Should the Toronto Maple Leafs focus more on defense or forward at the trade deadline? — MLHS Podcast

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On Episode 8 of the MLHS podcast, Ian Tulloch, Anthony Petrielli, and Kevin Papetti debated the merits of the Toronto Maple Leafs adding a forward, a defenseman, or both before the trade deadline — and which position should be prioritized the most.


Reader Question: Given their defensive numbers and the team’s superstar forwards, shouldn’t the Leafs be looking to improve the defense as the team’s #1 priority?

Tulloch: Mattias Ekholm immediately comes to mind because he is the best defenseman available, he has two years of control, and he is on an incredible cap hit — $3.75 million for a legitimate top-pairing defenseman. He is left handed. He mostly plays the left, although it is said he can play the right.

Petrielli: His puck-handling is a little lacklustre. He is not smooth with the puck.

Papetti: He is more of a defensive defenseman. I know his numbers suggest he is an offensive defenseman, but I definitely see him as more of a defensive, stay-at-home type.

Petrielli: I love Ekholm, but you don’t want the puck on his stick — I’m telling you.

Tulloch: You can live with it on his stick. He can make a play with it, but his value is more in what he does without the puck. He is a fantastic, 200-foot impact defenseman over the past number of years.

Those numbers have dipped in the past year or two. You want to make sure if you are giving up a big package for this guy, you are getting legitimate Jake Muzzin-type value here. If you are giving up a Sandin, or a prospect of that calibre, and a pick, or whatever else is in the deal — if you are giving up those level of assets, should it be a forward or a defenseman?

Long term, I think we should be looking at the picture beyond Morgan Rielly in the next couple of years when it comes to building a proper top four, but if you are trying to win a Cup this season, does bringing in Mattias Ekholm maximize your chances versus a Forsberg or a Hall or a similarly talented forward?

Eventually, one of those players on the blue line is going to get fewer minutes than you’d like to see. When the Leafs acquired Muzzin, one of the problems is that it didn’t bump Hainsey down the lineup.

Petrielli: No one would play the right side.

Tulloch: If you trade for Ekholm, what is the ripple effect? Either Dermott or Bogosian comes out of the lineup, and who moves down? What do you do with the defense pairings? To me, that wouldn’t be ideal, but at the same time, having more talent on the ice improves your chances of winning.

We should probably be discussing defense more often, but also, when is the last time we felt this good about a defense on a Leafs team?

Papetti: To me, the biggest need is still forward. I want someone to play with Tavares-Nylander and to get that line fixed. I think Ekholm is good enough that I would reconsider, and maybe David Savard I would have to consider. I think they are good enough players where you have to at least say, “What is the cost?”

But I think I would definitely re-do the Muzzin trade. If the price is the same as Jake Muzzin and you are as confident that Ekholm is as good as Muzzin, I am in. You do that trade 10 times out of 10.

I just think it might be a bidding war. A lot of teams want Ekholm. I am happy with the six defensemen right now. Unless they get a real deal on Ekholm, I would probably just do the forward route.

I wouldn’t mind adding a seventh defenseman — someone who can sub in — but I think you get the forward first, see how much cap room you have, and then go from there. If you have enough for a $2 million guy, then you make that as kind of your last move. More than likely, these will be the six defensemen come playoff time.

Of course, there are always injuries, but I just don’t think other teams have amazing #7-8 defenseman. I do like Liljegren and I really like Sandin. If they’re going to play, I want to get them into some regular-season games.

I think forward is the priority for me unless you get a real deal on an Ekholm or a Savard.

Petrielli: My thoughts on this actually go back a few years to baseball. A few years ago, the Jays were unbelievable on offense. Everyone knew they needed pitching. The first thing they did that deadline was to go out and trade for Troy Tulowitzki.  They got rid of Jose Reyes at the time, who was a reasonable player. He certainly wasn’t bad and no one was pointing to him as someone to get off of the team.

I was confused at the time. Why were they going in on Troy Tulowitzki? They needed pitching, and they did end up getting pitching. But Tulowitzki came here and played the game against the Phillies where he hit two dingers. With the defense and the overall stardom that he brought, right away, we could see why they traded for Troy Tulowitzki. I don’t care who they had here before. This guy is just a legitimately better player.

That was a lightbulb moment for me across any sport. If you have a chance to upgrade your roster, I don’t care if you think this area is a strength or that we can’t improve this further. If there is a player that is better and he improves your odds, you get him. End of story.

That goes across the board.

Tulloch: The Golden Knights aren’t looking at their roster thinking, “I don’t know — do we need an Alex Pietrangelo?” You need good players.

Petrielli: When I look at the forwards, in particular, they’re scoring and they’re offensive, but I am not looking and going, “They’re good — what are we doing on defense?” I am looking at it and thinking they need to round out this group a little better. We can clearly see some holes. They get buoyed by four or five players who are all pretty unreal. Now that they are trying to disperse them across three lines, we are seeing some of the issues it brings about.

To your point, too, Ian, they do need a defenseman. They are an injury to any one of the guys in the top four away from having a problem.

Tulloch: Couldn’t you say that about a lot of contending teams?

Petrielli: How many teams are contending to the level of the Leafs right now?  How many are at their Cup contending status?

Tulloch: 5-10?

Petrielli: Five for sure. Definitely not 10. If you are the Leafs and you are in that top category — which they really haven’t been since Pat Quinn was trying to trade for everybody — you have to insulate yourself, whether it is just a depth guy who makes it look a little bit better.

They are one injury away with any one of those guys in the top four, and for most contending teams, you wouldn’t say that. For most, you would say that if their top guy or one of their top two guys go down, they have a problem. If you are Vegas, if Shea Theodore or Alex Pietrangelo get hurt, they have serious problems. As long as those two guys don’t get hurt, you could probably squint and think, “We’ll probably be okay because we have these two monsters and one of them will be on at all times.”

The Leafs don’t have those monsters. They have four good guys that each has their own strengths and weaknesses. The sum of their parts is solid. If any one of those guys gets hurt, they have issues on defense.

Tulloch: If Justin Holl gets hurt, what is the ripple effect?

Petrielli: Who is the righty? is Zach Bogosian moving up? Is Travis Dermott playing the right side?

Papetti: I think Bogosian goes with Rielly, and Brodie goes onto the shutdown pairing with Muzzin.

Tulloch: That terrifies me.

Petrielli: Things start moving around and they get a little weird really quick. All of these guys start playing with each other who they haven’t played with all year — in the middle of the playoffs when the lights shine the brightest. It doesn’t feel great to me.

If I could get a depth defenseman, 100%. But I would definitely target forward over defense. They have a hole on first-line LW and second-line LW as long as Zach Hyman is playing on the third line. If you think otherwise, you are kidding yourself.

Tulloch: Did you see those Joe Thornton Corsi numbers?

Petrielli: I love Joe. I just think their fourth line should be Joe, Spezza, and Simmonds. You move those guys up once in a while when you need to. Anything else for those guys, and I think you are asking too much. I actually have liked Simmonds on the first line, but that is not real.

Tulloch: You can’t play Wayne Simmonds big minutes in the top six in a playoff series at this point.

Papetti: I don’t like that at all.

Tulloch: On the power play, you like him on the ice. At 5v5, I think he needs to be sheltered.

Papetti: I want a needle-mover at the deadline first. It is probably going to be a forward. I just think there are more forwards available. If you have extra cap space, I am all in for adding a depth defenseman. But I do think you have to make your bigger move first and then see what is left and go from there. Ekholm is good enough that you at least have to inquire, but I think forward is more likely at this point.

Petrielli: I would want just a depth guy on defense. He doesn’t even have to be that good — a body that is semi-respectable. Even a guy like Jason Demers, who I don’t really love or like all that much, at least he has played in the league and he is a little bit better than what they have.


The future in net & the biggest need at the deadline – MLHS Podcast Ep. 8, Mailbag Edition


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