On the 32 Thoughts segment at the second intermission of HNIC, Elliotte Friedman speculated on a possible fit between Toronto and Arizona as it pertains to Nick Ritchie and a Coyotes right-shot defenseman.
“Arizona just announced their lineup for the game tonight. Ilya Lyubushkin is not playing. He is a defenseman who is a right-hand shot. He is a player who has had some interest around the league. He is not very well known, but he is a pretty good player.
I am wondering if it is a potential match between Toronto and Arizona. The Coyotes only have five players under contract next year. We know the Leafs are trying to move Nick Ritchie. I think there might be something there.”
– Elliotte Friedman, HNIC, February 19, 2022
Ritchie exited the Marlies game partway through the team’s loss to Belleville on Friday night with an apparent injury and did not feature in Saturday’s rematch. His $2.5 million cap hit for this season and next is something the Leafs urgently want to move off of the cap books ahead of the March 21 trade deadline; Arizona is a floor team with some ground to make up on the books cap-wise next season, so Friedman’s logic on the fit makes a good deal of sense.
The 27-year-old Ilya Lyubushkin has played 40-50 games a year over four separate seasons for Arizona, where he has flown under the radar as a competent right-shot, stay-at-home, depth defenseman with some size (6’2, 208lbs) and physicality. He is a zero offensively (just 19 points in 180 NHL games), but his relative-to-teammate metrics have typically been strong in terms of suppressing shot quality in a tough environment in which to thrive defensively on mostly poor Arizona teams. He leads Arizona defensemen with 96 hits and is top 30 in the NHL among defensemen (min. 30 games played) in hits thrown per 60.
-6'2" RD who has played primarily with Jakob Chychrun this season. He played with OEL last season.
-Stay-at-home type who plays a physical style.
-Decent skater and defender in transition, but needs to play with a strong puck mover.
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) February 20, 2022
That defensive value though 👀 pic.twitter.com/t36quZBzph
— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) February 20, 2022
The Russian rearguard has averaged 15 and a half minutes at even strength this season (fifth among Coyotes defensemen) with an additional 2.5 minutes per game on the penalty kill (third among Coyotes defensemen).
Lyubushkin earns $1.35 million before he becomes a UFA at year’s end; $1.375 million happens to be the current non-buriable portion of Nick Ritchie’s cap hit, so the Leafs could make the cap dollars line up and pocket the slight difference, in addition to clearing $2.5 million off of next year’s cap.
Of course, more than likely, the deal will be bigger than Ritchie and Lyubushkin; at a minimum, the Leafs will need to sweeten the deal with an additional asset, be it a pick or prospect.
With just two right-shot defensemen on the team’s NHL roster — one of which has had his fair share of struggles in Justin Holl while the other is a rookie (albeit one having an impressive first NHL season) in Timothy Liljegren — and not much of note in terms of NHL options on the Marlies outside of Alex Biega, it makes sense the Leafs are pursuing affordable depth options with NHL experience on the right side while seeking out a new home for Ritchie.
We’ll now wait and see if anything comes of it.