We have reached the unofficial end of the first half of the NHL season. The Toronto Maple Leafs are currently on their bye week break and the day they return to action, there will be 3 weeks left until the trade deadline.
The Leafs have established themselves as a good regular season team. They have been for quite a few years now been consistently good and consistently competitive in the regular season where they are often among the leaders in winning percentage and points.
There is no argument over that and there shouldn’t ever be. For 82 games, they are really good and successful. But, these regular season accolades are usually ignored because the franchise needs playoff success.
We know the history. 19 years since their last series win. 6 consecutive 1st round losses since 2017, the last 5 coming in the final game of the series. They are 0-9 in that stretch in series clinching games. They are their own worst enemy when it comes to the history they’ve created and the narrative that they cannot win when it matters.
There may be no team in the NHL under more pressure to at least win one series this year than Toronto. With that in mind, this trade deadline could be their most important ever to find the right additions that will help them get over the top.
Let’s examine what the team needs, who they have to offer and who they could acquire by March 3rd.
Even for a team as good as the Leafs are right now, there are a few needs. GM Kyle Dubas will hopefully be one of the busier GMs in the league because they need some help in a variety of places.
a) Top 6 forward.
It would probably be ideal if they deepen their lineup by acquiring a top 6 winger to join either the John Tavares line or Auston Matthews line. We know Mitch Marner and William Nylander are locks and so is Michael Bunting. But they could stand to replace Calle Järnkrok. Järnkrok is a good player, but better suited perhaps for a 3rd line.
Ideally, the player they acquire is a bit different than the big 4. This is both in style of play, temperament and perhaps adding an element of size. Seems like a lot to ask, but a worthy thing to explore because all the other top teams have almost as much skill as Toronto has, and top players who bring different elements. The Toronto guys are all relatively the same. Adding something different would benefit them. The best example is Evander Kane and the element he brought to the Oilers. His style, while offering skill, was much different than the other skilled top guys the Oilers have. That is what Toronto could stand to get. Is that person out there? We shall see.
b) Top 4 D
Toronto, you could say, has 8 competent defenceman. They have some skill, they have a decent star and they have some really smart, capable defencemen. But sometimes quantity doesn’t always equal quality. There is a need for a top 4 defenceman. This is especially true with the absence of Jake Muzzin, who is almost certain to not return to the lineup this season.
A player like him is really what the Leafs need. Ideally the player shoots right to play on the right side considering that side is less deep and has less quality than the left side. The team needs someone who is able to separate players from the puck, able to stop or stall the cycle and protect the front of the net better than the players they have currently on D. Is that guy out there? We’ll see, but they need to find it if possible.
c) 3rd line Centre
David Kämpf has been a solid contributor in the 2 years he’s been a Leaf. There is no doubt he adds value. But, the team could stand to upgrade on him as the team’s 3rd centre and find someone to help lengthen the lineup. Kämpf sliding in as the team’s 4th centre, as someone they can trust if their 4th line is caught out against better lines, would add significant benefit.
But, finding this 3rd line centre could be difficult. They need someone who can still provide the necessary defensive acumen most teams have on their 3rd lines, but also provide more offence from that spot. Kämpf provides no offence, so adding a 3rd line C to anchor that line and maybe spread the wealth offensively a bit would be a big help to give the team depth.
d) Bottom 6 depth
Right now the Leafs bottom 2 lines in general are not providing anything offensively. Ideally, if additions happen for scenario A and C, that will allow players to move down the depth chart and add depth to the roster. Ideally, along with a 3rd line Centre, they would add another winger who can provide some offence. Someone different than what they have currently.
Players like Alex Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, Zach Aston-Reese, they are competent, but we know what they are. And, for at least Kerfoot and Engvall, we’ve seen enough evidence of what they can and cannot do when the games matter the most. It may be time to start changing things up and add a different look. It might be hard for coach Sheldon Keefe to move away from players he quite likes, but let’s face it, enough is enough, it might be time for a change.
e) Big physical defenceman
If this player isn’t what is acquired in scenario B, they need to acquire someone like this. Most teams have a lot of size on their defence. Ok, nowadays there isn’t many who are like the modern Scott Stevens out there but teams are finding the most success by having big defenceman in the playoffs who are clogging up space.
Having someone who can provide this element has helped many of the recent Stanley Cup winners. Almost all of them, including the cup finalists as well, have 2, if not 3 or 4 guys, who are 6’2 or bigger, and 200 pounds or heavier. Its great to have a lot of skill, but at the end of the day, too many small, skillish defencemen all on one team often does not get it done, no matter their skill level. It is time to perhaps go to a tried and true method that has a proven track record of success.
Assets To Trade
The assets the Leafs have to move are limited. Nick Robertson is out for the season, and perhaps into next season, leaving his value as negligible to zero. He could still get traded but is really still a guess on what he can bring to the NHL. Rodion Amirov is still recovering from cancer and hasn’t played in practically 2 years. That is 2 years of lost development and really no one knows what kind of player he could be. So you could probably scratch that off the list of tradable pieces.
a) Top 5 assets
Matthew Knies is probably the most attractive piece. Some have touted him to be the guy who can step in and fill one of the missing elements listed above. That is a lot to ask for a college sophomore to step from college to the NHL.
Fraser Minten was the team’s top pick last year. Because he has good size, can play C and has shown skill he is attractive in many ways. If its not Knies who is moved, it’ll likely be Minten.
The leafs hold each of the 1st rounders in the next 3 drafts. 2023 appears to be one of the deepest, so that might be the last one the Leafs choose to part with. The 2024 pick seems to make the most sense because that is the one year they have at least a 2nd round pick. The 2023 and 2025 2nd rounders have already been moved and it would leave the Leafs without picks in the First two rounds if they move the 1st round pick.
b) additional assets
Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemela are the Leafs next best prospects. There is skill there to like, but at the end of the day both guys are really small. That really lessens attractiveness. Just look at the Connor Timmins trade. Likely, the Coyotes had their pick of a list of players to choose from to acquire from Toronto and they basically took one of the only young players who was over 6’0 tall. That is a pretty sad indictment of the Leafs depth chart that, while has skill, is littered with the same type of player, all the same size.
The Leafs will likely be willing to part with their 2024 2nd rounder and really, any picks in any other round are up for grabs likely. This is if they go with the all-in scenario which seems like what everyone thinks they should do, or at least needs to do.
The list of B level prospects probably includes Nick Abruzzese, Filip Kral and perhaps William Villeneuve. There really isn’t much out there for Toronto. Its a true indictment of the lack of drafting success outside of the 1st rounds.
c) Rasmus Sandin?
We often hear from the insiders saying teams want, for a very good to star level player, a 1st round pick, a top prospect and a young roster player. With Robertson being basically worthless right now because of injury, there isn’t really anyone who fits this bill. Its possible they could offer Pontus Holmberg, but he won’t move the needle like say Sandin would.
A former 1st rounder, he is under a cheap bridge deal, he has talent and is only 22. He is really the only thing they can offer in terms of the “young roster player” that would interest teams and perhaps push a deal over the top should the Leafs target a big name.
Ideally, if they could keep him, they should, but that is the deepest side on their defence right now, through to next season, so if they have to, this is the card they could play.
d) Roster Players
These would be the likes of Alex Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, Justin Holl who are probably the leading candidates in order to fit in players cap wise. Even with Muzzin on LTIR, they still need some cap help. That may come with teams retaining salary, but they may need to in cases ship dollars out, if dollars come in. These 3 players combine to make almost $8 million. It sounds heartless, but some guys may simply have to go overboard to improve the team.
Who’s Out There
Right now, we could probably speculate that Chicago, Arizona, San Jose, Anaheim, Vancouver, Montreal, Philadelphia, Columbus and maybe Detroit, St. Louis and Ottawa will be the main teams categorized as “sellers”. There may be other teams who are added as their place in the standings fluctuates. But these are the teams who could have players in play by March 3rd. Now, the question is, do these teams have the players who could help Toronto?
Let’s look at it in terms of the needs listed above:
a) Top 6 Forward
Timo Meier is arguably the most popular name out there. He would turn Toronto’s big 4 to a big 5. He can score and provide offence. Now, the Leafs would be loaded but probably not have much else for assets and cap space to do much else. Can’t argue that he wouldn’t make the Leafs better. But, the question would be, would he make the Leafs look and feel different?
Ryan O’Reilly would be a player who’d make the Leafs look different. The former Conn Smythe winner would add tremendous experience and versatility to go with skill and ability to play any game and any role. He could slide in as a top 6 winger or anchor his own line. There are a lot of different things you could do with your team if you had a player like O’Reilly.
Max Domi is a popular lower key top 6 option. Definitely the offensive ability is there and he could slide into centre if needed. And, he was a teammate in Junior with Marner. But while the last name is synonymous with the Leafs, would he be the right fit? He would probably be affordable to acquire and perhaps the legacy would drive him more than what we’ve seen in his other NHL stops.
Tyler Bertuzzi, like Domi, would be another rental who wouldn’t probably require as much financial struggle to fit into the cap if he were to be acquired. Injury history is a concern, but he is a player who’d offer a much different look to what the Leafs have now in their top 6. It would be a matter of health, and if he would want to come to Canada to play, on whether he could fit with the Leafs. But, based on expiring contract, and perceived value (that likely won’t break the bank), and what he offers as a skill set, this may be the most ideal player out there for this top 6 forward role.
Ryan Hartman would also seem like a fairly ideal candidate to go after. He has not had as good a year as last, but he can play centre and wing, can score and has a gritty element to his game. He is also really affordable and is under contract beyond this season. All things valuable to the cap strap Leafs. Minnesota is in contention for a playoff spot, so its unsure if they’d trade him, but he is another ideal player worth exploring.
Ivan Barbashev would be another low cost addition who has a fairly decent cap hit that could be absorbed. Like Hartman, he hasn’t been as good this year as last, but he can offer some skill, versatility and grit to the top 6. Its really the $2.25 mil salary that gives him his attractiveness. But it seems likely more than many teams would be interested in that as well.
Conor Garland is a very popular name in these parts as a player some think Toronto could be interested in. He has some offensive ability and is willing to get his nose dirty. But he is really small and is that what Toronto needs more of? Him being signed until 2026 is something Toronto will look at closely, especially if higher level assets are moved out. These are the players they’d look at because these players will be around longer.
Patrick Kane is a big wildcard. He would be a massive home run because he is a game changer. His stats this year may not show that, but the Hawks are dreadful. He is a proven elite player who has excelled in the playoffs. His cost would be extraordinary and there would be extreme cap gymnastics needed to fit him in. But how wild would Kane be with the likes of the Leafs big 4?
Another wildcard? Dylan Larkin. If he isn’t re-signed, you have to think the Wings will listen. Larkin could either be in the top 6 or carry his own line like O’Reilly can. The speed and offence, that fits into what this team has traditionally liked. He is an impact player that could be worthy to at least look into. And, he has Toronto ties as he has a lot of family from Toronto. Perhaps he could be both a short and long term option.
b) Top 4 D and/or e) Big Physical Defenceman
There are players who could fill both categories in terms of playing top 4 minutes, while adding that physical element.
Tyler Myers fills many of the needs for a right shot defenceman, who adds tremendous size and is capable of logging big minutes. That is what Toronto really needs most in their top 4 as this would push Justin Holl to a more suitable 3rd pair/depth role. The $6 mil cap hit is huge and may be too much for Toronto to absorb. Like Kane, this is another player who Brandon Pridham would have to work his magic to fit in, but could be worth it should they get cap help.
Jake McCabe has more recently been a name linked to Toronto. He has played top 4 minutes for both Chicago and Buffalo and is a capable defensive defenceman. He is signed beyond this season and may not break the bank in a trade. He is a left shot defenceman who is capable of playing the right side. Ideally though, they find a right shot defenceman.
Joel Edmundson is like McCabe. He is bigger and would add cup experience. But he has been injury prone. But, his cap his and being signed beyond this year would help ease any concerns of giving up a significant asset.
From strictly a minute munching perspective, these offensive defenceman could provide some value, but would be ideal in the situation where they also acquire a big blueliner.
John Klingberg could be had should there be some salary retention. He could provide the power play QB that could turn a good power play to a better power play because he is a threat to shoot. He logged major minutes in Dallas so is capable. Whether he can defend well enough, with the guys the Leafs already have, remains to be seen.
Jacob Chychrun would be the home run candidate because he is under a great contract until 2025 and he brings things the Leafs need: A power play QB, some size, someone who can play a lot. The ask by Arizona has bordered on over the top, but that is their prerogative to do. You have to think the Leafs have the interest, but do they have the stomach to give what Arizona would want?
From just a physical D perspective, these players could fit:
Vladislav Gavrikov probably is ideally a 3rd pair D but is capable. He would be a nice replacement for Muzzin and has a friendly cap hit. But there are probably better guys to acquire and he is strictly a left side defenceman where the Leafs are stronger. Ideally they find a right shot D instead.
Luke Schenn is another popular name. His current contract makes it easy to fit in and he shoots right. He is ideally a 3rd pair D. He has played higher, in both Tampa, playing with Victor Hedman, and in Vancouver where he has been paired with Quinn Hughes. But ideally he slides to a 3rd pair who bring a big physical element to a D that lacks it.
There are probably several other names you could include like David Savard, Jake Walman, Olli Määttä, Matt Dumba, Travis Hamonic, Justin Braun, Shane Gostisbehere, among others. But it doesn’t seem likely these guys would be all that much better than what they have, to give up assets for, and possibly neglect another position of need.
c) 3rd line Centre and/or d) Bottom 6 Depth
The classic template was started by Tampa when they acquired Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman to solidify their depth. It worked as it led to 2 championships. Who could be the Leafs versions?
Lawson Crouse is a bit of a dream scenario that many have mentioned. While Arizona is going rock bottom, Crouse is a good player for them and signed long term. It would take quite something to pry him away. But, he is a big forward with a scoring touch who could work in a middle 6 role.
Tanner Jeannot though may be a more reasonable option. Nashville is in contention for a playoff spot, so Jeannot may be needed there. But here is a player who the Leafs could use as their Goodrow. He scored 20 goals last year. He is far from that pace now, but is capable. He is a physical player and would be totally different than what the Leafs have now. He is a pending restricted free agent so the Leafs would retain his rights beyond 2023.
Michael Rasmussen is an out of the box dream option. He would be the Brandon Hagel version of this deadline. Now, would you want to trade 2 1sts? Hard to say. But, Rasmussen is 6’6, he has some offensive ability and is solid defensively. Plus he is under contract affordably through next year. 6’6 centres are hard to find! He would be absolutely someone to target if he could be pried out of Detroit.
Sean Monahan isn’t your ideal 3rd line centre who is asked to be more a checker than scorer. But he can provide some offence and that could lengthen the lineup. There would need to be cap help, but Monahan, if he is healthy, would be an ok rental option.
Jason Dickinson could be a very affordable option where it might not cost top assets. Dickinson had a good playoff as a hard working grinder for Dallas in the bubble. He isn’t much offensively but would be another lower level version of Goodrow to add that sort of element in the bottom 6. And its hard not to like guys from Ontario.
Oskar Sundqvist is another quality depth forward who would bring size and experience to the bottom 6. He won a cup with St. Louis and Pittsburgh. He can play both centre and wing and help on the PK. A worthy rental option.
Noel Acciari would be a good addition at centre, though he is more like Kampf than an upgrade on him. But, you can’t ever have too many quality defensive centres on your team. Acciari brings some grit and experience and would help in the depth department.
Like on D, there are other names like Max Comtois, Derick Brassard, Nick Bonino, among others who one could make an argument for. But the Leafs really need to have their options be impactful and have to really think big in the here and now.
In the end, the Leafs will likely not only need to spend assets to acquire the player or players, but also some to send off to ask other teams to retain salary. There could be multiple scenarios and teams needed to pull things off. But, the Leafs have to explore it.
Everyone has to believe Dubas will do whatever is necessary. They also have to believe what they have isn’t good enough. Again, the Leafs are a good team. But standing pat isn’t an option. While for sure there is going to be difficulty in pulling off trades with the cap situation the way it is and the fact there are many teams looking for help, at the end of the day, the Leafs have a history that won’t allow them to be patient and a possibly closing window with what is on the way for them and some of their key players under contract.
This team, the way they’ve progressed, the way their big 4 guys have played, and the way the fans have suffered for so long, they all deserve the absolute best chance to win. The road is tough as it’ll be through Tampa and maybe Boston. But there is no time like the present to make a difference and accomplish something more.
Author: Allan Chow