Maple Leafs’ Dubas Pulls Bear Out of His Hat

Since it became obvious the Toronto Maple Leafs were looking to trade Nick Ritchie, the opinions of the media and fans alike rated the chances of Kyle Dubas making a deal to unload Ritchie’s contract anywhere from impossible to extremely costly. However, in retrospect, it’s starting to be no surprise the kind of magic Dubas can pull off.

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This time, the Maple Leafs’ general manager pulled a “Russian Bear” out of his hat. That’s the nickname teammates have given to defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin because of his size and strength. Who would have thought that Dubas could get back anything near what he received from the Arizona Coyotes? 

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Sandin, Lyubushkin, Dzingel & Matthews

As Dubas was quoted as saying, “What made him attractive is we don’t have a lot of guys who have his utility. A big, strong right shot, strong defensively, able to play with a little more physicality than what we may have. I see him getting into that mix, competing with the others and may the best defenceman win.” (from “Maple Leafs GM delves into acquiring defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin, ‘The Russian Bear,’ Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun, 20/02/22).

The Specifics and the Impact of the Trade

For any Maple Leafs’ fans who’ve been out of touch for the weekend and who hadn’t seen it yet, here are the specifics of the trade:

To Arizona: Nick Ritchie and Arizona’s choice of either the Maple Leafs’ third-round pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft or the Maple Leaf’s second-round pick in the 2025 NHL Entry Draft.

To Toronto: right-shot defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and NHL-veteran forward Ryan Dzingel.

Related: Maple Leafs Address Multiple Concerns with Lyubushkin/Ritchie Trade

There are many positives in this trade. Not only did Dubas not have to retain any of Ritchie’s salary, give up any of the three draft choices remaining for this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, or have to throw in a roster piece or prospect, he picked up a cheap (at $1.35 million) and solid right-hand defenseman who can either slot into the top four or the third pairing. More importantly, he made the deal with 34 games remaining in the 2021-22 regular season to figure it all works out the best.  

The Deal Offers the Maple Leafs Greater Defensive Balance

The one thing this deal does is to give the Maple Leafs’ defensive balance on both sides. Here is how each side stacks up:

Left-Side DefensemenRight-Side Defensemen
Morgan RiellyT.J. Brodie
Jake MuzzinJustin Holl
Rasmus SandinIlya Lyubushkin
Travis DermottTimothy Liljegren
T.J. Brodie Toronto Maple Leafs
T.J. Brodie, Toronto Maple Leafs right-side defenseman (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

While the order on the left side seems given, on the right side after Brodie there are questions of exactly who slots in where. What’s important is that the trade gives the Maple Leafs options. Lyubushkin was the main target of the deal, and he’s now a member of the team. 

What Were Lyubushkin’s Numbers?

Based upon his experience at both the KHL and the NHL level, it’s clear Lyubushkin will never put a lot of points on the board. In 180 games played in the NHL, he has one goal and 19 points. But the organization doesn’t care. It needed a defensive defenseman.

Related: Oilers Are Biggest Losers From McDavid Not Experiencing Olympics

Lyubushkin’s strength is his physicality and his defensive play. He has 498 hits and 246 blocked shots in the 180 games he’s played. To this point in the season, he’d averaged 2:32 minutes a game playing on the penalty kill. His average overall ice time this season was 18:06 per game, which ranked fifth on the Coyotes. 

His analytics are not the best, but context is important. The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams in the NHL; and, he’s been there his entire career. How he performs playing with a high-possession team like the Maple Leafs is anyone’s guess. That’s why having 34 games before the postseason is a huge advantage for the team. 

Ilya Lyubushkin Arizona Coyotes
Ilya Lyubushkin, Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Courtesy of naturalstattrick, Lyubushkin’s numbers for the 2021-22 season, along with the team average, and where he ranked among the Coyotes’ top six defensemen are shown on the chart below.

Statistical MeasureLyubushkin’s StastisticsCoyotes’ StastisticsRank on Team
Shot Attempts45.9% (519 F, 611 A)Team Average: 45.3%4th
Actual Shots43.4% (271 F, 353 A)Team Average: 43.7% Rank: 3rd3rd
Scoring Chances45.6% (225 F, 269 A)Team Ave: 44.7%1st
High-Danger Scoring Changes45.7% (96 F, 114 A)Team Ave: 44.9%2nd
Goals For43.6% (24 F, 31 A)Team Ave: 40.8%3rd
Expected Goals45.5% (20.7 F, 24.8 A)Team Ave: 44.6%3rd
TotalsOverall Average: 45.0%Team Average:  44.0%Overall Rank:  2.7

What These Analytics Mean

Although Lyubushkin’s overall average in the six categories is only 45.0 percent (anything over 50 percent is regarded as a positive and anything under 50 percent is regarded as a negative), his average is a full one percent higher than his team’s average. He also was above the team’s average in everything except Shots.  

As for his ranking among the six Coyotes’ defensemen with the most minutes played, he was somewhere between second and third (about 2.7). His 44.7 percent in Scoring Chances was first on the team, while his 45.7 percent in High-Danger Chances was second. We know Lyubushkin does not create a lot of offense himself, so these numbers would have been highly-influenced by the other four teammates he shared the ice with. That could be translated to mean he had been reasonable defensively and allowed his teammates more freedom to create scoring chances.

As we’ve stated a number of times, the nature of the sport of hockey is such that the numbers do not tell us a complete story. This might especially be the case with a player coming from one of the worst teams in the league to one of the best. How, and where, Lyubushkin fits into the Maple Leafs’ lineup is still to be seen.

Maple Leafs’ Salary-Cap Implications

As we see it, here’s what the salary-cap implications for the Maple Leafs look like. Today, Ryan Dzingel – the second player coming in the trade – was claimed by the San Jose Sharks. With Adam Brooks, that’s now two players in the last five days the Maple Leafs have acquired but then lost on waivers.  

Related: Revisiting the Nazem Kadri Trade

The upside is that the Maple Leafs now have everyone healthy. They have their 12 best forwards, can carry eight defensemen and two goalies, and still have $355,884 in salary-cap space remaining. They are in a position where they can send either or both Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren down to the Toronto Marlies to accrue cap space on their days off. They can also use those options to bring up forwards from the Marlies if they have a day-to-day injury, or just to give someone a game.  

In our opinion, this is probably the best salary-cap flexibility the Maple Leafs have had in the past three seasons. We also believe the team is the as good as it’s been in several years.

[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.]