Maple Leafs’ Defence Could Look Vastly Different Next Season

Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans got great news on Sunday when it was announced that the team had extended defenseman Mark Giordano two years for a percentage of what he is worth.

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At this point, it gives the Maple Leafs five defensemen signed for the 2022/23 season. They are Morgan Rielly (at $7.5 million), Jake Muzzin ($5.625 million), T.J. Brodie ($5 million), Justin Holl ($2 million), and Mark Giordano (for the bargain sum of $800,000).

Related: The Maple Leafs’ Best Defenseman? Rasmus Sandin

The remaining unsigned are restricted free agents Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren and unrestricted free agent Ilya Lyubushkin. We’re guessing that Kyle Dubas would like to have all three of Sandin, Liljegren, and Lyubushkin back as those eight players gave the Maple Leafs the best defensive lineup we have seen in years. The question is, do the Maple Leafs have enough cap space to play and pay those eight defensemen?

Where the Maple Leafs’ Defense Stands Thus Far

Barring any significant trades that might move one or more of the above players and bring in someone new, what does the depth chart look like for those eight players?

On the right side, we have Brodie, Lyubushkin, Liljegren, and Holl.

T.J. Brodie Toronto Maple Leafs
T.J. Brodie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

On the left side, we have Rielly, Muzzin, Giordano, Sandin, and possibly Brodie (who can play either side). While we expect Brodie to play on the right side, if Keefe decided to play him on his natural side he would most likely slide in between Rielly and Muzzin.  

Looking at the Five Defensemen Who Warrant Decisions

We think it is safe to say, Rielly, Brodie, and Giordano are not going anywhere. That leaves the other five to sort out. Let’s go through three of those players one at a time. We’re going to spend more time talking about Sandin and Liljegren in another post; so, for now, we’ll leave that discussion alone.

Defenseman #1: Jake Muzzin

In a perfect world, we’re sure the Maple Leafs would love nothing better than to have Muzzin 100 percent healthy and playing like he did the previous two seasons and in this season’s playoffs. But, at the age of 33, with the wear and tear his body has taken over the years, along with the injuries that his ideal style of play leaves him susceptible to, can the Maple Leafs afford two more years at $5.625 million?  

Related: Gord Downie, Hockey, and the Tragically Hip

On top of that, if they want to get Sandin into games, which we feel is necessary for his development, where does that leave Muzzin? If he’s not in the picture, it would give the Maple Leafs a left side of Rielly, Giordano, and Sandin. While the team would lose some physicality without Muzzin, that is still a pretty good threesome. They would also have the luxury of moving Brodie over if need be.

If the Maple Leafs did want to move Muzzin, there would be some obstacles.  

First is his No-Trade Clause. For the upcoming season, Muzzin would have to agree to any deal. Muzzin’s clause does change to a Modified No-Trade Clause in the summer of 2023 when he can pick a 10-team no-trade list. We could see a scenario where Muzzin would rather have a full say in where he goes rather than a partial say. As a result, it’s possible he could waive his no-trade deal this offseason.

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

The second obstacle would be his $5.625 million cap hit over the next two seasons. The way Muzzin’s deal is structured, he did receive more money upfront than he’ll get towards the end of his contract. After he receives a $2 million bonus payment on July 1, he’s only owed $6 million in actual pay over the remaining two years of his deal. That’s $3 million each season. That could make a deal more attractive to another team.  

Related: NHL Rumors: Flyers, Penguins, Panthers, Hurricanes

While it would be tough to move Muzzin this summer, it would not be impossible. 

Defenseman #2: Justin Holl

If the Maple Leafs can sign Lyubushkin, it would leave Holl and Liljegren fighting it out for the third pairing on the right side. Right now, Holl might be considered defensively superior to Liljegren. However, he’s also seven years older. Holl is either at or past his peak, while Liljegren is still climbing that hill. We believe Liljegren has the potential to be a better all-around player than Holl.

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Of the eight defensemen we’re writing about, we can’t help but feel that Holl is the player most likely to not be back in a Maple Leafs’ uniform next season. 

Defenseman #3: Ilya Lyubushkin

As an unrestricted free agent, you never know what kind of attention a player might get. If we look at his NHL career to this point we see a 28-year-old player who’s played 211 regular-season games. In those games, Lyubushkin’s total offensive output has been three goals and 25 points. He’s not an offensive weapon by any means.  

Lyubushkin is your typical stay-at-home physical defenseman. His number one asset is his physicality. He has 591 hits in those 211 games. 

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ilya Mikheyev Has Arrived, and in a Big Way

Typically players like Lyubushikin do not get paid a lot of money. His dollar value to the Maple Leafs is probably not much more than the $2 million that Holl makes. Unless another NHL general manager steps forward to offer Lyubushkin ridiculous money, if the organization wishes him back, Kyle Dubas can likely make that happen. 

Therefore, we think the odds of him being back are pretty good. The only wildcard in all of this is the fact that Lyubushkin is right-handed. With their rarity in the NHL, it can up their perceived value significantly. 

Where the Maple Leafs’ Defense Now Stands

We haven’t spoken much about the future disposition of either Sandin or Liljegren here. That will be the content of another post. These two might leave the Maple Leafs in a tough situation because to us they seem ripe for a semi-aggressive offer sheets by another organization. 

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As of this moment, the only three defensemen we’re reasonably sure are returning to the Maple Leafs next season are Rielly, Brodie, and Giordano. That leaves question marks about the other five players.  

As we said at the start of this post, the Maple Leafs’ defense could look vastly different next season. Or, it could also look pretty much the same. We will have to wait and see how this summer goes.

[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.]