During Monday’s trade deadline, seven of the eight Atlantic Division teams were very quiet.
The league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t make a single tweak to their already formidable roster. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs each made one minor transaction. The Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres made their major deals the night before — with the Wings selling veteran winger Gustav Nyquist and the Sabres acquiring puck-moving defenceman Brandon Montour. The Boston Bruins made one trade for forward Marcus Johansson and the Florida Panthers’ only move of note was sending centre Derrick Brassard to the Colorado Avalanche for a draft pick (if you can even call that ‘note-worthy’).
Only the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators did the best they could to sell, sell, sell.
For most of the quiet teams, the inactivity was not surprising. For the Maple Leafs, however, the lack of moves was somewhat unexpected, especially after months of speculation about acquiring a right-shot defenceman. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston going on the Fan 590 over the lunch hour to say he had heard other teams suggest the Maple Leafs were ‘working on something big’ led to more rampant speculation that a major transaction was on the way.
"I've had a few other people externally from other teams suggest they believe the #Leafs are working on something big…and that they're in the market to get that right-shot defenceman."@reporterchris with @SNJeffBlair #BlairShow #LeafsForever.
— Sportsnet 590 The FAN (@FAN590) February 25, 2019
Alas, it never came, as the only move the Maple Leafs made was acquiring 5-foot-9 forward Nic Petan from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for fourth-line centre Par Lindholm, a move that made the club younger and more skilled, but also smaller.
Now, I don’t know what the asking prices were for that coveted defenceman, but clearly Dubas felt an overpayment would not be worth it. Even with the Bruins adding to their forward depth not once, but twice, in the form of Charlie Coyle and Johansson, the Maple Leafs felt comfortable standing pat. In doing so, some may say they’ve missed out on the final opportunity to fix their blue line this season. Others will say the patient approach is the way to go.
The Ron Hainsey Problem
There is a reason there has been months of speculation about the Maple Leafs’ search for a right-shot defenceman. It’s because there is a glaring hole on their top pair beside Morgan Rielly that is currently being occupied by 37-year-old Ron Hainsey, a player who is much more suited for a depth role (yes, his plus-30 rating, which leads the NHL, does not make him a top-pairing defender).
I’ll be the first to admit head coach Mike Babcock has done a good job of limiting the veteran’s ice-time this season. After skating an average of 21:51 per game last season, including 4:07 while shorthanded, Hainsey is now down to just 19:55 in 2018-19, with 3:06 coming on the penalty kill. But the issue is Babcock appears reluctant to play Jake Muzzin on the top pair with Rielly, an experiment that was tried for a grand total of 93 five-on-five minutes. This means Hainsey, despite seeing an overall decrease in ice-time, is still playing against the opposition’s top players at even-strength. That won’t work in the playoffs.
In last spring’s seven-game series against the Boston Bruins, Hainsey recorded an ugly 39.29 Corsi For percentage (CF%) and a just-as-bad 40.91 Scoring Chances For percentage (SCF%). Luckily, his Goals For percentage was a wash (on the ice for six goals for and six goals against), but that’s because of his extremely lucky 104.7 PDO (PDO is a luck-based metric derived from the team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage when a player is on the ice at five-on-five).
This season has not been better if you isolate Hainsey’s five-on-five performance. We can look at this thanks to Micah Blake McCurdy’s handy heat map below.
In terms of unblocked shots against, the threat level against the Maple Leafs is 17 percent higher than the league average with Hainsey on the ice this season at five-on-five, compared to just one percent higher than the league average when he is not on the ice. Obviously, these results are not flattering and reiterate the need for a different top pair than Rielly and Hainsey.
Because Dubas refused to deal with this issue by acquiring outside defensive help, he’s basically leaving it up to Babcock to figure it out before the playoffs. The specific solution remains to be seen, but the most obvious fix is to either try Muzzin on the right side or just go back to putting Rielly there.
Dubas Unwilling to Tinker With Leafs Current Roster
In his post-deadline press conference with the Toronto media, Dubas said all the right things, making sure to speak in generalities and hammer home the same talking points. When he was asked how active he was in trying to upgrade the defence, he said he’s always looking at different options to try to make the team better, but that ultimately he had faith in the current group.
We’re trying to always look to upgrade all different spots on our roster. That’s sort of the nature of the job…We looked around and decided that rather than do something for the sake of doing it, we’ve made our moves with Jake [Muzzin] a few weeks ago and with John [Tavares] in the summer, and we’ve got some excellent development from our guys internally, so we’re excited about rolling ahead with the season.
Not tinkering with the current roster was a big win in the Muzzin deal, but that wasn’t going to be possible if the Leafs were going to acquire a true upgrade on their blue line at the deadline. Dubas did not want to lose right-shot defensive prospect Timothy Liljegren or one of his young forwards like Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen, who surely could have netted him a top-four defender.
“We’ve got a lot of belief in our team and our people in there already,” Dubas said. “With the depth that we have now, upgrading it comes at a cost. The upgrades aren’t going to be as substantial as they once were.”
What if Dubas doesn’t make another move? Are the Maple Leafs good enough right now to go on a serious run?
John Tavares: “Absolutely.”
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) February 25, 2019
Based on the Brandon Montour trade with the Sabres, which sent a San Jose Sharks first-rounder and prospect Brendan Guhle to the Anaheim Ducks, Dubas probably could have parted with Liljegren and a 2020 first or second-round pick to acquire someone like rough and tumble blueliner Josh Manson from the Ducks. He almost surely could have parted with Johnsson or Kapanen to acquire defensive-minded Brett Pesce from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Dubas decided against both of those moves because he believes in what’s on the way: a D-core that two years down the line will likely be comprised of Rielly, Muzzin (if he can fit under the cap), maybe Nikita Zaitsev (moving him would fit Muzzin), and a bunch of ex-Marlies: Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Calle Rosen, Timothy Liljegren, and Rasmus Sandin.
Dubas’ unwillingness to upgrade their blue line right at this moment may seem troubling to some, but it does re-enforce that the management team has the big picture in mind. The reality is the Leafs can beat anyone on any given night, if the right players show up. With Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri down the middle, the team can score goals at the drop of a hat — as was the case last night when they struck twice in a span of 2:06 against the Sabres. No team has more even-strength goals (182) and scoring chances for (1,692) than the Leafs this season, not even the Lightning.
It won’t be that easy in the 2019 playoffs, but it’s not impossible. I’ll admit I don’t have a ton of confidence in their defensive unit in a seven-game series against the Bruins. At the very least, however, it will be fun to see if the Maple Leafs can out-score their problems. They probably won’t, but you never know. Stranger things have happened.
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.