As we quickly approach the NHL’s April 12 trade deadline, the rumours are ramping up — especially surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs and their Stanley Cup push.
We’ve heard that the Leafs are in the market for a top-six forward and are most notably one of the top suitors for Nashville’s Mikael Granlund (though the Predators’ recent surge into a playoff spot has made that route less likely). We’ve heard speculation that the Leafs could add another defenceman, particularly in a depth role. And there have even been rumblings about the team acquiring another goaltender to share the workload with Jack Campbell, given Frederik Andersen’s recent injury woes.
All of those arguments have merit, and it’s been made clear that general manager Kyle Dubas is exploring every possible option. The caveat, of course, is that pesky little thing called cap space, and with just about $2.5 million in room, it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that the Leafs will be able to fill more than one of those holes without moving a significant roster piece.
Given that information, let’s go over the respective arguments for adding a forward, defenceman, or goaltender before the deadline and try to figure out which one would best aid the Leafs in their quest for the Cup.
Top-6 Forward Would Make Maple Leafs’ Offence Unstoppable
We’ve all heard the phrase “play to your strengths” before, and that’s precisely what the Maple Leafs would be doing by adding another top-six forward.
To the surprise of no one, Toronto sits fifth in the league in goals per game (3.22), second in expected goals per game (2.92), and first in scoring chances per game (32.02). Needless to say, adding another offensive weapon to the roster seems like far from a necessity, especially with Alex Galchenyuk’s surprising emergence on the second line. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the potential payoff of adding a dynamic winger and crafting the best top-six in the NHL.
As good as the Leafs’ offence has been, they’ve looked like a one-line team in a lot of games this season. The team’s top duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner has been nothing short of outstanding at five-on-five, outscoring their opposition 29-16 for an on-ice goals for percentage (GF%) of 64.14 and an expected goals percentage (xGF%) of 62. While the second line has been good in their own right, they’ve lacked the star power of the first unit: John Tavares and William Nylander have only scored 13 goals at five-on-five together for a GF% of 68.42 and an xGF% of 59.70. In their brief 63 minute stint with Galchenyuk so far, they’ve outscored opponents 2-1 with an impressive xGF% of 68.08.
So while the second line has been good, there’s always room for improvement, especially for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. And while Galchenyuk has been a pleasant surprise, you’ve got to ask yourself if he’s the guy you really see as a difference-maker in a deep playoff run. Don’t get me wrong — he’s been great — but he’s probably not going to give you the firepower of a Taylor Hall, Filip Forsberg, or even Granlund down the stretch.
Ultimately, another top-six forward would give the Leafs yet another threat, making their already potent offence virtually unstoppable. It’s obviously going to be a tight squeeze, but the Maple Leafs do, in fact, have enough cap space to add almost any forward they want; it’ll just depend on how much they’re willing to give up.
Depth Defenceman Would Provide Insurance for Long Playoff Run
Adding a bottom-pair defenceman is certainly not the sexiest option out there, but it’s hard to ignore the lack of depth on Toronto’s backend past the No. 6 spot. If any of the Leafs’ defencemen were to get injured, the next man up is likely either Timothy Liljegren (11 GP) or Rasmus Sandin (29 GP). While both players are certainly talented and likely ready for spot duty, it would be hard to trust them to play consistent minutes, especially in a playoff series. And that’s not to mention what would happen if one of the team’s top-four defenders went down. Are we trusting Travis Dermott to step up and play 20 minutes a night? I’m a Dermott fan, but that’s a definite drop-off from any of their current top-four.
That said, it seems like a no-brainer to add a No. 7 defenceman on an expiring deal to the depth chart, especially given how little they would cost against the cap. Someone like Dmitry Kulikov has put up excellent defensive numbers in New Jersey while carrying a current cap hit of just about $350,000. How about Ottawa’s Mike Reilly, who’s put up 15 points with impressive underlying numbers, for just over $450,000? The Maple Leafs could go big, too, of course, with someone like David Savard for $1.3 million.
No matter what the Leafs do at the deadline, I think they should certainly be looking to bolster their blue line on the cheap.
Solid Goaltender Would Solve Maple Leafs’ Biggest Weakness
With 51 points through 37 games — a 113-point pace in a normal year — the Maple Leafs have obviously had a great season to date. The thing is that they would be even better with consistent goaltending, and that’s something they haven’t received from Andersen this season. Through 23 games, the Leafs’ starter has put up a shocking .897 save percentage (SV%) while allowing seven goals more than expected. Of course, a lot of that is likely due to his health, as a lingering groin issue has apparently affected the 31-year-old for well over a year now. Andersen is currently sidelined with said injury and is poised to return before the end of the season, but can the Leafs trust him in the playoffs?
Related: Maple Leafs Need a Goalie Right Now
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom in net, given how good Campbell has been over the last two weeks, but he’s had lingering health issues of his own, forcing him to miss practices and even games. Without a goaltender acquisition, the Leafs will be left with one good, half-healthy goalie and one underperforming, soon-to-be half-healthy goalie, with Michael Hutchinson as the third-stringer. Once again, Campbell has been excellent, but beyond him, Toronto’s goaltending trio does not inspire a ton of confidence.
Of the three potential options, this move seems the most unlikely, yet at the same time the most impactful. If the Maple Leafs were to acquire a 1B type goalie to split duties with Campbell, I think they would put themselves in prime position to make a run this postseason. Linus Ullmark’s name has been thrown out there as a potential target, and his .920 SV% behind a dreadful Buffalo Sabres team is extremely impressive. With a remaining cap hit of just $800,000, he would be a relatively easy add — though it would likely mean moving on from Andersen for good.
Dubas is in an interesting position in that he can’t really go wrong with any kind of addition at the deadline, though adding a goaltender or top-six forward would certainly have the biggest immediate impact. With the new seven-day quarantine for players crossing the Canada-US border, it should be a bit easier to make some moves, but it will still take some spunk to pull the trigger on a big name like Hall.
If there was ever a time to go all in, this is it.
Stats from naturalstattrick.com
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.