Jakob Chychrun is set to become the most valuable player traded at this year’s deadline.

The 23-year old is signed for the next three and a half seasons at a cap hit of $4.6 million, which is an absolute bargain. You’re trading for four prime years of a legitimate top-four defenseman, one with the upside to potentially be in the Team Canada conversation for the next best-on-best competition. Listed at 6’2″ and 220 pounds, there is little doubt that Chychrun is built to play against top competition in a playoff series.

Chychrun led all NHL defensemen in goals last season with 18 in 56 games. He finished 22nd among defensemen in Evolving Hockey’s goals above replacement (GAR) and first in expected goals above replacement (xGAR). He also finished in the top 25 in both categories in the 2019-20 season; it’s not like this was a one-year fluke.

Had Chychrun been an unrestricted free agent last offseason, there is little doubt that his cap hit would have exceeded $7 million and perhaps even reached as high as $8 million. The Athletic’s NHL staff had him on their projected Team Canada Olympic Roster back in September.

By the numbers, his results this season are terrible. Both GAR and xGAR rate him as below replacement level, but interestingly enough, he grades out better than last season in terms of even-strength defense. Did he just forget how to play offense at the age of 23? I personally highly doubt it. A bounce-back seems like a fairly safe bet.

Chychrun benefitted from a 10.2% shooting percentage last season, which is unsustainable for a defenseman and well above his career mark of 6.4%. However, he’s down to just 1.7% this season, which is unsustainably low. He’s also one of the worst players in the league in terms of plus-minus at -26, but we should all know by now that this is a flawed statistic.  Valuable players like Jordan Eberle, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Jared McCann, Mark Giordano, Mark Scheifele, and Patrick Kane also rank poorly by plus-minus this season.

The Coyotes have given up far less in terms of expected goals against when Chychrun is on the ice compared to when he is off. He’s actually above 50% in terms of five-on-five expected goals when he plays with Clayton Keller, but that number has cratered with players like Phil Kessel, Loui Eriksson, Christian Fischer, Antoine Roussel, and Jay Beagle.

Chychrun is a left-shooting defenseman who has spent almost his entire career on the left side. Given that Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Rasmus Sandin all play on the left, Chychrun doesn’t seem like a great fit with the Leafs at first glance. If he shot right, Leafs fans probably would have been talking about acquiring him every day for months now.

However, following Ilya Lyubushkin’s trade to Toronto, Chychrun has now shifted over to the right side for the Coyotes, which will give the Leafs a chance to evaluate how comfortable he looks on his off-side. If they like what they see, I expect him to be Toronto’s number one target at the upcoming deadline.

Examining Chychrun’s fit in Toronto

If the Leafs do acquire Chychrun, there needs to be a long-term strategy. You would expect to have Chychrun, Rielly, and Sandin together for the next four playoff runs, so you want to be fairly confident that at least one of them will be comfortable on the right side. While both Rielly and Sandin have said that they can play the right side in the past, the Leafs haven’t used them there much, so it’s a bit unclear how much of a dropoff to expect in terms of performance. If Chychrun starts to struggle on the right side, you better have a backup plan.

Can you bank on at least one of Chychrun, Rielly, or Sandin being able to play well on the right side? Assuming Chychrun looks fairly comfortable in this showcase, I think that’s a reasonable gamble. If not, you could look to move Jake Muzzin at some point and play them all on the left side, but it’s ideal if Chychrun, Rielly, and Sandin can all play in the top four. Chychrun carries a 10-team no-trade list in the final two years of his deal, but given his age, he should continue to have strong trade value if the Leafs ever want to pivot and change plans.

It will take a haul of picks and prospects to bring Chychrun to Toronto. Given his age, position, and ability, the haul might just be worth it. This isn’t an “all-in” move for a rental after all, but rather a trade for a 23-year old player with term. Toronto’s defense would be all but set for several seasons. Assuming that someone can transition to the right side effectively, their backend would be Stanley Cup calibre.

Chychrun’s contract is set to expire the same offseason as John Tavares and Mitch Marner, so they should have plenty of cap space to extend him if they so choose. He seems like he’s older than he is since this is his sixth NHL season, but he’s only one year older than Timothy Liljegren and two years older than Rasmus Sandin.

By acquiring Chychrun, the Leafs would be more comfortable trading Jake Muzzin this offseason if they believe his decline will last. Muzzin brings an element to the Leafs that the team lacks; he’s a big player with a shutdown style. Chychrun is about the same size as Muzzin, and while he’s not quite as physical, he’s consistently graded out well defensively by Evolving Hockey‘s RAPM. While they wouldn’t necessarily have to move Muzzin, they could save just over $1 million in cap space by replacing him with Chychrun.

In many ways, Chychrun’s contract would be a replacement for Morgan Rielly’s current contract. While Rielly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, his current team-friendly deal is coming to an end after this season. Having a player of Rielly’s calibre on a $5 million cap hit has been incredibly valuable for the Leafs in recent seasons, and they don’t have any clearly team-friendly contracts signed to a long-term deal.

Jack Campbell (or his replacement) will get a (potentially major) raise this offseason, Jason Spezza could retire any year, Ondrej Kase is due for a raise, and both Michael Bunting and David Kampf are free agents after next season. The Leafs could use a long-term bargain contract more than most clubs.

Here’s a look at how Chychrun compares by GAR and xGAR to Rielly, Muzzin, and Brodie over different samples:

Goals Above Replacement (GAR)

PlayerGAR/82 (4 Year)GAR/82 (3 Year)GAR/82 (Previous Two Seasons)
Morgan Rielly13.09.46.9
TJ Brodie9.38.812.2
Jake Muzzin12.013.316.9
Jakob Chychrun7.98.812.8

Expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR)

PlayerxGAR/82 (4 Year)xGAR/82 (3 Year)xGAR/82 (Previous Two Seasons)
Morgan Rielly12.35.44.8
TJ Brodie9.510.610.3
Jake Muzzin14.111.514.5
Jakob Chychrun13.215.022.5

Chychrun’s numbers look best if you exclude this season, but his numbers don’t look out of place if you take a three or four-year sample. Like Muzzin, he hasn’t lived up to his usual standard of play this year. The difference is that Muzzin is 33 with an extensive injury history, while Chychrun is 23, so a bounce-back seems far more probable. When Muzzin was Chychrun’s age, he was just breaking into the league.

Assessing the Cost

As per Jeff Marek of Sportsnet, the Coyotes are looking for a young player, a high-end prospect, plus a first-round pick. That’s a little bit vague, as a young player can be anyone from Connor McDavid to Travis Dermott. A high-end prospect could be anyone from Owen Power to your average second-round pick.

Given that it’s a bidding war, the Coyotes are simply going to take the best offer if they decide to move him. They aren’t going to turn down an offer of six first-round picks, for example. They would certainly consider an offer that didn’t include a first-rounder if the package was strong enough.

It’s not clear what the Leafs would have to give up in a deal for Chychrun. Even if they make a strong offer, a team like the Los Angeles Kings carries the picks and prospects to one-up the Leafs if they so choose. There’s a limit to what the Leafs would give up, but I do think that his age, ability, and contract makes him an ideal trade target. The Leafs would surely rather acquire a good player with four years of term instead of just one.

Topi Niemela seems like a clear fit in any Chychrun trade. The 19-year old was named the Defenseman of the Tournament at the 2021 World Junior Championships and has impressed in Finland’s pro league this season with 30 points in 44 games. He’s a smart player with strong defensive instincts, but with Rielly and Sandin in the fold, the Leafs don’t have much of a need for him on the power play. Adding Chychrun would only lower the need for another powerplay quarterback.

Niemela can kill penalties, but at 5’11”, he’s on the smaller side. There’s a real chance that he’s intelligent enough to be a good penalty killer at his size, but he’s going to have to prove himself in that regard at the NHL level. Would the Leafs be comfortable playing three young defensemen in Sandin, Liljegren, and Niemela in their lineup at the same time?

Given that Rielly is an offensive-tilted defenceman rather than a true shutdown type, it’s not a perfect fit. While I do believe that the Leafs value Niemela and see him as a promising young talent, I also think that they’d be willing to move him for a player like Chychrun who can help them win now.

Nick Robertson also seems like a potential trade target for Arizona in a Chychrun deal. The 20-year old could step into their lineup immediately and provide another scoring option behind Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz. Arizona has the worst power play in the NHL this season, and Robertson’s shot is good enough to be a main focal point on their top unit for years to come. Like Niemela, the Leafs definitely value Robertson a great deal, but it’s not clear if he’ll ever win a job on their top power-play unit given their current options.

The Coyotes will ask about Matthew Knies as part of the package for Chychrun, especially since he’s from Arizona. However, given what I’ve seen out of him this season, I’d be very hesitant to trade him. The Leafs could use some size in their lineup and his ability to win board battles and generate takeaways should translate nicely to the NHL level. I think his size, net-front scoring, and shot will make him a perfect fit next to Mitch Marner. He’s not completely off the table in a Chychrun trade, but I wouldn’t want to give up a big package in addition to him.

I put out a couple of polls on Twitter to try to gauge the price that fans would be willing to pay. First, I asked followers if they would give up Niemela, two first-round picks, and Nick Abruzzese for Chychrun. Most people thought that price was too hefty.

Next, I asked if they would give up Niemela, a first, a second, and Justin Holl for Chychrun. The most popular answer was that it was a good deal for both sides, but it’s worth noting that most of my followers are Leafs fans; as a result, the Leafs’ side of the deal tends to be overvalued a little bit in these types of polls. I think the price might end up being somewhere in the middle of those two deals, although one big offer from another team could change everything.

The market, combined with Arizona’s willingness to trade Chychrun, will determine if the price makes sense for the Leafs. However, if Chychrun looks comfortable on the right side, there’s little doubt that the fit makes a ton of sense. Expect the Leafs to have him on the top of their trade target list and pivot to players with less term only if they lose out in these sweepstakes.

What would the Leafs’ lineup look like with Chychrun?

Let’s just say that there are plenty of options. In the short-term, while you could reunite Chychrun with Lyubushkin, it’s probably a good idea to get him reps on the right side if that’s where you plan to use him come playoff time. You could pair Chychrun with Sandin for now and then shift to a Muzzin-Chychrun shutdown pairing in the playoffs. If Sandin-Chychrun is successful, you could simply keep them together and play Muzzin with one of Liljegren, Lyubushkin, or Holl.

After this season, the Leafs will have to make a decision on what to do with Jake Muzzin. He’s under contract for two more seasons at a cap hit of $5.625 million. If the Leafs don’t think he will bounce back to his old self at the age of 33, they should look to trade him and spend that cap space elsewhere. If they do think that Muzzin will bounce back, they could potentially use Chychrun as a $2.6 million upgrade over Justin Holl, but that would be tough to fit given their cap situation.

In short, trading for Chychrun makes more sense if they are ready to move on from Muzzin this offseason. While Muzzin has been excellent as a Leaf, he’ll be 34 and 35 in the playoffs during those final two years of his deal, and there are not many effective shutdown defenders in the league that age. There’s little doubt that the 2019, 2020, and 2021 versions of Muzzin were incredibly valuable to the Leafs. If the Leafs believe that Muzzin is no longer the calibre of player that he once was, they should look to acquire someone who is.

Final Thoughts

Given his ability and team-friendly contract, Chychrun will likely be the most valuable player traded ahead of this year’s deadline. They would get four playoff runs out of a player with the potential to make Team Canada in a best-on-best tournament in his prime.

In a league where clubs are trying to fit the most value into a finite amount of cap space, the Leafs could certainly use a bargain long-term deal on their books. If Chychrun looks reasonably comfortable on the right side, I see him as Toronto’s top target. However, what Toronto’s front office thinks of Muzzin is a major factor.

My top focus at the deadline is acquiring a difference-maker for a fair price. Other than before an expansion draft, you typically get more value for trading for a player with term rather than a rental, especially when you’re a team that projects to compete each and every season for the foreseeable future. I’d rather acquire a good player with two years of term rather than one; four years of term is even better.

Defense is not the only need for the Leafs at the deadline. The team’s goaltending has struggled as of late, and if Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek play poorly over the next few weeks, they may want to make a change at the position. Depending on what happens between now and the deadline, I’m not opposed to acquiring a goalie as well. However, there aren’t many quality goalies available, and prospects like Niemela and Robertson likely won’t be in those conversations.

If you do acquire a goalie, you’re probably trading Mrazek and his $3.8 million cap hit as part of that deal, so I don’t think cap space is preventing you from completing a Chychrun trade. In addition, acquiring a defender of Chychrun’s calibre likely makes life easier for your goalies, regardless of who they are.

The Leafs could also use a forward to play with Tavares and Nylander. If the Leafs do trade for Chychrun, I wouldn’t mind throwing Alex Galchenyuk in the deal as well — he fit well on that line last season and was able to produce offensively in the playoffs. In an ideal world, Galchenyuk is your 13th forward rather than your number-one option for that line, but perhaps a Chychrun deal would allow you to trade a Travis Dermott or Justin Holl for a mid-tier forward rental such as Calle Jarnkrok.