Maple Leafs Commentary: The Top 3 Trade Candidates

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a position where they have to trade away salary. If they pare their present roster down to the minimum 20 players, it puts them within thousands of dollars of the league salary cap. And still not everything is done that needs to be done. 

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The team has Restricted Free Agent Rasmus Sandin to sign. They still have weaknesses at both forward and defense that need to be addressed. They are also within two contracts of the NHL’s total contract limit of 50. (NHL teams like to leave a few contract spots open to give them some roster flexibility to make moves during the season.) If they get Sandin’s name on a contract, that will give them 49 contracts and put them over the salary cap.

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Everything points to a trade. The only questions then are who are the players most likely to be traded, and what does that mean for the team? 

Trade Candidate #1: Justin Holl

Thirty-year-old Justin Holl is in the final year of a three-year, $2 million per season contract. After playing in the top four of the Maple Leafs’ defense two seasons ago, Holl was relegated to the third pairing last season and found himself a healthy scratch at times. He ultimately won the third-pair right-side job over twenty-three-year-old Timothy Liljegren in last year’s playoffs.  

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

We expect the younger Liljegren to surpass Holl on the right-side depth chart this season. However, there are still questions about whether Liljegren, with a total of 74 regular season and two playoff games played, is ready for a top-four role yet. 

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It would make more sense for the Maple Leafs to seek a top-four, right-side defenseman who would push Liljegren back to the third-pair and Holl out of the top six altogether. To do that, the Maple Leafs would have to trade more than just Holl to create more cap space.

What would Holl’s value on the trade market be, and who might be interested in acquiring him?

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What makes Holl valuable is the fact that he’s a right-handed defenseman, a rare commodity in the NHL and hockey in general. For whatever reason, that can’t seem to be accurately explained, about 60% of the players in the game shoot left-handed and 40% shoot right-handed. 

At $2 million, and not likely to cost much more than that in his next contract, the 30-year-old Holl has value as a third-pairing defenseman who can move up to the second pair if needed. Despite not being known as a physical player, Holl is still a big player at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. He also has some offensive upside.

We would guess his value on the trade market to be a middle to late-round pick, or a comparable prospect. Holl might have more value as an added piece in a multi-player deal.

Trade Candidate #2: Alex Kerfoot

Alex Kerfoot is the type of player coaches love. He’s the hockey version of a Swiss Army Knife, who can play center on the third line and be a competent winger on the second line. He can, in a pinch, also center the second line as he did in the playoffs for the Maple Leafs in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s the playoffs where John Tavares went down early in Game 1. 

Alex Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alex Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kerfoot also kills penalties and can play on a team’s second power-play unit. He’s a very low-maintenance, virtually injury-free player. He is also, at the age of 28, in his prime. If the Maple Leafs weren’t in need of his $3.5 million salary-cap space, we’re sure that general manager Kyle Dubas would much prefer to keep him than trade him.  

Finding a team that would be interested in acquiring Kerfoot would, in our opinion, not be a problem. Many teams out there would gladly have him on their roster. 

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As for what he would bring back in return, we are going to guess it would be a second-round pick or a similar prospect. 

Trade Candidate #3: Rasmus Sandin or Jake Muzzin.

The Maple Leafs are in a position where they’re overstocked on the left side of their defense and lack a proven top-four right-hand defenseman. If rumors are correct, it appears the team’s struggle to re-sign Sandin has more to do with playing time than money. With Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Mark Giordano all ahead of him on the depth chart, the only way it would appear that Sandin would get ice time would be if or when someone were to be injured. 

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Neither Rielly nor Giordano, with their new contracts in hand, are going anywhere. That leaves Dubas’ choice for for the third defenseman on the right side a choice between Sandin and Muzzin. As a proven top-four defenseman, Muzzin would be the safer pick. 

However, at age 33 and a regular visitor to the injury list, he does have some risk. Sandin would be more of a risk, but at the age of 22 has the potential to grow into a decent top-four defenseman. The Maple Leafs also have the luxury that Giordano brings. He’s still, at age 38, a capable top-four defenseman. He could easily slide up a spot on the roster. 

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We’re sure that Dubas’ preference would be to keep both players. But the Sandin contract standoff might force his hand one way or the other. In the case of Muzzin, he has a full No Trade Clause this season, an obstacle that would have to be worked around. 

It’s difficult to gauge what either of these players would bring back in a trade. Both have value for completely different reasons. One is a proven veteran, the other is a young player with potential. 

Rasmus Sandin Toronto Maple Leafs
Rasmus Sandin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As for how dealing each player affects the salary cap, dealing Muzzin would alleviate about $5.6 million in cap space. Dealing Sandin would leave the Maple Leafs in exactly the same situation they’re presently in. He’s not yet signed, so he has no cap hit.

[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.]

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