The season is over halfway complete, the bye week is about to end, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are firmly a playoff team at this point.
As of this writing, the Leafs are ten points up on the Detroit Red Wings for third place in the Atlantic Division, although the Wings do have two games in hand. There is still plenty of hockey left in the season, but it would almost be an 18-wheeler situation at this point if they were to blow it, especially knowing Detroit plans on selling this season. Working to the Leafs‘ advantage is that 21 of their remaining 37 games are at home.
Should the standings hold – and based on the point spread wherein Tampa Bay is nine up on second place Boston – the Leafs are looking at a first-round matchup in a seeded format wherein the winner likely plays the juggernaut Lightning.
That only adds to the questions facing the organization as the February 26 NHL trade deadline approaches. Namely, with a young and still-developing team, is it worth it to buy when they are unlikely to win in the first round as of right now (I think it’s close, but Boston is a tough matchup for the Leafs), let alone get past Tampa Bay in round two?
It also begs the question of what to do with pending free agents JVR, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov, who could all conceivably leave this summer for nothing but could all bring back solid returns on the trade market.
Let’s take a look at each of the three scenarios – buying, selling and holding – and how each could play out.
If the Leafs were to make the decision to actively buy leading up to the deadline, the positions of need are fairly easy to identify: The organization is in need of an impact defenseman and they need center help considering the way Tyler Bozak has played and the fact that they are scratching their summer fourth-line solution in Dominic Moore at the moment.
On defense, there are very few impact defensemen available. One name that is all but certain to be moved is Mike Green in Detroit – he is a right-handed veteran having a productive season with 25 points in 43 games. Green is not the shutdown type that most Leafs fans crave, but he still moves the puck well, eats minutes — playing 22:33 minutes per night this season — and would undoubtedly help the team.
Last season, the Red Wings were able to trade Brendan Smith for a third round pick in 2017 and a second round pick in 2018. Green is four years older than Smith, but Green’s current point total is higher than Smith has ever achieved in a single season of his career. They are different players, but Green is better at the end of the day. This trade would certainly be fresh in Ken Holland’s mind.
Other trades of note last season included Johnny Oduya for Mark McNeill and conditional fourth-round draft pick in 2018, Ron Hainsey for Danny Kristo and a second-round draft pick in 2017, and Michael Stone for a third-round pick in 2017 plus a conditional fifth-round pick in 2018. I’m not going to put the Kevin Shattenkirk trade in this class.
In an ideal world, Detroit is probably looking for a prospect and pick, but two draft picks similar to the Smith trade might be more likely. Two second round picks seems possible as a return.
Toronto does have two seconds this year – theirs and San Jose. They also have the Sharks’ third round pick but not their own. They don’t have a sixth, but they do have two sevenths. In the following two drafts, they have all their own picks and no additional picks beyond that.
The other option that might be available that would be a better fit overall is Niklas Hjalmarsson. He has been injured this season and the Coyotes have been terrible; it would be a tough move for them to immediately trade a marquee acquisition, but they also might feel the need to sell yet again. This type of trade would be tough and the starting point is a little tricky because it was a bad trade – Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin (who Arizona just reacquired) – that landed Hjalmarsson in Arizona in the first place.
At the very least, it would cost a good, young, controllable asset, plus a pick/another prospect. The Leafs would conceivably not be trading players off their roster at this point. That could mean losing a player like Kasperi Kapanen, or Josh Leivo, depending on who the Coyotes like.
Chris Tanev in Vancouver is potentially another option similar to Hjalmarsson, but he could cost less — he does not have the name brand that the three-time Cup winner does. This would also open up questions about Zaitsev, as it should presumably push him down to the third pairing right after signing a seven-year deal.
There are a few other defensemen available such as Erik Gudbranson or Ian Cole, but I wouldn’t put them in the same category of a top-four difference maker.
At center, the options are even scarcer. The Oilers’ struggles makes a player like Mark Letestu available, and he would be a nice option as a right-handed center that can contribute on special teams and play up and down the lineup. He’s not a shutdown center, though, and would not help them defensively like last year’s acquisition of Brian Boyle – which is what they really need. At the moment, he’s the only center on TSN’s Trade Board.
Let’s say all of this buying costs the Leafs Josh Leivo/Kasperi Kapanen and a second for the defenseman, and a third round pick for the depth center. That leaves them drafting once each round in the summer, except in the third and sixth rounds, with two picks in the seventh. That would also leave them with pending free agent decisions to make on JVR, Tyler Bozak, and Leo Komarov. Their roster then looks something like this:
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander
Marleau – Kadri – Komarov
JVR – Bozak – Marner
Martin – Letestu – Brown
Rielly – Hainsey
Gardiner – Tanev/Hjalmarsson
Dermott – Zaitsev
The defense is certainly much better, and if the forward group can regain their scoring touch, it is a group that would be a tough out.
One thing worth noting here is that any player acquisition by the Leafs, as it currently stands, would also need to include a contract going back (or out in a separate deal beforehand) as the Leafs are right up against the 50 Standard Player Contracts limit.
Conversely, the team could sell and go young — with the rationale being that they will make the playoffs regardless, while also adding in more youth to gain experience at the same time that they add even more assets to their disposal.
It would be tough to quantify trades for most of these players. Last season, San Jose acquired Jannik Hansen for Nikolay Goldobin and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2017. Also, Thomas Vanek was traded for Dylan McIlrath and a conditional third-round pick in the 2017 Draft. Those are likely templates for returns on both players – a middling prospect and draft pick that they could probably place conditions on to go all the way up to a second. They could also trade Roman Polak again for a similar depth draft pick.
There were no trades of players similar to JVR last season, so I went back to the season prior and found a few similar ones of note. The Rangers traded for Eric Staal in exchange for Aleksi Saarela, a 2016 second-round pick and a 2017 second-round pick 2017. The Jets traded Andrew Ladd, Matt Fraser and Jay Harrison to Chicago for Marko Dano, a 2016 1st-round pick and a conditional pick in the 2018 Draft. Considering JVR is going to have another 30 goal season, a first-round pick and a prospect would be a reasonable return.
That leaves the Leafs lineup looking something like this:
Hyman – Matthews – Marner
Marleau – Kadri – Kapanen
Soshnikov – Nylander – Brown
Martin – Moore – Leivo
Rielly – Hainsey
Gardiner – Zaitsev
Borgman – Dermott/Carrick
The team could also conceivably go into the draft with multiple first round picks, at least three second round picks, and two third round picks (as well as picks for the following draft, too). Those are the types of assets that could be included in a deal for a high-end defenseman come the draft, when all the big trades happen.
This seems most likely. The team holds onto this group, perhaps trading for a depth piece in a minor acquisition – an apparent rumour is Andrew Nielsen for Erik Gudbranson. They play their veterans, keep everything intact, make the playoffs, and maybe make a run to the second round and give Tampa Bay a scare.
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander
Marleau – Kadri – Komarov
JVR – Bozak – Marner
Martin – Moore – Brown
Rielly – Hainsey
Gardiner – Zaitsev
Borgman/Dermott – Gudbranson
That would most likely set up a draft scenario where the Leafs peddle their veterans they are not re-signing for whatever late draft picks they can get.
Mike’s got a way that he coaches and he believes that you’ve got to play to win, and everybody has got to do it and go through it.
Whether you’re Auston Matthews — who doesn’t get as much as ice time as most players of his stature — or Mitch Marner — who doesn’t get much ice time as players of his stature — or any of the kids, he keeps it lean, he keeps it hungry. It’ll be up to him to manage that because I’m sure, along the way, these guys are bristling and saying, “We want more.” He’s also got a very firm idea… we know inside and out that Hyman plays with Matthews and Komarov plays a lot. Those types of players are going to have central role in a Mike Babcock-coached team, and everyone has got to learn to deal with that.
Ultimately, he thinks that the manner in which they play, it’s important for them to learn how to play the game now the way it can be won in April and May. That means dumping it in and retrieving it. That means they’re not as much fun to watch as they were last year. But that’s part of the maturation and development of the team as he sees it.
– Bob McKenzie on what Babcock is trying to do here
I will be curious to see how it plays out in terms of how players are being used, getting ready for the playoffs, ice time, and so on. Obviously, a lot of fans are frustrated right now.
“We’ve got six games in the next 10 nights before we get another break, so obviously, we need to get focused. Since Christmas, we’re .500.”
– Mike Babcock on the schedule coming up
The Leafs have had a really tough schedule and the grind has impacted their play as much as anything. After some time to rest, let’s see how they do in this upcoming stretch.
I think you always know what [areas] you want to improve in, but it’s easier said than done. First of all, you need a partner to do it. And then whatever the price is, it can’t be something where you’re going to put a hole in your team from an area that you know and you’re potentially acquiring somebody you don’t know, even though you’ve done a job of scouting, or your scouts have been brought in. Everybody is involved as far as where you go, but you still don’t know how a player is going to adjust. You have to be very, very careful.
– Lou Lamoriello on the trade deadline
He’s managing expectations, but it’s difficult for me to foresee the Leafs doing much at the deadline.
Video Tidbit of the Week
It didn’t get much attention, but Columbus made a line change here that was probably illegal if anything.
Seth Jones got off way behind the play and Zach Werenski hopped on — it wasn’t even close. If you watch the clip, Nylander starts back like it’s a 1v1 and he has plenty of space. He then turns away thinking he’s fine and is slow to realize Werenski has hopped over the bench.
It was still a bad play but not because he was lazy. He was confused on the line change and wasn’t paying attention to the details. Those are two different things.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. With six games in 10 days, I think the Leafs should be able to get Travis Dermott, Andreas Borgman and Connor Carrick into at least two games each. From there, they will have to figure out what to do. Dermott has looked really good and has the most potential, but he has played in two very sheltered games. Ultimately, I think he needs to be playing at least 16 minutes or so per night or else he’s better off playing a ton down with the Marlies.
2. I think people are tired of hearing about Matt Martin, but take the role and the player out of the debate and what I see is this: He hasn’t played more than nine minutes since December 20. That was nine games ago. If you’re going to play a player that little, and your team is having trouble scoring, put in Josh Leivo instead and try to get four lines rolling. The bottom line is there is no excuse for this team to not be running four good lines. None.
3. I think I’d get Dominic Moore back in there. He doesn’t have the size that Frederik Gauthier does, but he’s a crafty veteran that was playing to a 24-point pace. We keep hearing this team is preparing for the playoffs; Moore has 99 playoff games to his name and more than a few big goals in them. Gauthier has been fine (and, as I said last week, I’d consider playing them together), but Moore can play.
4. I think I will be curious to see if the Leafs shake up their PP units at all – my guess is no, but the unit has not been particularly productive of late. They are 17th since December 1, clicking at 16.7%. I’d split the units up a bit and I’d get back to Bozak being the rover on one of them as that’s where he’s most productive. On the half-wall, he is wasting away.
5. I think I would get back to using the Kadri – Matthews – Nylander line coming off of penalty kills. That line is a good shot in the arm for the team and can go out and dominate. Babcock used it last season more and would be nice to see him go back to it.