Although it was a slow start to the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have picked up their play since Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach. We are witnessing the team that many expected to see at the beginning of the season. They are in a good spot (second overall in the Atlantic Division), but their overall play could still be better and general manager Kyle Dubas is likely aware of this.
The team’s defense in their 8-6 win over the Carolina Hurricanes (as entertaining as it was) and their 6-5 overtime win against the New Jersey Devils was abysmal. The team is still ranked 24th in goals against per game (3.23) and shots against per game (32.5).
While the team stats have been better under Keefe, there are still some questions surrounding the defense. In the last three games, the Maple Leafs have allowed 15 goals against, most of them a result of costly turnovers. The offense is there but the defense needs work.
Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen and Tyson Barrie have all come up in trade talks recently. If the opportunity arises where Dubas can make a deal to improve the team, he shouldn’t hesitate.
Johnsson Could Be Expendable
Before going down with a leg injury, Andreas Johnsson played relatively well on the other wing with Auston Matthews and William Nylander. With 16 points in 30 games, he was a complimentary piece to the offense of both players. He was aggressive on the forecheck and in gaining puck possession.
The main reason to trade Johnsson would be to upgrade the defense. Whether as part of a bigger deal in a package with Barrie or even Cody Ceci, Dubas would be addressing a positional need.
After posting 20 goals and 43 points last season, any team would pay for his services. While he may not have the potential to put up points like Matthews or Nylander, his $3.4 million contract would attract anyone looking for a cheap cap hit for a 20-goal scorer who can put up 40-50 points a season.
While that is enticing, the Maple Leafs are also extremely deep with forward prospects. Players like Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev are continuing to improve each game, which could make someone like Johnsson expendable. Other players in the system could make an impact as well, such as Mason Marchment and Yegor Korshkov.
Kapanen As Well
Like Johnsson, the same reasons would apply to trade Kapanen: fill a positional need and move a cheap contract. His inconsistent play both as a top six forward and in a third line role is another reason. It’s not his point production but his decisions with the puck that are the issue.
He has 21 points in 40 games, a 43-point pace, which is good for a player getting third line minutes. While he looked good on the second line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner, replacing the injured Zach Hyman, it didn’t pay off as well as many thought it would. This could’ve been his chance to find some sort of consistency playing alongside two high-end players and find a home in the top-six. After time on Matthews’ wing last season and Tavares’ wing this year, Kapanen still struggles to be reliable in a bigger role.
Like Johnsson, Kapanen’s name came up a lot in trade talks during the 2018-19 season. If the team has any hope of being a contender again, they’re going to have to give up assets for a more reliable player on the back end.
While many teams would want to have Kapanen’s blazing speed (his greatest asset) on their team, it’s the reason why the Maple Leafs would be hesitant to move him. It’s hard to come by an extremely quick and agile winger who can play a major role on the team’s penalty kill.
Barrie Could Get a Better Return
Tyson Barrie’s situation is troubling. He was acquired to be another puck-moving defenseman and was expected to put up points to match that of Morgan Rielly. However, many are now wondering if acquiring Barrie was the right move.
On the surface, Barrie has thrived under Keefe compared to when Mike Babcock was behind the bench. In 17 games with the new head coach, Barrie has four goals and 13 points for a point-per-game pace of 0.76, a better result for a three-time, 50-point defenseman. While we’ve seen a major improvement in the offensive categories, his defensive deficiencies are a problem.
Instead of having another offensive-minded defenseman, it would be beneficial if the team tried to address their sub par defense. On Saturday against the New York Rangers, Barrie didn’t know how to handle the 2-on-1 that led to the eventual game-winning goal.
While both Jake Muzzin and Barrie are unrestricted free agents when the season is up, in terms of value, the Maple Leafs are getting more out of Muzzin than Barrie. Justin Holl has great chemistry with Muzzin on the second pairing. But with Muzzin out with a broken foot, the Maple Leafs need another dependable defenseman.
The Maple Leafs could look to try to find an improved version of Barrie. A player who with a 200-foot game who’s capable of being reliable in their own end and can put up points. With his points starting to roll in, the Maple Leafs could use this to their advantage and get a better return for an offensive defenseman who has found his game.
Other Names in Play?
It’s possible that Johnsson, Kapanen and Barrie aren’t moved at all. As mentioned, the team is deep with forward prospects and they could be looking to move some names that other teams might want.
During Saturday’s first intermission of the Rangers game, Elliotte Friedman mentioned that Jeremy Bracco, Dmytro Timashov and Ben Harpur are on the trading block. Bracco is a tremendous play-maker and if they’re looking for a top-two defenseman, he might be the price the organization is willing to pay.
Even if it’s a package deal with a roster player, the Maple Leafs could get the player they need on defense. It’s the reason they have stocked up on prospects. Bracco has the potential to be a top-six player, but it’ll be difficult to crack the roster now. It would be best to find him a new team where he can excel and be a key contributor.
Defense remains the team’s biggest problem. While they’ve played better under Keefe, there is always room for improvement, even if it means giving up a good asset. Whether it’s players on the roster or in the system, Dubas has many options that can help plan for a deep playoff run.