs to compete for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and finally get past the first round of the playoffs, it appears they need a defenseman who can step into the top four and play significant minutes. That defenseman need not be an all-star or a player who can put the puck in the net; it’s more important to get a player who can help keep the puck out of the net.
The Maple Leafs Forwards Are Quite Solid
If we look at the team’s forwards, when everyone is healthy the Maple Leafs’ lineup actually looks solid. The lineup includes (as expected for tonight’s game):
Add Nick Ritchie as the 13th forward, and things look pretty good up front. Ideally, the Maple Leafs would want to pick up a defenseman without having to give up one of their forwards, thus weakening themselves in one area to strengthen another.
What Options Do the Maple Leafs Have in Any Trade?
If the goal were to not alter the forward setup, the first other options is draft picks, of which the Maple Leafs only have three – a first, a second, and a seventh – for the upcoming 2022 draft. The organization still has all but their seventh-round pick in 2023.
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The second option is trading prospects. The Maple Leafs have decent prospects playing around the globe who might be attractive to other teams.
Option number three is to trade a roster defensemen. Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie are going nowhere. While Muzzin has struggled this season and has had injury issues in the past, unless there’s a major multiplayer deal, we don’t really expect him to leave. We also believe the Maple Leafs feel both Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are the future of the team’s defense, which would likely mean the organization would prefer not to trade either. That leaves Holl and Travis Dermott as players who could be moved.
If Holl or Dermott are expendable, that leaves Rielly, Muzzin, and Sandin on the left side and Brodie and Liljegren on the right. The player coming back should therefore be a right-side defenseman who’s an improvement over Holl or Dermott. We also can’t see both Holl and Dermott being traded. The Maple Leafs would want one of them to remain, at least as a depth player, in case of injury or if one of the young Swedes falters.
Contract Considerations in any Maple Leafs’ Trade
As for the money, the deal must be a money-in equals money-out. With that being the case, what can the Maple Leafs afford to pay? How much of a cap hit could a player coming to the Maple Leafs have?
A lot depends on the player coming off the roster. If it’s Holl, his cap hit for this season and next is $2 million. If a team that was shopping a defenseman were willing to retain salary, by CBA rules, the most they could retain is 50 percent.
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With that in mind, if the player leaving were Holl, the player coming back could theoretically have a $4 million salary-cap hit, if the other team was willing to retain 50 percent of his salary. If the deal involved Dermott going the other way, his cap hit for this season and next is $1.5 million. That means the Maple Leafs could potentially swing a deal for a player with a cap hit up to $3 million.
However, salary retention likely comes at the cost of a draft pick or prospect leaving the Maple Leafs’ organization, too. So that’s a consideration.
To summarize the options we see, the Maple Leafs have in their trade arsenal three draft picks from this season, six from next season, a cupboard full of prospects, Justin Holl, and Travis Dermott.
What Defensemen Might Be Available?
If we look at teams that are out of contention for a playoff spot and who are potential sellers, and then look to see who they might have available that would fit the bill of a top-four, right-side defenseman, what players are potential targets for the Maple Leafs. We see six options.
First, the Montreal Canadiens have Ben Chariot (cap hit $3.5 million expiring).
Second. the Arizona Coyotes have Ilya Lyubushkin (cap hit $1.35 million expiring) and Dysin Mayo (cap hit $750,000 expiring).
Third, the Ottawa Senators have Artem Zub ($2.5 million for one more season).
Fourth, the Buffalo Sabres have Mark Pysyk ($900,000 expiring).
Fifth, the Philadelphia Flyers have Justin Braun ( $1.8 million).
Sixth, the New York Islanders have Scott Mayfield ($1.45 million for one more season).
In our opinion, the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets, Seattle Kraken, and Chicago Blackhawks don’t really have any players in the above price range who fit the Maple Leafs’ needs.
The other teams we haven’t mentioned still have a fairly realistic chance of making the playoffs. In the Pacific Division, only the Seattle Kraken is out of contention. If any other teams fall out of contention, more players could become available.
What Defensemen Might We Have Missed?
For now, the players listed are the only ones we can see who could potentially fill the role. We could be wrong. If you feel we’ve missed someone please let us know.
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Who would you like to see the Maple Leafs go after, and what do you think the cost would be? Put your general manager hats on and let us know what you would do.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]