Kyle Dubas, Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager

In a ‘Leafs off-day’ edition of the Leafs Links, the insiders discuss whether the Maple Leafs’ biggest trade priority is a forward or defenseman in the next few months before the deadline, Nick Robertson’s future in Toronto, and whether the Leafs are keeping a spot open for Matthew Knies at the end of the NCAA season.

Friedman: “I believe the Leafs will say their first option is a D with an edge, and the Matthew Knies thing is important — they want Knies to play for them” (JD Bunkis Podcast)

On the JD Bunkis Podcast, Elliotte Friedman discussed the Leafs‘ trade priorities, why they may still pursue a defenseman first at the deadline, the Leafs‘ desire to keep a spot open for Matthew Knies, and whether Kyle Dubas could be taking calls on Nick Robertson.

Friedman on why defense could still be the Leafs‘ top priority even with their impressive defensive play despite injuries on the blue line:

I think they are going to try to add the best defenseman that they come. I think the Muzzin thing has really thrown a wrench into all of that. I think they have bought themselves some time by playing really well, all things considered. A month ago, everyone was getting fired, tossed out of town, and tar and feathered. Things have changed.

They have played really hard considering all the injuries on blue line and in goal. A lot of players have raised their games. Sandin and Liljegren have taken a bit of a step that they hoped those guys could take. I think it has bought them some time to kind of consider what is out there.

I heard, for example, that they were interested in Timmins, and they traded for him. I heard they made a call about Frank Vatrano from Anaheim, but I don’t think they can do that. I don’t think it is going to fit.

I started to ask around: What is the biggest fit? What are they going to do? And I think they are going to let the blue line play out. They have a limited number of assets they can trade. They only have four picks this year, and one of them Arizona has an option on. They have some good prospects, but I think they are looking at it and saying, “We want to make sure we like what we have on the blue line before we move our best assets.”

I think Muzzin and what he brings has left them a bit of a hole. I am a big believer that the NHL has two leagues: the regular season league, and the playoff league. The regular-season league is fun — there are a lot of goals getting scored — but in the playoffs, it changes. To me, it is not just the refereeing that changes, but it is also the players that change. They will do things in the playoffs they won’t do in the regular season because you can’t play the regular season with the same intensity and level of anger that you play with in the playoffs.

I think that is what they will do: They will say their first option is a D, and the Matthew Knies thing is important. They want Knies to play for them. If he doesn’t think he has a path, there is less of a chance of him playing with them, and he is a left-hand shot.

Friedman on the gamble of keeping a spot open for Matthews Knies in an all-in season for the team vs. addressing the need with a proven player at the deadline:

It is an all-in year, but you also have to take care of your prospects. Knies is a steal of a pick for them in terms of what they identified and what they got. He is a guy who had a down year in his draft year, and Toronto didn’t have a first-round pick that year. They took a chance, and it looks like it has a chance to be an upper-deck home run.

You have to take care of that. You have to make sure he plays for you, even if — for whatever reason — Dubas wasn’t to come back next year. It is a feather in his cap that his staff convinced him to do that and he backed his staff on that pick.

You want to win, but you also have to make sure that guy is a player who performs for your organization. You have to keep that in mind.

Friedman on what direction the Leafs may take with the Jake Muzzin contract:

I think it depends. I don’t think he plays this year, but I don’t know beyond that. We will see where we go there. That is one thing.

The second thing: What does Toronto want to do? Do they want to keep it on their books? Do they want to move it somewhere else? I think the number-one thing is that they are going to be respectful of Muzzin and what he thinks his situation is. I think that is likely something that gets punted until Muzzin has made some kind of declaration or answer about his future.

He is still around. He is very important to Marner, who is on an unbelievable stretch of hockey right now. I think they consider it very valuable, whether he is in the lineup or not. I think that is a factor in all of this, too.

Friedman on the type of defenseman the Leafs might pursue:

I think they’d like somebody with an edge. The best defenseman is what they’ll try to do, I think, but I think there is a preference that it is someone with a bit of an edge.

One of the guys that they saw firsthand in the bubble was Vladislav Gavrikov. I wonder if he is very high up on their list.

Handedness is going to be a factor, too, but I think they would like someone with a bit of nastiness to them. The playoffs are a nasty place. A lot of the teams that win — Tampa has a lot of skill, but they are mean. Colorado has a lot of skill, but they are mean. You have to be both in this league.

Friedman on whether another defense addition could affect Ramus Sandin’s situation:

When Sandin was unsigned into camp this year, I asked around a lot. As far back as the draft, I knew this was going to be a problem. Sandin felt he was worried that there just wasn’t going to be an opportunity for him this year.

One of the things the Leafs were trying to sell Sandin on — and Liljegren, but it was more Sandin — is that if you look at their salary chart, the only guy signed after this year is Morgan Rielly. And I am not counting Muzzin right now. It’s really just Rielly.

I think they were trying to say to him: There are a lot of holes on this blue line going forward in terms of who we have signed and who we don’t have signed. They did not want to trade Sandin or Liljegren for that reason.

With the way they are playing this year, I don’t think they are looking to move either of those guys. The guy who they have been kind of trying to move is Holl, which has been going on for a year. I think he has done a really nice job in the last couple of weeks, and I am happy for him.

I don’t know if they have ever really tried to trade Sandin. When they traded for Muzzin, Liljegren was potentially in that deal, but the Kings were not fans. I don’t get the sense they want to move him now. He is playing well.

In a year where you’ve got to win, you’ve got to be pretty ruthless… If you still look at the overall situation and you say, “I don’t like our mix,” you make your change and you deal with the problems as they occur.

Friedman on whether the Leafs are taking calls on Nick Robertson:

They have to know the kid is not happy. I want to be careful with this. There is a difference between being unhappy and being selfish. There are people who would look at this and say, “The kid is being selfish because they are doing really well, and he is not happy with his ice time.” I think there is a difference.

He is not going public. He is not complaining. I guarantee you that every day he has reporters going up to him and asking, “How are you doing?” I am sure reporters are reaching out to his people asking, “Are you unhappy here?” They have kept quiet.

He wants to play. He wants to play hockey. I think Toronto knows that you are getting to a point here. They haven’t sent him back to the AHL. To me, there is a reason, and that reason is they realize that while playing is good, he is at the point where it is not really helping him anymore.

I think we are getting to a point where, if they can’t find a spot for him, they know it’s probably time for him to go somewhere else. But it is not the time to bitch about that when the team is going really good. It is also a situation where, at times, you have to keep your mouth shut and let things work out organically. This is one of those times for him.

Friedman on whether depth scoring should be more of a concern for the Leafs than defense given the playoff history:

I do think at times they have been pushed around. Some of their playoff defeats over the years you could say it was the goaltending. For some of them, you could say it was the lack of depth scoring. I think it is something they are acutely aware of.

But I think a lot of the time, as these series got deeper and those games got more and more meaningful, they lost battles that they had to win. The playoffs are a different animal.

They have a limited amount of capital they can move, and they don’t have a lot of cap room. They have prioritize. Maybe that will change, and I think they would like a left shot [up front]. They are going to try everybody out here. That is why they even gave Järnkork the look up there.

I think they would like a left shot, but as it stands right now, they are waiting to see what they decide on the blue line first as their first priority.

Yzerman: Maple Leafs are one of the most active, motion-heavy teams in the offensive zone (NBC)

At the intermission of last night’s Detroit vs. Buffalo game, Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman was asked about the number of leads teams have surrendered across the league this season and why it’s been challenging to keep goals against down defensively.

I wouldn’t say I have a real scientific answer, but I think the league in general is in a real transition. You have a lot of teams playing a lot of puck possession with a lot of motion.

If you watch Toronto — we just played them the other night — they might be one of the best at it. In the offensive zone, they are very active. Their D are very active in the offense.

With the bigger end zones, teams are having trouble defending and figuring out a way of defending. It used to be that when we played, it was pretty simple: three-on-three down low, and wingers cover the points. Now, with these D so active and having a lot of room, you are having a lot of switches. Teams defend with overloads in the corners, which creates confusion when the offensive team breaks the puck out of the corner.

The game is in transition. The offensive side of coaching has overtaken the defensive side. Coaches and teams are going to have to adjust to come up with better defensive techniques or systems to defend a little bit.

Really, now with 32 teams, with goaltending and the depth of it right now, throughout the league we are all looking for strength in goaltending. Whether it is through the draft or through free agency, everybody is trying to improve. It is a tough time to defend and a tough time to be in goal with the way the game is played.

Johnston: “Handicapping it, it’s likely the Leafs are going to add a defenseman” (TSN1050)

On TSN Overdrive, Chris Johnston discussed whether the Leafs could add a defenseman and if they would like to make a move sooner rather than later.

I think they’d make the move sooner if they could, but I just don’t know if it is going to be out there for them. Really, the only defenseman of serious consequence that could be had in a trade today is Jakub Chychrun, and there is a huge price tag attached to him. I have no knowledge of the Leafs being one of the teams super interested there.

The reality is that the trades tend to happen in the two months leading up to the deadline. Handicapping it, it is likely they are going to add a defenseman. With Sandin and Liljegren, they are going to need to see more than they have to this point, but it has trended in a pretty good direction. If those guys can play, neither was really a factor in last year’s playoff series, right? Sandin was scratched for all of the games, and Liljegren only played in two of them.

They still have Giordano here, and they are not going to have Muzzin. I still think there is probably an upgrade there, but there is also a discussion to be had about what upgrades could be had at forward. There is only so much cap space to go around to make those kinds of moves.

Petrielli: There is already a long list of names that have had career years playing with Marner (JD Bunkis Podcast)

MLHS’ Anthony Petrielli joined the JD Bunks Podcast to discuss the Maple Leafs’ recent hot streak and Marner’s incredible month of November.

In terms of the team’s best player, it is obviously Marner right now. There is nothing to discuss. He is on a massive heater at the moment and is one of the best players in the league right now. Who is better right now? Jason Robertson is on a huge points streak and leads the league in goals, so you can probably name him.

He drives the bus. We probably don’t give it enough credit, but as a thought exercise: Who has had a career year playing with Mitch Marner so far? Auston Matthews had 60 last year. John Tavares had the 47-goal season. Tyler Bozak had more points with Mitch Marner than he ever did with Phil. JVR had the 34-goal season with Mitch. There is Michael Bunting if you want to count him last year.

Guys play with Mitch, and they have career years. Who do you want to go and be really productive with? It is Marner.