Assessing the Maple Leafs Ahead of the Trade Deadline
Five days ahead of the Feb. 24, 2020, NHL Trade Deadline, there has already been an abundance of trade activity. Some of the biggest pieces of trade bait have already been moved, and some of these players have fetched a larger return than what many people had anticipated. That said, there are names that still remain in play and the Toronto Maple Leafs will certainly be part of those conversations as we inch closer to deadline day.
The Trade Market So Far
As of Feb. 19, first and second-round picks have been flying off the shelves as teams attempt to bolster their rosters for playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues has all given up picks in the first two rounds and have consequently set the bar for trades moving forward.
Defensemen have provided teams solid returns so far, as the Montreal Canadiens acquired Marco Scandella for a fourth-round pick and a month later flip him to St. Louis for a second and a fourth. Andy Greene and Brenden Dillon were also able to fetch second-round picks. All three of these players are solid veteran defensemen that add stability to injured and/or struggling blue lines, a need many people are looking for Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas to address at the deadline.
It was the Leafs that really kicked off this early spur of trades with their acquisition of Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford from the Los Angeles Kings, which addressed two major needs for the Leafs: backup goaltending and toughness. Now with injuries hurting the team and regulation wins becoming rare, is there still room for Dubas to make an impact ahead of the trade deadline?
Leafs Plagued by Injury
The injury bug has hurt the Leafs throughout the 2019-20 season. Rookie Ilya Mikheyev was off to a great start before undergoing surgery for a gruesome wrist injury from a skate blade. Morgan Rielly had to be sidelined on Jan. 12 due to a fractured foot with late March being his target return date. Andreas Johnsson will miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery and Cody Ceci is “out indefinitely” — both players have been placed on long-term injured reserve.
The Rielly injury has been the most impactful — he was averaging 24:15 time on ice (TOI) in the 46 games before his injury, while Justin Holl and Travis Dermott were averaging 16:37 and 14:50 TOI, respectively. Since the Rielly injury, Holl’s ice time has jumped to 21:51 per game, and Dermott’s to 20:18 per game. This is way more ice time than the Leafs wanted to give these young guys this early in their careers and goes to show just how tough it is to lose a guy who is on the ice for almost half the game, every game.
Although their 22-12-4 record under head coach Sheldon Keefe seems solid, if you have been watching the Leafs, you know that their play has been anything but. In their last 18 games, they have stumbled to a 7-8-3 record with just four regulation wins. Over that span, they are averaging 3.22 goals for and 3.83 goals against, which contribute to their second-best 213 goals for and fourth-worst 204 goals against.
The last two games were especially painful, as the Leafs suffered two straight 5-2 losses at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres and Penguins. An unacceptable meltdown in the Sabres’ game and early penalty trouble in the Penguins’ game ultimately led to two embarrassing losses.
With the Leafs scrambling to hold onto the third spot in the Atlantic Division, we wait to see what Dubas will do at the trade deadline. The Johnsson injury caused the Leafs to lose one of their biggest trade assets, but opened up cap space for them to make a deal.
The trade for Denis Malgin adds an NHL-ready forward and depth to the Leafs roster, which might give Dubas more flexibility to move a forward like Kasperi Kapanen in exchange for a defenseman. While big trade seems unlikely, Dubas has surprised Leafs Nation with trades multiple times in his short tenure.
Top-Pair Defenseman Likely off the Table
While it is always difficult to acquire a top defenseman, the pool of defensemen seen as “trade bait” is getting smaller. The breaking news of Alec Martinez being traded to the Vegas Golden Knights shrinks the availability of top-tier defensemen ever further. As time goes on, the likelihood of the Leafs acquiring a game-changer seems less and less likely.
There have been many people in the Leafs community suggesting Josh Manson as an ideal fit for the Leafs, but the price would likely be too high. Manson has two years left on his deal at $4.1 million per year, an extremely good value for the physicality and stability he brings to the blue line. If Dubas could arrange a good price, Manson would be a dream addition to the Leafs’ defence.
All the major defensive pieces moved so far have been in the final year of their contract, and all have fetched at least second-round draft picks. The Leafs do not have a first or third-round draft pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, which would make it very difficult to acquire a player like Manson without sacrificing top-prospects and NHL-ready players.
Depth Defenseman may be Necessary
If the Leafs want any chance at making a run this year, they need to bolster their defensive core. That doesn’t mean acquiring a big-name defenseman — going off the board and acquiring a minute-eating veteran that provides a calming presence and penalty-kill minutes would be a plus. Not only would this add stability, it would take away minutes from guys like Dermott and Holl who could go back to playing 16 to 18 minutes per game.
Some Leafs fans may laugh, but familiar face Ron Hainsey could fit the bill for a potential defensive acquisition. He is a great penalty killer, and at 38 years old is averaging over 20 minutes of ice time and is plus-seven on the 29th place Ottawa Senators. The Senators have plenty of assets to move and are without a doubt selling to improve their future.
Even though the Leafs are already heavy with left-shot defensemen, Hainsey could add the calming veteran presence the Leafs need and would be a bargain to acquire due to his age and upcoming free agency.
While a big trade may not be imminent, the Leafs will have to figure out something if they plan on making the playoffs in this suddenly powerful Eastern Conference. If they fail to make it, the city of Toronto may be in crisis mode after seeing the contracts that have been handed out the past few years.
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