When people talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs, it always seems to be about trading for help on defense. That conversation has come up again this week.
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In today’s Maple Leafs News & Rumors post, I want to outline some of those conversations about the Blue and White. Specifically, I want to offer some good and bad ideas that have come up around the topic of upgrading the blue line.
Item One: Weighing the Value of Two Right-Handed Defensemen, Ristolainen & Savard
On Monday (June 8), Sportsnet’s Luke Fox shared his thoughts in response to a fan’s email about two potential right-handed defensemen who might be trade targets of the Maple Leafs. One was David Savard from the Columbus Blue Jackets and the other was Rasmus Ristolainen from the Buffalo Sabres.
There’s some logic to those choices because both the Blue Jackets and the Sabres need offense and might be willing to part with either defenseman for some of the Maple Leafs’ excess firepower – either Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson.
Fox noted that these defensemen have some appeal because they can log lots of ice time, including on the penalty kill. Additionally, each plays with a physical edge, which is something the Maple Leafs could use a bit more of.
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However, in a post later that day, a second Maple Leafs commentator KatyaKnappe begged to differ. Although she didn’t mention Savard per se, speaking specifically about Ristolainen, she questioned why the Maple Leafs would choose to trade for a player who has a $5.4 million AAV for two more years, and whose team is trying to trade him. Her only explanation was that the Sabres defenseman shoots right, and people have heard his name. Her final comment was “that’s hockey” and “name recognition is everything.”
I don’t disagree with Knappe about Ristolainen. Savard has been with the Blue Jackets for a long time and has become a very consistent defenseman with them. An offensive threat before he hit the NHL, he’s turned into a shutdown defenseman who can score a bit. On the other hand, there’s got to be a reason the Sabres have been trying to trade him for so long. He’s also too expensive to bring in; he’d make last season’s Cody Ceci’s $4.5 million contract seem like a steal.
Item Two: T. J. Brodie, the Defenseman Who Got Away
On a more serious note about a defenseman who might have a value-added impact on the Maple Leafs, in the 2019 offseason, the Maple Leafs proposed a trade with the Calgary Flames that would have sent Nazem Kadri to the Flames for T. J. Brodie. Everything was good to go, with one exception, Kadri used his no-trade clause to nix the deal. he said later that he hoped beyond hope there was a way he could remain a Maple Leaf.
That general manager Kyle Dubas would engineer the deal suggests that he believed Brodie was the player that could help the team. When the trade fell through, Dubas turned to the Colorado Avalanche and traded Kadri for right-handed defenseman Tyson Barrie. By that time, Kadri knew the writing was on the wall and accepted the trade. Fortunately, for Maple Leafs fans who didn’t want to see him go, he’s stated that he’s enjoyed playing in Colorado.
Since then, a year has gone by and the 30-year-old Brodie’s contract expires at the end of this season. Would the Chatham, Ontario, native be interested in moving closer to home? Could it be that, when the 2019-20 season concludes, Dubas will make him a pitch?
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Although there’s been a lot of talk about the Maple Leafs signing Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues who’ll also be hitting free agency this offseason, his projected contract is out of reach for a salary cap-strapped organization. However, Brodie’s contract might affordable.
He’s coming off a $4.65 million contract at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic makes becoming a free agent a bit iffy. Given its impact on next season’s cap structure, it seems unlikely Brodie will sign for much more than what he earned last season. I’m guessing a new contract would be under $5 million per season.
Also, on Nov. 14, Brodie had a scary incident when he collapsed during practice and was rushed to the hospital. Although tests were clear and he returned to the lineup, that incident might impact the numbers on his next deal. At least, a potential team’s medical staff will be consulted.
Brodie has the kind of on-ice skills the Maple Leafs would value. He’s a good puck-mover with a great first pass. He sees the ice well and doesn’t panic. He’s a strong skater who can transition from offense to defense and vice versa. He can join the rush on a breakout or get back quickly on defense. In short, he’d be a nice complement to the elite group of forwards that are the core of the team.
Brodie’s reputation is as a sound defensive defenseman. He’s been a top-four defenseman with the Flames, and his partnership with last season’s Norris Trophy-winner Mark Giordano has been amazingly solid. In January 2019, Sportsnet named him in the top 10 defensive defensemen in the NHL, noting that he was a “monster” at “removing the puck from opponents.”
Other hockey commentators agree that Brodie is what the Maple Leafs need. He’s a top-four defenseman who can play against the opposition’s best players and complement the high-powered offense that Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe hope to employ.
How Does the Maple Leafs Current Defense Line Up?
As much as I like the logic of Dubas’ moves as a general manager, I have no idea how he intends to add a defenseman. If he needed before the 2019-20 season, enough to get Barrie from the Avalanche, he must still believe he needs one now.
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On the other hand, he’s had a season to watch Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren play. Justin Holl has emerged and was quickly signed to a contract extension. I think we can expect to see Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, recent signee KHL defenseman Mikko Lehtonen, Sandin, Liljegren, Holl, and Travis Dermott on defense next season. That’s how I’d play it.