As has become customary, Kyle Dubas started his trade deadline early.
Jack Campbell was acquired on February 5, 2020; Jake Muzzin was acquired on January 28 the year prior. Dubas has always been forthcoming about his preference not to wait for the deadline to make moves, and he’s lived by it again this season.
The Ilya Lyubushkin-for-Nick Ritchie trade was as much about clearing the books for next season as anything else – demonstrated further by the Leafs immediately placing Ryan Dzingel on waivers and losing him to San Jose. But it also sets the table for a trade-deadline scenario I’ve been discussing in this space for over a month now.
There was always going to be a defenseman of some kind added to the group. Based on the team’s lack of trade resources — including cap space, draft picks, and prospects — the assumption was that a depth defenseman would be added (I personally thought it was going to be Luke Schenn, but Lyubushkin is a similar player with more actual upside in terms of playing higher up in the lineup).
Specifically, Dubas said, “We thought, compared to the market on other types of guys, it was a good bet for us.”
If we look around the market and consider the other options, we see names like:
- Ben Chiarot
- Mark Giordano
- John Klingberg
- Josh Manson
- Nick Leddy
- Jeff Petry
- Jakob Chychrun
There are some good players here, to be sure, but most — if not all — of these players will cost a ton to acquire, and many aren’t slam-dunk fits for the Leafs’ needs.
Ideally, the Leafs can acquire a right-handed defenseman who can play against good players alongside Jake Muzzin and handle the primary puckhandling duties (knowing Muzzin has really struggled to move the puck this season).
Who really fits that bill? Perhaps Manson can be shoehorned into that role as a righty, but Muzzin would have to really rediscover his game with the puck to make that work. Petry would probably best fit those needs, but with a family in the US all season, it sounds like he (understandably) wants to head south of the border.
You could argue for moving Muzzin down the lineup (which, based on his play, would not even be unreasonable at this point), but they will need a left and right-handed defenseman for the second pairing. There are no obvious solutions, but any one of them would cost a ton to try out.
To compound matters, the Leafs have three draft picks for the upcoming draft following a 2021 draft where they selected three times. Can they justify scorching the draft for a fit that isn’t obvious on defense? Does acquiring a big name that’s an awkward fit really move the needle appreciably?
Another consideration is something we have been talking about for quite some time in this space: the team’s second line simply isn’t that good. For whatever reason, they aren’t producing results. They are basically breaking even across the board – possession, goals for and against, and expected goals. And they’ve played over 320 minutes together.
This isn’t a fluke — it’s who they are. There really isn’t much more to wait and see about. My suspicion all along has been that the Leafs know this, too. Maybe they go on a heater at the right time and it all works out, but that’s an awfully big bet for them to place.
It is disappointing to see the Leafs not try to find solutions internally, but if they are looking at setting the rest of the roster and then acquiring a forward who is a better fit for the second line, so be it.
This is contingent on the defense sorting itself out a little bit down the stretch. They do have eight legitimate NHL defensemen on their roster now. They have a legitimate top pairing, too. There are a lot of teams in the league that can’t say that.
Now they have six defensemen they can move around to figure out the rest. Internally, I think the hope is that this works to stabilize the defense and allows them to focus on adding a forward of consequence.
The price of the Ilya Lyubushkin trade was a draft pick of note, but they managed to shed the Nick Ritchie contract in the deal and opened up some extra cap space in the process.
– William Nylander has played under 16 minutes seven times this season, including in each of the last four games. Sheldon Keefe can say he played the bottom six more against Montreal because they had a game the next night, but Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews got their usual 20+. John Tavares was in a similar boat – he played a season-low 15:04 against the Habs and has played under 16 minutes in three of the last four games (and in the other he played 16:13).
As Alec pointed out, the line has been outscored 10-5 at five-on-five with a 47.5% expected goal share in the month of February. They simply aren’t getting the job at this time, and Keefe is reducing their ice time as a result.
– I was interested in how the Blues would adjust to the Leafs after their first game where they felt they were too loose defensively. The Blues made a concerted effort to make the Leafs go through all five players in the neutral zone and it generally worked for the first two periods – the Blues had one more scoring chance than them through two, but in the third, the Leafs doubled them up in scoring chances. That was in part due to the Blues scoring twice in the first 11 minutes to take the lead. When you look at that game and the Habs game, a lot of the goals were simply mistakes/giveaways on the Leafs’ end leading to chances on the counterattack.
– Kind of quietly, Timothy Liljegren has put together a reasonably productive rookie season. He has 10 points in 33 games, which is a modest 25-point pace, but they are all at even strength playing limited minutes. He has been impressive with the puck and isn’t afraid to make plays
– Speaking of Liljegren, one strange thing is that he actually has more shots on net this season than TJ Brodie (Liljegren has 40 in 33 games; Brodie has 33 in 49 games). Against the Blues, Brodie scored on a bomb of a one-timer — it’s not the first time he’s done that; think Game 6 in Montreal, which would have gotten a lot more attention had they won the game/series.
Brodie has a good shot he really should use more. His career average is 1.15 shots per game, but this season, he is averaging just .65 shots per game, which would be by far the lowest mark of his career (his previous low was .81 – his rookie season).
I think part of this is that he knows he needs to be more defensive-minded playing alongside Morgan Rielly, but he doesn’t have to completely abandon this part of his game.
– Somewhat quietly, the Leafs gave Joseph Woll a three-year extension that is a one-way contract for the final two years. He had a good showing with the Leafs, but he has yet to have a really good season with the Marlies. With this contract, it looks like they are still expecting him to have one more season — hopefully a healthy and productive one — as the Marlies‘ full-time starter before possibly becoming the backup (or more) for the Leafs. When you have deep pockets like the Leafs do, you can afford these types of moves.
“When we signed him in the summer, I think everybody wished it was going to play out differently than it has. It is so interesting how it all goes. He had a lot of chances early in the year. They didn’t go in. The impact of that on confidence and chemistry is massive. Michael Bunting steps up, Kerfoot finds good chemistry with John, and it just doesn’t really play out well for Nick, right? That’s the way she goes. Sometimes she goes. Sometimes she doesn’t.”
– Kyle Dubas on trading away Nick Ritchie
I don’t think anyone can argue the Leafs didn’t give Nick Ritchie every chance to stick with the team and carve out a role, whether that was on a scoring, checking, or even just an energy line. He didn’t take advantage of any of the chances he was given. That is firmly on him.
It felt like they pampered him all season – they constantly spoke highly of him and repeatedly provided encouragement in the media. I get it is a certain approach that works for many individuals, but it did not work for him. Should they have to harp on a professional hockey player to be more engaged and to play better? Obviously not, but they could have been more honest and direct (and I’m sure they were behind closed doors) than what they were messaging publicly.
“The playoff success is going to come. Let these players mature and lose a couple times in the playoffs. They’ll learn how to be successful and start winning in the postseason, as well… The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to have chances to win a championship in the next 10 years, 15 years by (continuing to) keep building and keep improving.”
– Mats Sundin on this Leafs core
When you think back to those Leafs teams — the last ones to have any semblance of playoff success — it was generally a veteran group that was getting the job done (that said, shoutout to Alyn McCauley!). In many cases, a team does have to learn how to lose before it learns how to win, and Kyle Dubas has certainly bet on that being the case.
“If I’m on the left or on the right, to me, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a lot of fun out there. I think hockey is the best thing in the world, so just trying to enjoy it as much as I can.”
– Rasmus Sandin on switching to the right side
I don’t think it went particularly well on the right side for Rasmus Sandin, but I appreciate that he was and is willing to try it out. A few years ago, when the Leafs acquired Jake Muzzin, all indications were that neither he nor Morgan Rielly was particularly fond of moving to the right. Sandin isn’t as far along in his career to have that type of clout, but the general openness towards it is still notable and praiseworthy.
Tweets of the Week
Since January 1st Toronto's SV% is .896. They have a .694 pts% in those games (!). They've outscored the opposition 74-56.
— draglikepull (@draglikepull) February 21, 2022
While I think the Leafs’ goaltending will even out a bit here, it’s probably a bit more of a concern than people are realizing. At the same time, while the special teams are really impressive, the Leafs are being carried a hot power play (first in the league since January 1) and their penalty kill (third in the league since January 1). Of course, you don’t need to tell any Leafs fan that the playoffs are about five-on-five hockey more than anything else.
I like Lybushkin. Even if just as a defensive third-pair option.
To get something useful at a position of need for a cap dump you didn't want makes this a pretty good trade. And the Leafs have room to do more, assuming they demote Dzingel.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 20, 2022
One way or another, the Leafs were going to acquire some insurance on defense, so all-in-all, it could have been worse. Ilya Lyubushkin has been a serviceable player in the league, but it’s notable that he’s never played on a team of consequence. That, of course, has nothing to do with him particularly, but transitioning from an Arizona-type of situation to a hotbed like Toronto can entail quite the learning curve.
Mitch Marner fighting the post that knocked out Auston Matthews' teeth is teammate goals 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/GJkVelYxvE
— BarDown (@BarDown) February 19, 2022
This was simply funny. I do think Mitch Marner has earned back some goodwill with the fanbase so far this season, but at the end of the day, it will really come down to what he does in the playoffs. That’s how it goes after five years of first-round exits. You wear it.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. At first blush, I think I’d be interested in trying out Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl, Rasmus Sandin – Ilya Lybushkin for reasons of continuity and it arguably representing their best chance at giving Lyubushkin a real look.
It also pairs Muzzin back with Holl (who I still don’t think has been nearly as bad as many would you have think). That’s a pairing I still wouldn’t completely want to abandon. They have had some struggles at 5v5 (and yes, they were bad against Montreal), but they are also the top-minute defenders on an elite PK.
2. If I wanted to get crazy and really experiment with this defense group (and I would), I think I would trot out Morgan Rielly – Ilya Lyubushkin, Jake Muzzin – TJ Brodie, and Rasmus Sandin – Justin Holl. Lyubushkin has some experience playing alongside offensive defensemen in big-minute situations; the Muzzin and Brodie pairing looked good to me and gives them their best chance at a true shutdown pairing based on what we’ve seen so far this season, and Holl is perfectly capable of playing steady third-pairing minutes alongside the offensively-inclined Sandin.
3. On the note of getting a little crazy, I think it’s nuts that the Leafs basically experimented with line combinations for 1.5 games in 2022 before pretty well saying, “We know what the optimal lines are,” and calling it a day. We have this conversation every single season – I should just start copying and pasting the same few sentences every year. When things go south, they load up the top line… and do little else. And things will go south for every team at some point or another; it’d be nice to have a few different tricks up the sleeve to pull out when they do.
4. Speaking of line shake-ups, I think to this point I’ve been far more impressed with the Leafs’ third line with Pierre Engvall there as opposed to Ilya Mikheyev. They have better possession numbers and expected goals numbers with Engvall in that spot. I like his dynamic as a superior puck carrier and playmaker who can complement that group.
Mikheyev is a great forechecker, but he isn’t particularly adept at skating with the puck on his stick. Ondrej Kase is a great forechecker as well, and David Kampf is a great “high guy” who can read the play and keep things safe. With Kase and Mikheyev on the same line — and only one guy forechecking — they aren’t exactly maxing out the combination here, and it’s showing.
5. I know it’s presented as hindsight now, but I’ve been consistent with this: I think the Pittsburgh and St. Louis games, from a goalie perspective, were not how I’d have approached it.
Jack Campbell played well against the Penguins — legitimately one of his best games of 2022 — but I would have gone with Petr Mrazek. This isn’t a “win and you’re in” situation. It’s also not a “Campbell is the unquestioned starter” situation. You must rotate back and forth between them until someone once and for all grabs the net (which I don’t think has happened yet).
Campbell struggled in that Blues game, and it was a shame that Mrazek — watching from the bench with nine games on his resume this season — ended up going nine days between starts.