Trade deadline day came and went with the Toronto Maple Leafs making one small move that has some minor implications.
We will get into those a little bit later. First thing is first: The Leafs made their big trade deadline move early – adding a legitimate top-four defenseman in Jake Muzzin – and that can’t be forgotten here. It’s a good thing that they made the move well in advance of the deadline, too, because there have been growing pains and the coaching staff is still very much figuring out how their defense is going to be configured.
When Babcock was interviewed after Muzzin was acquired, it was clear then that he was not sure how it was going to all fit. One quote, in particular, stood out. When Babcock was asked about having five lefties, he said, “There is no question about it that it’s not perfect. It is what we got. It is what was available and we’re going to make it work.”
In saying that, let’s look at how the ice time has been divided since the trade (these stats do not include the Oilers game):
|Even Strength TOI/game||Power Play TOI/game||Shorthanded TOI/game||Total TOI/game|
Originally, Muzzin started on a pairing with Morgan Rielly, with Rielly shifting to the right side. The coaching staff, perhaps after some discussion with Rielly, decided he was more effective on the left side and moved him back there. When that shift happened, the team did not make move Muzzin move over to the right – where he’s less comfortable – to keep them together. Instead, they lined up their three players that play the right side and sorted them accordingly: Ron Hainsey – Nikita Zaitsev – Travis Dermott.
If they are going to stick to that alignment — and at times they have shifted Gardiner to the right this season, so who knows? — that obviously severely limits what they can do with their defense. In fact, you can argue it will completely hinder it. Their three best defensemen are probably Rielly, Gardiner, and Muzzin; none of them will play together, nor is that right side good enough to justify spreading out those three lefties.
Muzzin came to Toronto advertised as an every-situation defender, and so far he has lived up to the billing by playing a noteworthy amount of ice time in all situations. However, through 14 games, he has only passed the 20-minute mark three times – against the Habs in Montreal, where he played the entire penalty kill in overtime (it’s important to note here that Nikita Zaitsev was in the penalty box), and the two most recent games against the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers.
The overall returns on his play have roughly been as expected — seven points (second most on the defense since the acquisition) and 24 shots on net, plus the physical presence. At even strength, here are some key numbers in his time so far as a Leaf courtesy of Natural Stat Trick (these stats do not include the Oilers game):
|Corsi For %||Scoring Chance %||Goals for %|
All in all, he has been steady and about what one should have reasonably expected from him, but his ice time suggests he is in the bottom half of this defense group. That is why getting the deal done ahead of time is important, in theory, because they have time to sort this out.
It is still very much a work in progress, but it does not seem likely that Kyle Dubas traded the team’s first-round pick and two reasonable prospects for Muzzin to play as a quasi-fourth/fifth defenseman. All the while, Hainsey remains paired with Rielly and the Leafs are staring down another first round match-up against the Boston Bruins and arguably the best line in the league.
– On the Par Lindholm trade – my primary question regarding his exit was and is who will replace his PK minutes, where he was fourth among Leafs forwards in shorthanded time on ice. If game one without him was any indication, it will be Mitch Marner, who actually played over three minutes there against the Sabres.
– Frederik Gauthier saw his first bit of shorthanded ice time this month and was promptly on for a goal. It definitely wasn’t only his fault, but he should know there is no reason to chase Sam Reinhart, not even on his off-wing, along the half-wall. He is not a scoring threat at all from there and the Leafs usually have their forwards sag off the half-wall players and their defense step up.
– Some good energy and a few timely goals for Tyler Ennis since returning, but keep his ice time in perspective so far: 10:33, 7:18, 9:59, and 7:14. With the acquisition of Nicolas Petan and Nazem Kadri eventually returning, the fourth line will have a few moving pieces to sort out as Connor Brown will get bumped down there.
– Nic Petan is an interesting option as a depth player considering his non-NHL career to date (89 points in 108 AHL games; a few seasons with over 110 points in the WHL). Yes, he’s small and skilled and Dubas mentioned he fits their style of play, but also the contract and potential to contribute fits in moving forward. He’s a pending UFA that should not make over $1 million on his next contract. With the cap so tight, he represents a cheap depth option with potential that allows players in the AHL to keep developing with top line ice time. Trevor Moore has already been signed for under a million and Frederik Gauthier is as well. That could be a fourth line making under $2.5 million total. That is the kind of thing the Leafs will have to start doing more regularly.
– Think it gets forgotten at times, but William Nylander was originally groomed to be a center until the team won the lottery and drafted Auston Matthews while Kadri and Tyler Bozak were on the roster. They then signed John Tavares last summer. With Kadri out, Nylander is getting his longest look at center since his first call-up, pre-Auston Matthews draft, when he had 13 points in 22 games. With his skating now looking back to form, the one thing that stands out with Nylander at center is that he can go all over the ice off the rush and that makes him all the more dangerous. On the wing, you can be limited at times to going up and down your wall, and you have more freedom at center. This rush is a good example:
Nylander with a great solo rush. pic.twitter.com/2xXIPi75Fr
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) February 28, 2019
– William Nylander has been on the second power-play unit since signing, but it’s noteworthy that they bumped him up to the top unit when they had the 5v3. The setup for the 5v3 is more of a 2-1-2 instead of the 1-3-1, so it makes sense to have him up to for that setup being a right-handed shooter (with a good shot).
– Between the time Matthews and Nylander missed this season, I wonder if the Leafs will quietly benefit from that come playoff time because both will be reasonably well rested without having gone through the full 82-game grind. Both players struggled in the playoffs last season, but they have both elevated their games the last few weeks and look very fresh for the stretch drive right now.
Additional Deadline Thoughts
– The only other noteworthy defenseman traded with term left on his deal was Brandon Montour. He is less accomplished/doesn’t have nearly the same pedigree as Muzzin, plus he was having a bad season on a bad Anaheim team, although he is right-handed and young. The price for him was a first and Brendan Guhle, a decent prospect with an average-ish ceiling. Ultimately, the Leafs did pay a bit more, but they got the better defenseman.
– Boston added the depth they desperately needed with Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle, which is going to make them all the tougher to play against. The top line is obviously a worry, but Johansson should round out that second line while Coyle gives them depth to move up the lineup as well as carry the third line. They are 10-0-4 in their last 14.
– I thought Tampa was smart to not mess with anything. Why tinker with a really good thing? That’s the best roster in the league.
– I wonder if there was a Tampa effect in the East. Other than Columbus and Boston, and arguably the Leafs, nobody really made big impact moves. To some degree, it’s tough to justify it knowing that beast will have to be tamed. The West is a little bit more open in terms of the number of teams that can legitimately think they can get to the Cup. In the East, there are a handful of teams that are just happy to be there – Montreal, New York Islanders, Carolina.
– Washington quietly did very well adding Nick Jensen, who is having a legitimate top-four defenseman season, and Carl Hagelin, a depth speed player, to round out their roster. Their top six is already established and their top four is the same group that helped them win a Cup last year. They won’t be giving up the Cup without a really good fight.
– For all the talk of what Wayne Simmonds would cost, Ryan Hartman (who looks like a career bottom-six forward), and a conditional fourth-round pick is not that high of a price to pay. He’s always talked about as a playoff player – he has 21 points in 42 career playoff games and he has never passed the second round, so I’ll be curious to see how he does this year considering all the buzz around him in Toronto.
– I actually liked the other move Nashville made, too, adding Mikael Granlund, who can play center and wing and has a career .69 points per game.
– That said, I have no idea who is coming out of the West. The Jets adding Kevin Hayes was a fantastic move and Mark Stone is a legitimate top line player, giving the Golden Knights two very good lines to have to deal with, while the Sharks probably have the deepest roster in the conference.
– I feel for Dallas and Mats Zuccarello. Just terrible luck. That was going to be a nice addition to their playoff chase.
“In building a team, we are trying to build a team that can help us win now and in the future. When you start building a team to only play one team in the playoffs, you start to lose your way a little bit and lose what you’re about.”
– Kyle Dubas on whether there is any urgency to keep up with the Bruins additions
I agree with the general sentiment here. I also think there are times to go all-in and match your opponents (like the arms race we just saw in the west). The tough thing if you’re the Leafs is just being realistic here. They are going to have to beat Boston and Tampa after that just to get to the Conference Finals. Does that seem like the year to push all your chips into the middle of the table and go all-in?
“The bottom line is we got (Muzzin), we’ve got some players that aren’t available to us right now, we’ve got a couple in the minors that we think are ready to play on our team and they’ve been there long enough. We feel we have good depth, so let’s get at er.”
– Mike Babcock on the roster after the trade deadline
Trevor Moore is obviously one player they think is ready and he looks like he will be with the team for the rest of the season. I wonder who else he was referring to? It’s a shame Calle Rosen is hurt given all these injuries on the blue line. It would have been nice to finally get an NHL look at him. It’s hard to ignore Jeremy Bracco with 55 points in 55 games and Mason Marchment looked like a potential fourth-line contributor to me before getting injured as well.
“I don’t want to think about it too much but, of course, in the back of your head you still think something could happen with the team, either with yourself or someone else.”
– Andreas Johnsson on the trade deadline
Don’t care what anyone says — these guys are human and it bothers them. Maybe not everyone, but it does for sure for some of them. Let’s focus on hockey the rest of the way.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I’d have to call-up Martin Marincin given the injuries to Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman (which is extremely unfortunate timing). I would like to give Justin Holl a look, but the right side is then Zaitsev – Igor Ozhiganov – Holl, and that can’t happen.
2. I think I’d be open to putting in Justin Holl over Igor Ozhiganov just to get him in game action and also see what he does. Ozhiganov is a bit of a known quantity at this point. He is a stay-at-home, keep-it-simple player that tries to play it safe and is physical on the odd occasion. With Holl’s skating ability, I think there is more upside. (Apparently, this is the plan for Thursday night in New York).
3. I think the injuries are a good opportunity to play Jake Muzzin more and really push him within this lineup. This should be a player playing 22+ per night and he’s been lucky to get 20 minutes if everyone is healthy, so this is his opportunity to take advantage of injuries and really catapult his role and ice time.
4. I think at this point you can’t justify taking Andreas Johnsson out of the top six. I can understand eventually reuniting Hyman – Matthews – Nylander, but otherwise, he should be with Matthews. If that line was to be reunited, Johnsson should be on the second line with Tavares and Marner.
5. I think the Leafs strategy of starting their number one goaltender the first game of back-to-backs makes complete sense and the fact that Garret Sparks will start the Islanders game is going to be good for him and the organization to see how he handles it. You never know how the playoffs are going to go. While Sparks does have the AHL playoff experience from last season, playing in any sort of hostile environment is a great learning opportunity.