The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager says, “it’s all on the table for us” at the trade deadline. Kyle Dubas has not been shy about showing his hand leading up to the final weeks and days of the April 12 cutoff of trade transactions. He announced to the world that he would trade a top prospect. He also said the majority of his conversations had been about forwards.
This article will summarize where Toronto is at logistically while trying to look inside the franchise’s brain to understand what may or may not happen at – or even before – the deadline.
“It’s no secret,” Dubas started when asked about the deadline, “we are going to be a team that is going to be looking to acquire players at the deadline.” That’s the orders coming down from President Brendan Shanahan but the secret is who and how Dubas will pull this off. The Leafs have around $500,000 in cap space, which isn’t nearly enough to pay for an upgrade. There are 44 contracts signed with room to go to 50, so lots of flexibility there.
Toronto’s discipline to hold on to future picks has paid off. The club has 19 of a possible 21 draft selections over the next three years. In 2021 they are missing a third and seventh-round pick. In 2022 and 2023, they have the full allotment, with a choice in all seven rounds. That means Toronto has three years of first and second-round selections to sweeten a trade offer.
Next, let’s clear something up. Although Dubas says it’s all on the table, it’s not. Several forwards are not moving. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares are untouchable. Add to that list Zach Hyman due to his outstanding play and the likelihood Toronto will do anything it can to keep him for several years to come. William Nylander because his offensive numbers continue to improve. Jason Spezza because he said he would retire before playing anywhere else. Wayne Simmonds due to his energy and rejuvenated play. Joe Thornton because, well, it’s Jumbo, ’nuff said.
On the defensive side, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly will be staying put. You could also add to that list, with less certainty, Justin Holl and Zach Bogosian. Holl, because of his solid play with partner Muzzin and Bogosian, was brought in specifically to provide sandpaper in the playoffs. In the net, it’s doubtful Jack Campbell is going anywhere.
Toronto Needs and Wants
There is a big difference between a need and a want. As I explain to my kids, a need is something you can’t live without it, and a want is nice to have. Toronto needs help in net one way or another. No one outside of the Leafs training facility knows the situation with Frederik Andersen’s health. It’s possible he returns and is back to his old self. It’s also possible his injury doesn’t heal anytime soon. That would leave Toronto with Campbell, whose health continues to be a concern. The Leafs have admitted to managing his workload because he is still recovering from a nagging knee injury. That’s not the kind of problem you want heading into the playoffs. That leaves Michael Hutchinson, an average backup at best and newly acquired Veini Vehvilainen, who’s got one NHL start.
A defensive upgrade is difficult to assess. Is it a need or a want? Sometimes Toronto’s defenders play shutdown hockey. Other times it seems to be the weakest link on the team. There’s no doubt that Toronto would welcome an elite defenseman, but those guys are few and far between and are very costly.
All season-long commentators have been speculating that Toronto was actively pursuing a top-six forward. Every week a new name seemed to surface. We will never know if there was any validity to those names. Until a few weeks ago, an upgrade was a need. However, Alex Galchenyuk’s play on the second line must’ve moved that need to a want. Sheldon Keefe kept his lines the same for three games in a row, the first time he has done that all season and all three of the games were wins. It would’ve been four straight with the same lines if Nylander had not been out due to COVID protocols.
Prospects That Could Move
Dubas gave a straight-up “yes” when asked if we would move a top prospect. According to TSN’s prospect ranking system, Toronto has five locks to be impact players in the NHL. These players are projected to be top-six type forwards or top-four calibre defensemen.
Rasmus Sandin: The Leafs’ first-round selection in the 2018 draft has played 29 games in the NHL. He has just returned from injury and rejoined the Marlies.
Nick Robertson: Toronto’s second-round pick in 2019 started the season with the big club but suffered an injury during the first period of his first game of the season. He is now playing well with the Marlies. You may recall the hype around this kid last season as the team brought him along to suit up for the play-in series against Columbus.
Rodion Amirov: The Russian speedster was Toronto’s first-round pick last season. A selection they got by trading away Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He played 39 games in the KHL and registered 13 points this season,
Nick Abruzzese: Still gets top marks despite not playing this season for Harvard as the Ivy League suspended all play. Still, the Leafs fourth-round pick from 2019 is considered a top prospect due to his advanced play in a short period.
Topi Niemela: The Finnish 19-year-old was taking in the third round in 2020 and impressed the Leafs right away when he was named top defenceman at the 2021 World Juniors.
These players would only move if Toronto gets something big in return. “If we’re going to one of the higher-end guys, I would say we need to see an extremely significant deal. But, we’re not opposed to it and seeing how everything evolves as we lead up to April 12.”
Rounding out the top ten prospects, TSN projects these players to be top six defenders and top nine forwards.
Timothy Liljegren: he was drafted 17th overall back in 2017 and currently developing with the Marlies. The defenceman has 11 NHL games.
Filip Hallander: the Penguins selected him in the second round of the 2018 draft. The forward came to Toronto as part of the Kapanen trade. He’s been playing in the Swedish Hockey League.
Roni Hirvonen: was drafted in the second round of the 2020 draft along with countryman Niemela. The defenceman also had an impressive WJC with eight points in seven games.
Mikhail Abramov: is a speedy Russian who Toronto selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. He has been putting some impressive numbers with the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL.
Vetti Miettinen: wraps up the trio of high-end players from Finland. Toronto grabbed him in the sixth round of the 2020 draft. He’s been playing university hockey at St. Cloud State.
“I think it really depends on what trading partners are looking for,” explained Dubas. “Some teams are looking for draft picks; other teams are looking for prospects; other teams are looking for roster players. I will remain as flexible as we can on all fronts to improve our team here and work with the teams that are looking to move out established players at different stages in their franchise evolution.”
Roster Players Who Could Move
It’s difficult to project which players on the Maple Leafs roster Dubas would move because the team has enjoyed so much success.
I’m the first to admit that this is entirely unknown at this time, despite Sheldon Keefe saying he is not concerned, reinforcing the netminder will be back. We don’t know the extend of his injury or the timeline to return. However, we know he is in the last year of his contract and costs $5 million. If the injury situation persists, he could get moved to another team as a favour to take the money off the books and allow Toronto to pursue someone else. Or Toronto could move him to the long-term injured reserve list to open up some cash.
He is not a liability on the ice, but his point production has been less than impressive. He earns $3.5 million. That is a lot of money at the deadline when Dubas will need space to bring in some players. At 26-years old, Kerfoot still has a lot of potential and one year left on his contract.
He only makes this list because everyone outside of the franchise makes cases on shipping him out daily. I don’t see it happening, but if Dubas is presented with something that addresses needs in exchange for Willy Styles, it may happen. Dubas could do a lot with Nylander’s $7 million, while teams would pay up for an elite offensive player.
The sixth defenceman has been seeing a reduction in ice time. If Toronto acquired a blueliner, Dermott is the odd man out and destined for the taxi squad. He would have to clear waivers, which means the Leafs could lose him for nothing. He may be added to a deal to get a few dollars of cap space as well.
Pierre Engvall & Ilya Mikheyev
These two have developed into a solid pairing playing in the bottom six. It’s improbable they are going anywhere, but some teams are looking for roster players, as Dubas said. It will also depend on who the Leafs acquire as they may have to assign someone to the taxi squad and potentially lose them on the waiver wire.
Potential Forward Targets
This list is extensive and ever-evolving. While Dubas says his marching orders are to acquire players, he’s also said he won’t sacrifice the team’s future.
He has been near the top of the list for weeks. However, he was recently injured and is on injured reserve. Before that, it’s been reported that the asking price was high.
The Anaheim Ducks should be looking for a lot in return for the two-time 30-goal scorer. The price may come down as the deadline approaches.
Early this season, the Nashville Predators all but said they were having a fire sale. Now they are in the playoff race. It’s hard to tell what this team will do with its players, but Granlund would make an excellent addition.
Although it was reported he asked for a trade, Bennett remained a big part of the Calgary Flames. Bennett is a playoff performer and has several ties to Toronto. He would be a quality addition to the roster as he could start playing right away, bypassing the seven-day quarantine rules for players from the United States.
Taylor Hall is not likely to be coming to Toronto given his $8 million cap hit and the fact that he is having a hard time staying on a team. It would be a nice story to bring Sudbury’s Nick Foligno home. The son of former Leaf Mike Foligno would add a lot of grit, but his $5.5 million cap hit is a tough one to absorb for a player who would be in the bottom six.
Potential Defenceman Targets
While the defensive numbers have improved this season, there’s no doubt Dubas would jump at a chance to enhance his blue line. There is no shortage of defensemen available.
The right-shot defenceman is considered the top prize of this year’s trade deadline. The top prize is going to come with a very high price tag. Imagining the shutdown defenseman playing with Muzzin is enough to make you want to pay.
While he would be a perfect fit and has been rumoured to be on Toronto’s radar, the problem is the Predators’ situation. As described with Granlund, Nashville could make the playoffs, and they will need Ekholm for that run.
Some thought this big man could join Toronto last season, one year later, and he is still a solid shutdown kind of guy that could bring some more toughness and grit to the blue line.
The Buffalo Sabres appear ready to clean the house. There are two solid defensemen, Brandon Montour and Colin Miller, who are on the trade bait radar. It’s also been reported that Toronto has inquired about a Buffalo goalie, more on that later. Perhaps there is a package deal in the works.
Wouldn’t it be great to bring Toronto’s own Vince Dunn home? The restricted free agent is believed to be available from the St. Louis Blues. At 24-years old, he’s a perfect fit for the age group of the young core. That said, the trade-only game makes sense if Toronto can resign him, and he will be an expensive player to keep. Jamie Oleksiak is a monster of a man and is being shopped by the Dallas Stars. He would be a relatively easy addition with a minor $2.14 million hit.
Again, this is one of the most challenging area to predict. Suppose Andersen is not going to recover in time for the playoffs. In that case, this must be the number one priority for Toronto. Campbell has earned the starting role but cannot hold the position regularly due to a persistent injury.
Elliotte Friedman reported that Toronto is doing “due diligence” and has called Buffalo to inquire about the young goalie. Just the fact that Dubas is calling shows the interest. At 27, he could be part of a longer-term plan for the Maple Leafs net.
The Detroit Red Wings are going to be clearing out assets. The former Leaf netminder has played very well behind a struggling team this season. However, he is dealing with an injury. Toronto has too many nicked-up goalies already.
The Arizona Coyotes are another team that is not sure if they are buyers or sellers yet. However, if they do start elling off assets and reloading for the future, Kuemper would be a welcome addition. But, he is also dealing with an injury.
Devan Dubnyk is likely to be moved out of San Jose, but his numbers have not been very good this season. Jonathan Quick got some discussions going a few weeks ago. However, he is not the Quick that won a Stanley Cup. His numbers are down as well. The Carolina Hurricanes have said they may move one of their trio of tenders as well.
While extensive, this rundown is likely just a tiny sample of the reports the Leafs’ front office has been working with for several months. Remember Toronto’s commitment to building a franchise that will be great for years, not just one season. Be sure to add your players, targets and predictions in the comment section. We will see who has the best crystal ball or magic eight ball, after the deadline.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.