It sure seems like the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to make a trade in the near future.

There are about seven weeks left until the end of the regular season, and at this point, we have to assume that the player they acquire will have to go through a 14-day quarantine period. They will want to get any player accustomed to their system. Given how busy their schedule is in April, they’d have a tough time playing with a shortened roster.

If they acquire a player from an American team this Sunday, they’ll miss just six games. If they acquire a player from an American team at the April 12th trade deadline, they will miss eight games and will only be eligible to play the final seven regular-season games with the Leafs. I just don’t see Kyle Dubas waiting much longer.

What To Do With Alex Kerfoot?

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Ottawa Senators
Photo: Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

I’m watching Alex Kerfoot closely these days. We still don’t know if he’ll be playing center or wing come playoff time, and if the Leafs make a big trade before the deadline, his $3.5 million cap hit could make him part of that deal. At this point, I have no idea what they plan on doing with him. Do they like him with Tavares and Nylander? Do they think he drives play well on the third line? Do they envision him being on the roster next season? It’s a complete guessing game.

Kerfoot is probably a little bit underrated. Looking into the ranking of defensive forwards in the league according to Evolving Hockey‘s WAR model, since Kerfoot entered the league in the 2017-18 season, he ranks 33rd out of 415 forwards with 1000 minutes in terms of even-strength defense. His 5-on-5 point production is also surprisingly quite strong, but since he doesn’t get power-play time, his overall point totals aren’t all that impressive. I think he’s a perfectly fine player with a fine contract.

I like him with Mikheyev and Engvall, regardless of whether he’s playing center or wing. I know some Leafs fans want to acquire a third-line center at the deadline, but I just don’t see many centers available who are better than Kerfoot. I also think he’s at least passable as a second-line winger, although I’m not exactly in love with that idea, either.

Kerfoot grades out surprisingly well by both Evolving Hockey‘s goals above replacement (GAR) and expected goals above replacement (xGAR). The question becomes: Do the Leafs buy that he’s as good as these numbers suggest? They’re looking for more good and underrated players rather than less. Personally, I just don’t know what to make of him at this point. I think he’s probably a little bit worse than those numbers suggest. I don’t see a ton of surplus value on his $3.5 million cap hit.

Kyle Dubas traded for Kerfoot, signed him to a four-year extension, and traded Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson instead of him this offseason. He must like him at least a little bit. If he doesn’t see Kerfoot on the 2021-22 roster anyway, I think he’ll try to move him soon in a deal for a can’t miss top-six forward. If he’s the president of the Kerfoot fan club, the Leafs might not make a huge move at the deadline and could opt for a cheaper option such as Alex Iafallo instead. Based on his comments at the mid-season press conference, I have to think that he’s thinking bigger than Iafallo.

My guess is that Kerfoot’s name is on the trade block. With a front-loaded contract, he only makes $2.7 million in actual salary over the next two seasons. As I said in a previous article, I think he carries similar trade value as Andreas Johnsson. I think he’s a fine third-line center, but if the Leafs can add a major difference maker, he’s likely expendable. If a team like Buffalo or Nashville doesn’t value him, the Columbus Blue Jackets are looking for a center, and he played pretty well against them in last year’s play-in series.

I realize that Tyler Toffoli isn’t a center, but he signed a four-year deal with a $4.25 million cap hit last offseason. Mikael Granlund signed for just $3.75 million. I’m not exactly losing sleep over trading Kerfoot given that they can likely find a suitable replacement in the offseason through free agency if needed.

Why Forward Is Toronto’s Biggest Need (For Now)

Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs have five legitimate top-six forwards: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Zach Hyman. When they play three top-six forwards together, the line tends to have plenty of success. Toronto’s goal is to have two first lines; adding one more can’t miss top-six forward would allow them to do just that.

While I like what I’ve seen from Alex Galchenyuk thus far, he wouldn’t stop me from making a trade.

For the first time in ages, Toronto’s defense is quite strong. The Muzzin-Holl pairing has continued their success from last season, while T.J. Brodie looks like an excellent addition next to Morgan Rielly. The third pairing of Dermott-Bogosian continues to put up good on-ice results, which is a major reason why the team moved on from Mikko Lehtonen.

At this point, I think they fully plan on having both Dermott and Bogosian in their playoff lineup. However, Mattias Ekholm is good enough to throw those plans out the window. He’s controllable for both this season and next, and if the Leafs acquired him, they would clearly have one of the best defenses in the entire NHL. If the Predators retain 50% of Ekholm’s salary (both this year and next) and 50% of Mikael Granlund’s salary for the rest of the season, the Leafs can afford both players as long as they move Kerfoot.

Having Ekholm under contract next season for a $1.875 million cap hit would be incredibly valuable, allowing the Leafs to spend more in free agency (perhaps on Hyman or a goaltender). It would also give them the flexibility to potentially trade Morgan Rielly in the offseason, who will be entering the final year of his contract. If Nashville isn’t prepared to retain 50% of Ekholm’s deal, perhaps the Leafs could involve a third team to help them out. The Leafs gave Chicago a hand at last year’s trade deadline when they retained salary on Robin Lehner’s contract. Perhaps the Blackhawks could return the favour in exchange for a pick or prospect.

Excluding Ekholm, a forward who can play in the top-six is a bigger priority than a defenseman who isn’t going to be in the regular lineup. As a result, unless they do the Granlund and Ekholm trade that I mentioned above, I expect them to acquire a forward first. If there is still cap space left over at the deadline, they can explore a trade for a depth defenseman at that time.

While he doesn’t have NHL playoff experience, Timothy Liljegren is playing well for the Marlies this season and is ready for a call-up when needed. The team is also clearly quite high on Rasmus Sandin — he’ll be a great depth option once he’s healthy and playing again. If they do acquire a depth defenseman, I’m not necessarily convinced that the player will be better than their current depth options. However, if they do think that Liljegren could play in NHL playoff games, I’d like to get him some NHL reps down the stretch. The Tampa Bay Lightning played Luke Schenn in the playoffs last year, so let’s not get too carried away here.

In terms of goaltending, this is a fairly simple move from a cap perspective. Frederik Andersen’s $5 million cap hit would presumably head elsewhere, giving them plenty of room to make an addition. Here’s the problem: Darcy Kuemper, Antti Raanta, Jonathan Bernier, and Linus Ullmark are all hurt right now. You also probably want to see Jack Campbell play a few games to prove that he’s healthy before you trade Andersen given that you’ll have to wait 14 days for your new goalie to show up.

It’s a tough year to trade for a goalie. I think they’re going to give Andersen every opportunity to turn things around before they make that move.

Finding The Best Fit

Mattias Ekholm, Nashville Predators
Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

During his midseason press conference, Kyle Dubas made it clear that he would be willing to consider trading a top prospect to help this team win now. This was a pretty obvious answer — it should be clear that any prospect is available in the right trade. If Ottawa called and wanted to trade Brady Tkachuk, for example, I’m sure any Leafs prospect would be on the table.

Let’s not get carried away here, though. Taylor Hall, probably the best rental available, was traded at last year’s deadline along with Blake Speers for a first-round pick, a third-round pick, and prospects Nick Merkley, Kevin Bahl, and Nate Schnarr. Those are fine prospects, but it’s not like the Arizona Coyotes gave up Barrett Hayton or Victor Soderstrom. I would not trade Rasmus Sandin, Nick Robertson, or Rodion Amirov for a rental.

As I mentioned in my Taylor Hall article, his trade value should not be as high this time around. First, he carries a full no-move clause and can control his own destiny, so Buffalo won’t have as many teams to talk to. Second, he only has two goals this year and is another year removed from his MVP season. Third, it’s more of a buyer’s market right now due to the pandemic and cap situations.

Filip Forsberg is a pretty comparable player to Taylor Hall, but given that he comes with an extra season of control, he would certainly command a higher price. I think he’s a bit of a long-shot at this point — I see the Predators as a team that wants to contend next season, and they’re short on star forward talent to begin with. Forsberg would likely cost significantly more than Hall or Kyle Palmieri. If we also factor in the expansion draft implications, the rental forward options are more likely at this point.

I think a Granlund and Ekholm deal has a legitimate chance of happening. I do want to add a forward, though — especially if they move Kerfoot — so I’m willing to pay a little bit extra to get retention on Ekholm’s deal.

Granlund is a good and underrated player, and given that he’s not going to cost a first-round pick on his own, I like the value there. He is skilled, well-rounded, and able to play center or wing. He’d be a great addition next to Tavares and Nylander. He could also be a great third-line center as well.

Here’s the trade idea I put out in the Twitter universe:

As mentioned above, you could possibly involve a third team to help with the retention. The rumour out there seems to be that Nashville views the Jake Muzzin trade as a comparable, which was a first-round pick, defense prospect Sean Durzi, and forward prospect Carl Grundstrom. I prefer Liljegren to Durzi and Hirvonen to Grundstrom, but we’re also adding retention into this trade and this is a weaker draft class. You might think that the Leafs have to add a little bit more — or perhaps you think that they’re overpaying slightly — but I think we’re in the right ballpark. I do think Liljegren is playing quite well with the Marlies, so if you can replace him with another first-round pick, I’d seriously consider doing that.

If the Leafs don’t acquire Ekholm, I think they’ll get a pretty good forward. Filip Forsberg and Tomas Hertl are certainly worth calling about, but they’re probably long-shots at this point. Excluding the Nashville players, Kyle Palmieri is currently #2 on my wish list behind Hall.

The 30-year old winger has scored at a 30-goal pace (per 82 games) in four of the past five seasons — he brings plenty of shooting talent to the table. I don’t think he’s the same calibre of 5-on-5 play driver as Hall or Forsberg, but he’d rack up goals in Toronto’s top six and he’s fairly responsible defensively. He’s quite effective on the power play, and while this isn’t Toronto’s biggest need, he’d probably be their best option in the middle of their 1-3-1 set-up.

If the Leafs trade Kerfoot and the Devils retain 50% of Palmieri’s salary, Toronto would still have some cap space left over to make another move. The Leafs aren’t exactly short on right-shooting wingers, but I think they’re comfortable with moving Nylander over to the left side. The big question is: Does he have Toronto on his no-trade clause list? If so, would he waive it to come here given the 14-day quarantine?

I don’t mind Nick Foligno, but I’m just not convinced that he’ll end up getting traded. The Blue Jackets are still in the playoff hunt, and Foligno is their captain. I don’t think Columbus would fetch a first-round pick for him. He also has a partial no-trade clause, so he doesn’t have to do the quarantine in Canada unless he wants to. Unless the Blue Jackets really love Kerfoot, I think they will want to wait a few weeks before they make a decision on Foligno. The Leafs would much prefer to make their additions earlier.

I’m a pretty big fan of Mikael Granlund, even if Ekholm is not involved in the deal. He produced like a first-line player when he was on the Wild, and playing in Nashville with that dreadful power play will suppress any player’s point totals. Similar to Palmieri, the Leafs can make another move if they trade Kerfoot and Nashville retains 50% of Granlund’s cap hit. Given that he only has 10 points in 26 games this year, he probably won’t cost much more than a second-round pick. He’s not the star player who we’re all dreaming about, but trading for Granlund might be the best move value wise and you can probably make a second trade.

As per James Mirtle of The Athletic, the Leafs could also add Granlund while keeping Kerfoot if they get creative.

I like the idea of trading Kerfoot and acquiring two good players. Kerfoot might get you one of those players by himself, or if you trade him for a second-round pick, they could flip that asset as part of the package. The Leafs could acquire both Palmieri and Granlund for example, and if you don’t like them, you could essentially replace them with any two players in the $3-4 million range as long as there’s 50% retention.

Mattias Ekholm, Rickard Rakell, Eric Staal, Alex Iafallo, Tanner Pearson, and even Tyler Bertuzzi could all fit here, although some are more likely options than others.

Final Thoughts

Alex Galchenyuk, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: David Kiroua / Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire
  • As you probably read in this Leafs links article, Chris Johnston said on Leafs Hour that he’s still hearing that the Leafs are tied to Mattias Ekholm. On the other hand, Elliotte Friedman believes they’re basically looking for the best forward possible. Personally, I initially thought that they would simply target the best forward available, but Ekholm is good enough to make anyone reconsider. In the event that Taylor Hall doesn’t want to come here since the Leafs can’t re-sign him and Kyle Palmieri doesn’t want to come here due to the quarantine process, maybe they’re forced to look at other options.
  • Jimmy Vesey started the season on a line with Tavares and Nylander, and Sheldon Keefe wanted him to play more like Zach Hyman. He wasn’t able to do that, but I sure was impressed with Alex Galchenyuk on Thursday night. He was terrific at causing havoc and winning battles on the forecheck, and if he can do that consistently, he’ll have a spot in the lineup. If he’s a pleasant surprise on the second line, this could allow Hyman, or the winger they acquire, to drive the third line.
  • Joe Thornton hasn’t impressed on the Matthews line as of late. As of this moment, I’d prefer if he was in the bottom six come playoff time rather than the top six.
  • I’d try Pierre Engvall at center between two skilled players. He’s both good defensively and able to drive play with his transition game. However, he does need his linemates to set up the bulk of the scoring chances. He played well in the playoffs last year between Clifford and Spezza. I’d like to see him between Joe Thornton and one of Wayne Simmonds or Jason Spezza this year.
  • James Mirtle of The Athletic wrote this offseason that he believed the Leafs were interested in Robin Lehner this offseason. He ended up re-signing in Vegas, but Marc-Andre Fleury is currently in the Vezina conversation. That front office is ruthless. Could a Lehner for Morgan Rielly trade make sense this offseason? Could it make sense at the deadline if the Leafs trade for Mattias Ekholm? It’s a long-shot, but he’s a good goalie on a reasonable contract and it sounds like the Leafs like him. I still think the Leafs will go with the Frederik AndersenJack Campbell duo for the remainder of the season.
  • I’m not a big fan of Rickard Rakell, although I’d be a much bigger fan if the Ducks retained 50% of his contract next season. He just wouldn’t be my first option. Ryan Getzlaf doesn’t interest me much, either, given that they already have Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza.
  • Ilya Mikheyev is an unrestricted free agent after next year and carries a $1.645 million cap hit. If they need the cap space, I’d consider moving two years of him for one year of a good rental. I value his penalty killing and forechecking ability, but his stick is currently where offense goes to die. I wouldn’t be shopping him, but I’d keep an open mind. If I acquired Taylor Hall and I had a chance to get Mikael Granlund as well (at 50% retention), I’d be willing to move two years of Mikheyev for him.

That’s all for this week. Let’s hope that my next article is about a completed trade! I’m going to guess that Granlund is involved.