MLHS’ Anthony Petrielli joined Sportsnet Tonight to discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2018 offseason, the John Tavares sweepstakes, avenues to improve the defense, filling the hole at center, and more.
On the Leafs‘ offseason needs:
They do need to figure out what they’re doing at center, whatever happens with Tavares, one way or another. They only have two centers under contract that played in the NHL last year. They signed Par Lindholm from Sweden and he might be their fourth line center now that Miro Aaltonen has left, but that still leaves that third-line hole. Do they envision moving Nylander there? Do they want to sign someone? They have to figure out that question no matter what.
I know everyone naturally thinks about their defense, but on defense, there is not much out there on the market. John Moore is getting a ton of attention, so that kind of tells you what is available that way. They’re almost better to leave their group and hope that young guys develop. But they have to figure out what is happening at center and they have to figure out what is happening on left wing.
JVR is a free agent and is all but gone, so that leaves them with Patrick Marleau, Andreas Johnsson — who is promising and there is reason to believe will be a good player — and Zach Hyman playing his off-wing, which is maybe not ideal. We haven’t heard them linked to too many of these guys, but I’d be sniffing around guys like Michael Grabner, maybe Patrick Maroon. If they want to go bargain bin hunting, maybe a guy like Tobias Rieder, who didn’t get qualified by LA, or maybe even a guy like Colton Sceviour, because I would presume they are not going to bring back Leo Komarov. He might be a penalty-killing type of option.
If they want to go big if they’re not going to get Tavares, a guy like Paul Stastny might make sense as a center, but I just don’t see them going that route. I see them bargain bin shopping.
On whether or not Nylander is the potential in-house solution for the center void:
I’d like to see him at center. The tough thing is him and Matthews are great together. It’s nice to have that high-end, elite duo. But I thought he was quite good at center when he came up for the 20-game stint to end the season before they drafted Matthews. They just happened to win the lottery and draft a superstar center, so now he plays right wing. But they were bringing him up to play center. He was a full-time center in the AHL. He came up that year and looked good. I would be interested in trying it. You can always put them back together when need be. Babcock used to do it with Zetterberg and Datsyuk. He is no stranger to it.
On whether we could see the Matthews-Marner combination next season:
I think that depends on whether they get Tavares or not. If Tavares comes in, you blow up all the lines and start like it’s a blank slate. If they don’t get Tavares, I don’t see them breaking up that Kadri, Marner and Marleau line. They were so good for them. If you take Marner off that line, maybe you replace him with Connor Brown, but it’s not really the same thing. You’d be hard pressed to split that lineup. I’d be surprised if he did.
On whether there is any help to be found on defense in free agency:
On defense, they have six NHL defensemen, technically, locked in under contract. Unless they are trading for someone, there is not a ton to do there.
The thing I am most curious about is that Babcock loves Zaitsev. He raves about Zaitsev in his interviews. I don’t know if that’s just lip service or if he genuinely believes it. He gets criticized a lot and Babcock goes to bat for him more than just about any other player on the team. I don’t know if he’s just pumping a guy’s tires and trying to build his confidence, and that whole thing, but they seem to like him. They give him a ton of responsibility, a ton of ice time, and put him in all the key situations.
I don’t think they are going to deviate from Rielly – Hainsey. I’d be surprised if they did to start the season, anyway. They probably just have to find a way to limit his minutes a little more, at least on the PK. I actually like Justin Holl. To me, he was the Marlies most complete defenseman in the playoffs. I liked him in preseason and I liked him in his two games in the NHL this year. But I don’t know if you can look at Justin Holl and say, “We are Justin Holl’s promotion away from being a good defense.”
We talked about the John Moore situation in free agency. On the trade market, the Leafs are probably not going to get Erik Karlsson. I don’t think Ottawa is going to make that trade for obvious reasons. We just saw what they did with Mike Hoffman. I don’t think they’re going to trade Karlsson to Toronto. There is not much out there to trade for that we know of that is obvious, anyway. It is a slim picking kind of thing.
Do they sit there and say, “We hope Travis Dermott is better. We hope Morgan Rielly is a little bit better. We’re not going to play Ron Hainsey as much. We hope Zaitsev is a little bit better.” And then go from there and see how the season starts?
The thing is — I think the Leafs are a playoff team. If they keep their group together and then kind of see how things are going and how the market develops and then try to get in on a defenseman, I don’t know if that’s the worst strategy based on what is out there right now.