The annual NHL trade deadline marks a special, if not magical time in the hockey season. Media coverage of the event is heightened throughout the hockey world, with fans of the game glued to TVs, computers, and phones in anticipation of the next potentially colossal deal.
On the ice, the event marks a period of immense opportunity for each and every NHL team, especially so with the Stanley Cup Playoffs drawing near.
— Yahoo Sports NHL (@YahooSportsNHL) February 16, 2017
In fact, in some cases, one trade can drastically alter the composition of a given team and change the course of their entire season. On the other hand, a transaction can cost a club key components and pieces of their future if the return fails to prove its worth.
Looking for examples?
Well, in 2007-08, the Pittsburgh Penguins added Marian Hossa to a team already loaded with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, amongst others, up front.
The outcome? Hossa helped lead the Penguins to a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, scoring 26 points in 20 playoff games in the process. Meanwhile, the departure of Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round pick to Atlanta did little to hinder Pittsburgh’s future success.
Conversely, also in 2007-08, the San Jose Sharks and general manager Doug Wilson were aggressive at the deadline, albeit a little too aggressive.
The Sharks held two first-round picks at the time and used them to acquire Bill Guerin and Craig Rivet for a Cup run. However, said run never happened, as the team was bounced by Dallas in the second-round. The picks surrendered by Wilson turned into Max Pacioretty and David Perron, while Josh Gorges was also included in the Rivet deal.
So, how does this all relate to the Toronto Maple Leafs of 2016-17?
“Playoffs!? Don’t Talk About Playoffs!”
Well, sorry Jim Mora, but the quickly approaching Stanley Cup Playoffs are something we simply must talk about, as their looming presence will determine the stance Toronto will take come Mar. 1.
When the 2016-17 NHL campaign began, it goes without saying that little was expected from the Leafs. As a team structured heavily around its youth, the rebuilding process remained in its infancy with questions aplenty surrounding the team.
However, as the season has progressed, a young Leafs team, despite its occasional struggles, has blown any and all expectations straight out of the water. Now in the latter half of the season, Toronto has played itself into a hot and heavy playoff race – a situation made possible largely in part due to the massive contributions of the team’s young stars.
In fact, to say that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have been incredible in 2016-17 would be a drastic understatement. What’s more is that on given nights, these two teenage stars have fueled the team as a whole through their highly skilled and energetic style of play.
Heck, Marner has been able to carry the team’s first line on a regular basis, one that features two veterans in Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk.
So, to see the Leafs in the midst of a playoff race this early into their rebuild can be described as nothing other than shocking. Yes, Toronto is going to be good, but a team can’t rebuild and succeed this quickly, can it?
Well, regardless, the Leafs’ position in the standings has generated even more questions, the major one of which being what stance the team should take at the coming trade deadline. Should Toronto look to upgrade and make a legitimate playoff push, or opt instead to offload players in order to further strengthen their rebuild?
Making a case for the Leafs to be buyers at the deadline is a difficult one.
Of course, it goes without saying that playoff experience would do wonders for the development of Toronto’s young players. However, would it still be viewed as worthwhile if the team is decimated in the first round?
If Lou Lamoriello, Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock desire to make a positive statement in the playoffs, the only way to do so would be to upgrade a number of areas of weakness, albeit not sacrificing essential components of their future in the process.
The most notable area of need comes on the blueline. Amongst the ten worst teams in the NHL in terms of goals against per game (GA/G), the Leafs’ blueline is simply too thin and inexperienced to mount a meaningful Cup run.
While the likes of Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly have been solid this season, there is a significant drop off in both ability and consistency on the Leafs’ blue-line. Lacking a true number-one defenseman, Toronto is in desperate need of a minute muncher and power play quarterback who can be counted on at both ends of the ice.
— Yahoo Canada Sports (@YahooCASports) February 11, 2017
In terms of the current trade market, Kevin Shattenkirk, a pending unrestricted free agent, would fit the bill nicely, however his price tag and the demands of the Blues in return could risk the success of Toronto’s franchise in the long-run.
If the Leafs were able to acquire a player such as Shattenkirk without surrendering key pieces of their organization in the process, it would quite obviously be an easy decision to make.
However, if a trade demands the return of a player such as William Nylander, Andrew Nielsen, Travis Dermott or others of similar value, Toronto will need to be intelligent in its decision-making, and prioritize the future rather than strictly the present.
Toronto’s current roster is not going to win a Stanley Cup. Simply put.
So, trading away a number of veteran players and pending unrestricted free agents is, without a doubt, the more intelligent and calculated of the two options. Further, moving on from a number of these players would open up a number of depth positions in which additional young players could be inserted into and gain experience from.
In terms of those who could be traded in order to strengthen the Leafs’ rebuild, there are a handful of options. The most notable of which are Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick.
Of these, both Polak and Hunwick are pending unrestricted free agents, a status which will make them highly sought after as rental players come the deadline. Although dealing one or both of these veteran defenders won’t land the Leafs an incredibly substantial return, it would surely fetch them quality draft picks and, subsequently, more young prospects.
On the other hand, Toronto could elect to move on from one or more of their more valuable assets mentioned above.
— David Alter (@dalter) February 13, 2017
In Bozak, the Leafs hold a quality centerman who is solid in the faceoff circle as well as a fairly consistent point producer. Moving him would be less than ideal considering how young the Leafs are in the middle of the ice, but, doing so would be smart considering his value is likely at or nearing its peak.
On the wing, there is van Riemsdyk, a strong power-forward who has been excellent for Toronto since arriving via trade nearly five years ago. Blessed with soft hands in close to the net and natural scoring abilities, van Riemsdyk is a clear-cut top-six forward in the NHL.
Moving van Riemsdyk would be a major loss for Toronto, however, the return in a potential trade would surely make the move worthwhile in the long-term, which, it is more repeating, is far more important than short-term success.
Lastly, there is Komarov, a gritty and physical winger whose offensive production is far less consistent than he and the Leafs would like.
After a breakout season in 2015-16 in which he was named an all-star, 2016-17 has seen Komarov’s production and usage slip significantly. Although moving the fan favorite would be a huge loss, Toronto would be smart to move Komarov while his value is also at its highest.
Further, all of Bozak, van Riemsdyk and Komarov have an additional year remaining on their current contracts, a fact which only adds to their value in a potential trade.
The Final Call
Well, it goes without saying that the 2017 trade deadline and the weeks preceding the event will be a time of incredible thought, consideration, and interest for the Leafs.
In the midst of a surprising playoff push, Toronto’s management core will need to determine whether making a playoff push and the potential post-season experience associated with it will be worth potentially risking the success of their rebuild in the long-term.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 16, 2017
If the Leafs decide to push for the playoffs and be buyers at the deadline, they will need to make significant upgrades to their existing roster, upgrades which will surely come at the cost of young talent.
On the other hand, if the Leafs stay true to their plan, which they should, the team stands poised to significantly strengthen and accelerate their rebuild.
Fortunate to retain a number of potential rental players as well as others with term remaining on their contracts, Toronto is poised to add additional draft picks or young talent to their organization via trade, much like they did in the weeks leading up to the 2016 trade deadline.
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.