Maple Leafs Should Look to Canadiens to Strengthen Defense

Recently The Hockey Writers’ Shane Seney suggested that the Toronto Maple Leafs look to the Dallas Stars, and in particular their defenseman John Klingberg, in an effort to improve their defense. While we can definitely see the merits of such a deal, we’re not convinced that Klingberg would be the right fit for the Maple Leafs. 

Klingberg’s an Offensive Defenseman, and Toronto’s Been There Before

Klingberg’s an excellent offensive defenseman; however, he’s not considered to be that strong defensively. Perusing through reports from the Dallas press it appears that the loss of Alex Goligoski, who played with the Stars from about 2010-2016, provided the strong defense that allowed Klingberg to play to his offensive strengths. 

John Klingberg Dallas Stars
John Klingberg, Dallas Stars (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

After Goligoski moved to the Arizona Coyotes for the 2016-17 season, Klingberg began to struggle. This season things have gotten so bad that Klingberg has been rumored to have requested a trade. 

As Maple Leafs’ fans, we have to admit this “great offensively, not so great defensively” sounds way too familiar. Morgan Rielly has had that same label for years. Thankfully, this season Rielly has massively improved his defensive play; still, Rielly relies on T.J. Brodie to carry the load defensively on that pair.

Related: Maple Leafs Not Getting What They Need From Muzzin or Holl

Then there was Tyson Barrie. Barrie was the same type of offensive player. Having both Rielly and Barrie on the Maple Leafs definitely didn’t work out. After having a great 2020-21 season, Barrie’s struggles defensively have been reported as one of the reasons the Edmonton Oilers are sinking fast in the Pacific Division.  

The Canadiens Have the Kind of Player the Maple Leafs Need

The Maple Leafs have already been down this road. If the Maple Leafs really want to bolster their defense with a good all-around player who could help them take a run at the Stanley Cup this season, they need to look no further than the Montreal Canadiens.

Ben Chiarot Montreal Canadiens
Ben Chiarot, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A post by Sportsnet’s Eric Engels on December 3 spoke about Chiarot’s value. Engels noted that Chiarot was a “six-foot-three, 234-pound defenseman who’s been Montreal’s steadiest player this season.”

Engels added that Chiarot’s been “playing over 25 minutes and offering more evidence as to why he’s one of Gorton’s best trade chips … The 30-year-old, who’s right in the heart of his prime, has averaged close to 23 minutes per game, blocked 233 shots, and thrown 283 hits since arriving in Montreal in 2019.”

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Interestingly enough, Chiarot is more than a stay-at-home defenseman. He can also add secondary scoring, in 135 games with the Canadiens, he’s scored 15 goals and 34 points.

Chiarot’s History Against the Maple Leafs and in Postseason

Looking back at the playoffs last season, during the Canadiens’ 22-game run to the Stanley Cup finals, Chiarot averaged 25:15 minutes each game – two seconds more a game than Shea Weber. Chiarot only had two points during the postseason and ended up minus-6, but he was relied on for the vast majority of the heavy defensive minutes and started 66 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone.  

Chiarot is a left-handed defenseman, but he has played both sides in his career. He’d be a massive improvement over Justin Holl, playing alongside Jake Muzzin, and would give the Maple Leafs a solid physical top-four defensive pairing. 

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As a huge bonus, Chiarot’s salary-cap hit is only $3.5 million on a deal that expires at the end of this season. He might be the perfect rental for the Maple Leafs. Despite turning 31 in May, as a UFA we’d expect Chiarot’s next contract would be priced out of the Maple Leafs’ range this offseason. 

Chiarot’s Cost in a Trade

We believe Chiarot will get a lot of interest as a UFA. We also think acting Canadiens’ general manager Jeff Gorton would have a ton of suitors for Chiarot. As a result, the cost to acquire him would be steep.

Seney’s article about Klingberg suggested the deal with the Stars could look like this. “The Maple Leafs acquire Klingberg, Pavelski, and Holtby from the Stars in exchange for Holl, Engvall, Mrazek, and prospect Nick Robertson.” 

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For that deal to work, the Stars would have to retain half of the salaries for the three players coming their way. The only real attraction for Stars general manager Jim Nill on that deal would be Nick Robertson. Even then, Nill would be gambling that Robertson could put his injury woes behind him and become a top-six forward in the NHL despite his 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame.  

Holl and Engvall would be looked at as bottom-pairing and bottom-six players at best. Mrazek could fill a backup goalie’s role if he could stay healthy. The Maple Leafs would need to really up their end for the deal to work.

What Would It Take for the Maple Leafs to Pry Chiarot from the Canadiens?

What would the Maple Leafs have to offer Gorton to pry Chiarot from the Canadiens? There’d have to be a nice “shiny toy” in there as an enticement.

Here’s one scenario that might work. The Canadiens would get Ilya Mikheyev, Travis Dermott, and Topi Niemelä. The Maple Leafs would get Chiarot and Mathieu Perreault. Montréal would retain $1.5 million in salary. 

Topi Niemelä Kärpät
Topi Niemelä of the Maple Leafs (in a Kärpät uniform) (Kärpät)

This trade might seem like a high price to pay, but it boils down to one question: “How badly do the Maple Leafs want to make a run at the Stanley Cup this season?” 

Looking at What the Maple Leafs Would Have to Give Up

If we look at the players headed to Montreal, Mikheyev will be a UFA at the end of this season. As a UFA, he’ll most likely sign for more than the Maple Leafs can afford. 

Dermott is entering his prime but appears to be at his ceiling with the Maple Leafs. Timothy Liljegren is battling him for the third pair right-side spot now and is three years younger.  

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Niemala is, depending on who you listen to, either the Maple Leafs’ top prospect or #2 on the chart. He’s the shiny toy that makes this deal really work for Gorton. 

Looking at Who the Maple Leafs Would Get

Other than Chiarot, why would the Maple Leafs want Perreault? Even at 34, Perreault can play many roles. He can play center or on the wing; he’s a strong forechecker, and he’s dogged in the pursuit of the puck. He’s signed to a one-year $950,000 deal. He can adequately fill a bottom-six depth role for the Maple Leafs this season.  

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As a bonus, the Maple Leafs would clear over $3 million in salary-cap space for next season. This money will be needed to re-sign Jack Campbell, Rasmus Sandin, and Liljegren.

[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.]