Tuesday night’s Insider Trading segment on TSN included a few updates on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ activity in the trade market and the possibility of an extension for pending-UFA defenseman Jake Muzzin.
TSN Insider Bob McKenzie reported that the Leafs are making and taking calls on defensemen, although it is complicated by the fact that their short-term need at left defense with the absence of Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin doesn’t align with their long-term need at right defense — especially if the team is able to agree to terms on a new contract with the veteran left-handed Muzzin in the coming months, which seems to be the goal.
Lots of teams around the NHL are calling the Toronto Maple Leafs and saying, “Hey, would you like one of our defensemen? We can make you a real sweet deal.” I expect the Leafs are making some calls of their own on that front.
The short-term strategy is just to get through their next three games — Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday are all home games, and then they get their All-Star break. Jake Muzzin could be back in the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup coming out of that break in the Nashville game on Monday, January 27.
The idea of trading for a defenseman is not entirely out of the question, but here is where it gets complicated: The short-term need for the Leafs is left side, where Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are out. But beyond the season, it is more on the right side. The question the leafs have to ask themselves: “Are you prepared to trade Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson or Alex Kerfoot for a like contract on defense — a young defenseman?” That is a hell of a needle to threat for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that is one of the questions they’re going to have to ask themselves.
One other thing to note, and it’s preliminary — very preliminary — but the Leafs have talked to Jake Muzzin about a contract extension, but it’s just getting going.
– Bob McKenzie
The timing of the week-and-a-half-long All-Star break works just fine for the Leafs in that if they do make a move, it doesn’t need to come out of a sense of panic to patch a short-term hole. It also means the club may only have to deal with the combined absences of Muzzin and Rielly for three games (vs. NJ, CGY, CHI) provided Muzzin is able to return in Nashville on January 27.
Muzzin, 31 in February, is nearing the end of a five-year, $4 million AAV contract signed with the LA Kings the Fall after their championship run in 2014. He’s since tallied three 40+ point seasons in LA, and in parts of two seasons with Toronto, he’s scored eight goals and 29 points in 68 games — a 10-goal and 35-point pace when prorated over 82 games.
At the time of signing his previous five-year contract, his $4 million cap hit represented 5.8% of the total cap; adjusting for today’s $81.5 million cap ceiling, he’d make $4.7 million. A modest raise on that figure puts him safely into the $5+ million range, and then it’s a matter of term. A contract of four or more years locks in Muzzin past his 35th birthday, so it becomes a question of how well his game is going to age into his mid-30s. His game is built more around his smarts, physical play, and positional sense than it is effortless skating ability; he also represents a player archetype the Leafs don’t otherwise have as an experienced, productive, hardnosed shutdown defenseman who can hold his own in matchup minutes.
After some initial struggles under Sheldon Keefe, Muzzin was settling in nicely on a matchup pairing next to Justin Holl prior to breaking his foot in late December. After an adjustment period following the trade from LA last February, he also showed his value in the 2019 playoffs against the Boston Bruins, stabilizing a matchup pairing next to Nikita Zaitsev and giving the Leafs a credible answer for the Bergeron-Marchand line at 5v5.
As Muzzin thrived in a different style of game with the Kings under Darryl Sutter — and even under Mike Babcock in Toronto — than the Leafs currently play under Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs may well want to see a larger sample of Muzzin down the stretch and into the playoffs before making that kind of commitment, although there is no doubt Muzzin is not an easy piece to replace for the Leafs in the short term. Rasmus Sandin has top-four potential written all over him, but rushing a 20-year-old into matchup minutes as soon as next season may not be the wisest approach.