In this week’s edition of Leafs Musings, we’ll cover the team’s deadline outlook less than a week away from the February 25 trade freeze, the adjustments needed on the power play, and the return of Rasmus Sandin to the Toronto Marlies lineup.
We’ll also cover possible trade assets the Leafs could leverage ahead of next Monday’s 3 p.m. EST deadline. Without further ado, let’s get to it.
Toronto’s Deadline Plans
Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren will not be traded for a rental. Unless Artemi Panarin, Mark Stone, or Matt Duchene is headed to Toronto, this seems rather obvious. Since there is absolutely no need for a right winger, the focus moves to the left side.
I have little interest in Micheal Ferland or Wayne Simmonds, as the cost seems bound to outweigh the reward. Ferland has one 40-point season to his name and the play-driving metrics do not love him, either. Simmonds used to be a fantastic winger, but I am just not convinced that they would be getting the same guy, and you are probably paying based on what he used to be.
The Leafs have John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Nazem Kadri down the middle. While I wouldn’t mind upgrading on Par Lindholm or Frederik Gauthier, I expect their ice time to be rather limited come playoff time. I am fine with the status quo as long as one of Lindholm or Gauthier is scratched, as the team has the wingers to carry a fourth line.
The two centers that I am interested in are Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan of the Florida Panthers. The Leafs are not going to win the first line battle against Tampa Bay or Boston, so it’s up to the second, third, and fourth lines to dominate. If they can get good value from a deal with Florida, they should add a strong fourth line center and beat up on their opponent’s fourth lines. However, I’d like them to hang on to their second-round pick this year, and it’s not like they need to overpay out of desperation.
In terms of the left side, I fully expect Andreas Johnsson to be in the top nine come playoff time. Zach Hyman isn’t going anywhere and Patrick Marleau is a coach’s favourite. Two of Trevor Moore, Connor Brown, and Tyler Ennis could form a strong fourth line duo, so unless they go all-in for Panarin or Stone, I just don’t see a huge upgrade on the market.
I understand that many Leafs fans would like to see the team play a more physical style, but I would be extremely cautious of paying a hefty price for a minimal upgrade. While Mats Zuccarello does not offer the same size as Ferland or Simmonds, he’s probably the best player out of this group and could end up being the best option from a cost-benefit perspective.
Toronto’s Trade Assets
Jeremy Bracco, currently scoring at a point-per-game rate with the Marlies, is not far off from being NHL ready. The struggling Leafs power play is an area Bracco can help as far as bringing an element to a more effective second unit next season. As a 5’9″ forward, it’s tough to say if opposing teams will value him highly enough to make a trade worth their while.
At this point, I would hold onto Bracco in any type of Ferland or Simmonds trade. The Leafs are going to need low-cost scorers over the next few years, and if you play Bracco with the right linemates, he could rack up plenty of assists in a hurry. He’s certainly not untouchable, but it doesn’t make much sense to trade him for a non-elite rental.
Connor Brown is a player who I would consider trading at the deadline. The Leafs will probably end up with a $2.5 million budget for their fourth line next year and Brown’s $2.1 million salary simply doesn’t fit into the equation. While he’s a local kid and a fan favourite, you have to give to get and he should carry value as a controllable depth forward. If 3+ years of Brown can get them a high-end winger for the playoff run, I think the Leafs have to at least consider it.
Other than Brown and Bracco, the Leafs do not have many attractive assets that are available for trade. The trade deadline isn’t exactly the best time to find great value. Unless something reasonable falls into their lap, I would stand pat and go into the playoffs with this roster.
Fixing the Power Play
Toronto’s power play was outstanding over the past two seasons, but things have cooled off considerably after a hot start this year. Part of this could simply be bad luck, but it’s clear that there has also been poor puck movement at times.
When a power play is struggling, the common cliche advises to “get back to the basics.” I consider this to be an old wives’ tale, as team’s end up shooting a ton of low-percentage shots from the outside, rather than challenging the goalie with plenty of lateral movement. Instead of “getting back to the basics”, I would go back to what has worked for them in the past.
Mitch Marner should pretend that Auston Matthews is Tyler Bozak. Everyone knows that Marner is the playmaker and Matthews is the shooter, and since Matthews uses a wrist shot rather than an Ovechkin-like one-timer, teams have more time to defend this. Marner is getting a little bit too reliant on the cross-ice pass to Matthews at times; the predictability is starting to hurt them.
Marner had a ton of success with James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri last year, while Bozak was just a plan B as a passing option. Both John Tavares and Kadri are huge scoring threats down low; filtering the puck through them more often should eventually open up the passing lane to Matthews. It looked like they were trying to employ this strategy a little bit more often as of late, but I would like to see it repeated throughout the next handful of games.
The Leafs seem to struggle against aggressive penalty kill units. Marner and Matthews play catch with Morgan Rielly, and since he doesn’t want to risk a turnover at the blueline, he ends up with minimal options. Working the puck down low in the offensive zone can help in these situations, as there is less of a threat of a bad turnover and there’s more freedom to try cross-ice passes. Tavares is a great playmaker, so they should use him a little bit more until they become less predictable.
You don’t want to take away the Marner to Matthews combination, but you do want to keep the opponent guessing.
The Return of Rasmus Sandin
Rasmus Sandin is finally back from an elbow injury that he suffered at the World Juniors and it doesn’t look like he’s lost a step. He’s such a talented passer and his strength on the puck allows him to minimize turnovers. With 11 points in just 23 games, it will be interesting to see how long he can keep this pace up for, as it’s rarified air for an 18-year old defender.
Timothy Liljegren has also now returned from an injury and is now playing with Sandin. Sandin constantly generates extra time and space for his partner, which could help Liljegren to take strides as a puck mover. Liljegren has spent most of his time with Calle Rosen this season, but it was Rosen who was the dominant puck mover on that pairing. Many Leafs writers have praised Liljegren for his ability to match up against top competition, but Rosen is one of the league’s best defenders and I would like to see him with a few different partners.
Rosen is NHL ready and I think he would be a good third-pairing defenceman rather than just an average one. He does it all for the Marlies, and even though he didn’t start the year on the powerplay, he boasts 37 assists in 51 games. While I wasn’t a huge fan of his game until last year’s playoffs, he has continued to put in work and get better. Now he simply looks like he does not belong in the AHL. His $750k salary should be a bargain over the next two seasons.
- Pierre Engvall has started playing center for the Marlies and I think he has a chance to stick there. He’s a pretty good skater, especially for his size, and he owns a hard wrist shot. He’s a regular on the penalty kill, and given that he’s 6’5″, he’ll have every opportunity to move into a fourth line role if he can prove that he can play up the middle. I’d keep him at center for the rest of the Marlies season and see what happens.
- Jake Muzzin needs to play more. Morgan Rielly looked comfortable on the right-side to me, and so does Travis Dermott. I don’t know why Dermott couldn’t play with Gardiner before Muzzin arrived in Toronto. Mike Babcock should watch Nikita Kucherov play more often. If he still thinks Ron Hainsey belongs on his top-pairing, we have a problem.
- The Leafs match up against the Lightning, or at least as well as any team can. The Leafs do not take many penalties and Tampa’s powerplay is lethal. Before you ask for toughness at the deadline, ask yourself: is this player going to give the Lightning more power plays?