Leafs Have Forward Options At the Deadline

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Written By: Allan Chow

The NHL trade deadline is over a month away. In a normal season it would be too early to really assess any trade possibilities because the standings would still be in a state of flux and so much could change between now and 5 weeks from now. 

While Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has shown to be an early starter to the deadline, preferring to make deals earlier than normal, the reality is this is not a normal season and things are not running as expected with there being a shortened campaign and a pandemic. 

The pandemic has put a significant wrench in not only the NHL season but really sports in general. But leagues have managed to try and get through their seasons and navigate as best they can in what we can now say is the new normal. 

Money around the NHL is certainly tight. Even teams like Toronto are not immune to losses and certainly the old “warchest of funds” is not what it used to be. 

Talk around the league is that to consummate a trade, it really appears that the deal would have to be equal money going in and out. This is a byproduct of the financial situation many teams are in, where the short season, with limited to no fans, played under current TV revenue, leaves very few dollars flowing in and thus making every penny count when it comes to finances. 

With a salary cap having to remain flat for not just this season, but likely beyond, until the league can get back on its feet, it means that it’s probably harder than ever to add players and make improvements, especially in-season.

This is where the Leafs find themselves. Yes they are probably better off than most teams, but still, they’re not having fans in their building any time soon, so they might not be going to break the bank on any new additions and commit to big dollars. 

Also, impacting them most is this flat cap. They’re a team with several big ticket stars, so it will be a huge crunch to build a balanced team and keep the players they want, or reward those who have done well, handsomely. 

On top of that, there is this pandemic that has limited or basically completely shut down cross border travel and required lengthy quarantines, should a player need to go over the border. Players entering Canada would have to quarantine for 2 weeks and from what we saw after the Winnipeg Jets acquired Pierre-Luc Dubois, it took almost a month to get him into a Jets jersey and a regularly contributing player to their lineup post trade.

So, like everything else in this new normal, it may be even more important now to get a trade done well before the deadline so that the quarantine can get done sooner than later, the new player has time to acclimate to their team and environment and get back into shape after being idle for 2 weeks. Plus, you’d want them to play a good number of games, probably at least 10, to fit into the team, find linemates and build some chemistry. So much to consider! 

Dubas and Co. will try their best to improve one of the NHL’s best teams (so far) as we near the midway point. Dubas and his capologist king, Brandon Pridham, will navigate the rough waters of a flat cap with aplomb and may be the best at finding ways to stickhandle through a sticky cap situation. There should be a lot of belief from Leaf fans that, if the team needs to, they’ll fit in a player should that opportunity come available.

Now, with all that said, what kind of player would the Leafs have any interest in?

From the looks of things, they may have some mild interest in adding depth to their defence. The injury to Rasmus Sandin, their top prospect, certainly hinders their depth a bit, though he will return eventually. But Mikko Lehtonen is still their 7th D and while talented, he has been stuck in that role thanks to the play of their top 6 guys. Timothy Liljegren too, is healthy, but is still biding his time, waiting for any opportunity. There seems to be confidence in this group to get the job done. If anything, a Taxi or Stay Ready Squad member could be added, but it does not seem defence would be the focus here. When  was the last time anyone said that for a Leaf team? It’s been a while.

After losing Aaron Dell to waivers earlier in the year, there were concerns with depth in goal. Then, when both Jack Campbell and Fredrik Andersen ended up in the infirmary, the Leafs seemed to be in a bind. But what was old was made new again as Michael Hutchinson, the newly elevated 3rd goaltender, ended up playing decent hockey and produced solid numbers and a winning record. Couldn’t ask for much more. So, the goaltending seems to be in decent shape should Andersen stay healthy and Campbell return to regular health. Again, the most likely scenario would be to grab a waiver wire goalie. Otherwise, the Leafs may be feeling good about their situation in net.

So, that brings us to the forward group and that is where it seems the Leafs will make an addition. There have been rumours regarding the Leafs likely looking for a top 9 forward to fill in and add further depth to the lineup.

While you may think a team with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander may not need depth, the reality is, you can’t have enough of it. 

Matthews and Hyman have both missed time with lingering injuries. Joe Thornton has been injured twice and is over 41 years old. Wayne Simmonds has only played 12 games before being on the shelf with an injury and with a ton of players shuffled around the stay ready squad and the 3rd and 4th lines, it really seems that a forward addition wouldn’t hurt at all. Plus they haven’t quite finalized who they want in their top 6 with their top guys. It’s been a bit of a revolving door, which could be filled with a new addition.

Also, with the encouraging way the team has played, being the league leader in points and hovering around the top 3 in points percentage, it really may be the best opportunity for Toronto to not only advance a round in the playoffs, but to make a lengthy run. So adding a forward to help in that regard may be prudent, necessary and welcome. 

So, who could the Leafs target? Well there are 3 categories: 

1) The long term investment: These would be players the Leafs not only could acquire to help them this year, but for a lot longer than that. They’d either have multiple years left on their contract, or be still under restricted free agent status, with a few years of club control left. That is definitely attractive to Toronto, in a way, because they’re trying to build a sustainable winner and if they can add someone for now, and later, then that would make sense. It also could have value in an expansion year. With the Seattle Kraken set to make their debut next year, it will be likely the Leafs lose a player off their roster. So adding further depth to help them down the road could help soften that blow. 

2) The pure rental: These would be players heading into Unrestricted Free Agency. These would be guys who the Leafs could have for the balance of this season, but have no further commitment after that, should they wish to cut ties. It would give them flexibility next season and not have them burdened with yet another contract commitment in 2021/2022, where they have players like Hyman and/or Andersen they may wish to re-sign. A rental will likely cost them the least in terms of assets, since it would be a rental for 10-15 games at most, plus playoffs.

3) The 2 year rental: This has been something Dubas has targeted in the past in acquiring Jake Muzzin and Jack Campbell in consecutive years. That means they’re acquiring a player who wouldn’t be a UFA until after next season. This would give them a chance to have a player help them not only now, but into next year to further evaluate and to have that player help them for longer than just 15 or so games. Muzzin, in fact, re-signed for 4 more years after playing around a year and a half with the team. This would also add value in an expansion year with the eventuality of them losing a guy in that draft.

So, who would fit the mold? Here are 3 players in each category the Leafs could target:

1) The Long Term Investment

Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils: Wood is the son of former Maple Leaf Randy Wood. He is a 25 year old who can play both wing positions. He has been a double digit scorer in each of the last 3 seasons and is on pace to once again reach the double digit mark. He is in the mold of Zach Hyman. A player with decent size, skating ability and willingness to play in a crowd. He is an industrious player. Wood is going to be a Restricted Free Agent in 2022, so the Leafs would have at least 2 years of control. He could really fill a role on any one of the top 3 lines at LW. 

Key Stat: 72% Defensive zone starts. Good for 14th among forwards with at least 20 games. Per NHL.com

Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville Predators: Arvidsson is in a much different situation than Wood. He is 27 and in the middle of a lengthy term deal with Nashville. He will not be a free agent until 2024. At $4.25 mil, his deal is fairly affordable, but the Leafs may need some salary retention to get a deal done. Arvidsson is considered one of the fastest players in the league. He is a great skater and is willing to go into dirty areas, despite his limited size. He had 3 consecutive seasons of at least 29 goals before fading to just 15 last year. He fits the mold of a player Dubas usually likes: fast and skilled. 

Key Stat: 58.4 Corsi For. Good for 14th in NHL among players with at least 15 games played. Per Hockey Reference. 

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: Bennett has requested a trade from the Flames. But, with the change in the coaching staff, he may be a player the team would want to work with rather than give up on. The Flames love his playoff pedigree, as he has done much better there than in the regular season, where he has struggled. Bennett, in the bubble playoff, had 5 goals and 8 points in 10 games. This season he has struggled, registering just 3 goals and 4 points so far in 23 games, while being a regular healthy scratch. He will be a RFA at seasons end, but at 24 years old he still has time to emerge as a player. 

Key Stat: 0.34 points per game regular season. 0.63 points per game in playoffs. Per Hockey Reference. 

2) The Pure Rental

Eric Staal, Buffalo Sabres: Normally you wouldn’t see rivals like Buffalo and Toronto deal, but not being in the same division this year, it won’t matter. Staal would be like the Leafs other vets, such as Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza. He’s able to play both Centre and Wing. While he has struggled, much like the rest of the Sabres this season, he has come off 4 really solid seasons with Minnesota before being traded to Buffalo last offseason. At 36, he isn’t the player he once was, but could fill in as the Leafs 3rd C or, perhaps, play LW. He may be better suited to the wing to lessen his defensive responsibilities. He’d add Stanley Cup experience. 

Key Stat: 1029 career points, 7th on the active list.  Per Hockey Reference. 

Nick Foligno, Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets captain has been the face of their team for 9 years. The son of former Leaf Mike Foligno, Nick isn’t a huge scorer, but can play up in the lineup. He is a big, rugged, prototypical power winger. At 33, he isn’t what he used to be, but he could help Toronto add a physical element to the team and be a presence on and off the ice. He can play nasty if he needs to and that is something Toronto doesn’t have enough of. It could be welcome in a long playoff series. 

Key Stat: 59 Hits, good for 33rd overall in the NHL. Per NHL.com.

Mikael Granlund, Nashville Predators: Granlund is the opposite of Foligno. He is a small, skilled, offense first winger. Though, of late, he has been a key penalty killer for the Preds as he is a pretty smart, quick player. But, at the end of the day, Granlund will be a guy who is asked to generate offence and help support an offensive line. He could be a fit as a top 6 forward. 

Key Stat: 19:29 average ice time. Tops among forwards on Nashville. 31st in NHL. Per Hockey Reference. 

3) The 2 Year Rental

Boone Jenner, Columbus Blue Jackets: If there was a player who may best fit what the Leafs need, it might be Jenner. He could fill in as their no. 3 Centre and give them a matchup C to go up against the other team’s top lines. He has the requisite size and toughness to handle that role, as well as being a good player. He could also skate in the top 6 as a tough, North/South winger with size and goal scoring ability. He was once a 30 goal scorer. That versatility could serve the Leafs well in the playoffs, if they play the matchup game and want certain personnel in specific situations. 

Key Stat: 31 block shots. Good for 2nd among forwards overall. Per NHL.com

Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks: Rakell is a quality scoring winger who can play both sides. He has been a 30 goal scorer and one of the Ducks better offensive players on a team that has struggled mightily to score. While his goal totals have dipped the last 3 seasons after back to back 30 goal years, it’s really more a byproduct of the team he’s been playing on and the lack of talent around him, than him being an eroding player. At a cap hit that’s under 4M, he would be an affordable offensive player on a team that’s been looking for a 2nd line winger to play with Tavares. 

Key Stat: 5.28 ixG (Total Expected Goals) per Natural Stat Trick. Good for 14th in the NHL. 

Nick Paul, Ottawa Senators: The attractiveness of Paul would really stem from not having to go through the extensive Covid Protocols, since he’s playing for a Canadian team. While it may be tougher to pry a player from their provincial rival, it’s not unprecedented for a Sen to move to Toronto and vice versa. Paul is a good sized forward with skill. He is more of a depth winger, with capabilities of playing up the lineup if needed. Paul can fill in at both Centre and Wing and could maybe solve the revolving door at 4th line, or perhaps move up, if needed to play on the 3rd line. At a 1.35 mil cap hit for this year and next, he’s attractive as a possible player to expose in the expansion draft, or keep to off-set a loss of a player. 

Key Stat: 2.94 takeaways per 60. Good for 20th in NHL. Per NHL.com.

There’s certainly some other names that may peak the Leafs interest and as we’ve seen in the past with Dubas, it can sometimes be someone totally out of the blue that no one expected. Whomever it may be, there should be faith that the Leaf GM will find a good fit for the team and provide this lineup a boost. 

Now, it is challenging not only for all that criteria mentioned earlier with protocols, dollars in and out and such. But, also what to give up? That is the biggest question as the market, with how it is, makes it super hard to trade to find the right assets and dollars to make it fit. If the Leafs are able to accumulate as much cap space as they can for the balance of this season, then they should be able to take on more dollars than what they’d have going out. That will be important, especially if that is an attraction for a dollar needy team to remove salary, rather than take it on. 

In hockey terms, the Leafs do have the assets to do something large, or smaller scale.

Earlier moves have opened up contract slots to allow them to maybe take on more than 1 body (or specifically contract) if need be. The Leafs have their own 1st and 2nd round picks and at least, for this season, are definitely more well positioned to offer that up in trade as it will, this time, be a likely late 1st round pick. They’ve also strengthened their depth by adding prospects and seeing some develop well overseas. So, if they have to, there likely wouldn’t be much hesitation to include a key prospect or two to get the right player.

Best bets would likely see the team hold on to Rodion Amirov, their most recent 1st rounder, Rasmus Sandin, their top prospect, and Nick Roberson, their top forward prospect. Those are their 3 best prospects and unless a unicorn hits, where they get a good roster controllable player, it’s unlikely they’d move any of these 3 for, say, a rental or older veteran depth player. 

So, what does that leave? The 1st round pick might be attractive in some cases, but not enough in others. That means the Leafs would likely have to dip into their depth. That would include the likes of Topi Niemela, Timothy Liljegren and Mikko Kokonen on defence and forwards Roni Hirvonen, Nick Abruzzese and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev at forward, to name a few. 

These are quality prospects and maybe a combination of them could be enough to attract a very good player in return. Whether they’d be good enough to the team acquiring them, well that’s the big question. 

On the roster, it doesn’t seem likely they’d move away from anyone currently playing with the team, but in this business, you never say never. However, it seems improbable any one of the Leaf’s bigger names, like a Nylander, or a Morgan Reilly, or pending UFAs like Hyman or Andersen, would be moved. So anyone wishing that would happen will be disappointed. 

If there were players possibly available, it would likely be someone like Alex Kerfoot or Travis Dermott. 

Kerfoot may be available if there has to be a salary moved out. It doesn’t seem likely he’d get traded, but if a salary has to go, it would likely be him. The caveat though would be that the player acquired likely would have to be a pretty good upgrade on him. He’s played well and is a very useful player for how Toronto wants to play. 

Dermott is a depth D, so he wouldn’t bring much in return, but it would mostly be if the team acquiring him had a defensive need in exchange for a forward. Again, it’s not as if Toronto would be looking to trade, considering how solid the D has been and with how the pairings have been put in place.

Whatever they decide to do, the Leafs are not going to depreciate their current team too much, if at all because at the end of the day they’re going to add, not subtract. 

And it’s very possible that they may end up not being able to do anything at all. Right now, they do have Wayne Simmonds eventually returning, so that will be a lineup boost. 

If they manage to withstand any further injuries that are long term, they’ve shown at times, more often than not, that they can dominate teams in the Canadian Division. 

But, that isn’t the ultimate goal, winning this division. It’s the playoffs that they need to conquer and in the end a player out there could be of some help for the Leafs. 

The price has to be right, the fit has to be right. It’s tricky, but Dubas and Co., based on what they’ve done to turn over the roster in the off-season and help build the team we see today, we see a more balanced, quality roster, perhaps the best we’ve seen here in many years. With that being said, if there is someone out there that could help this team, it would be most prudent for Dubas and Co. to add. 

This could be the most fascinating, but also, least active deadline of all time. Hopefully inactivity doesn’t apply to the Leafs.