Kyle Dubas continued to wheel and deal on Tuesday afternoon, recouping a (very late) first-round pick in 2023 (via Boston) and adding veteran defenseman Erik Gustafsson from Washington in exchange for Rasmus Sandin.

A 30-year-old left-hander, Gustafsson is a highly mobile, puck-moving defenseman with a heavy shot who is currently top 20 in the NHL in points among defensemen with 38 in 61 games and is 12th among NHL defensemen in five-on-five points with 23 in 61 games.

Playing over 20 minutes a night, Gustafsson has paired off effectively with a steady defensive presence in Trevor van Riemsdyk to his right this season. The duo produced excellent results during a tough season for the Capitals, hovering in the 54% range in expected goals and outscoring opponents by eight at even strength.

After an injury to John Carlson just before Christmas, Gustafsson jumped up to second in the ice-time rankings among Caps defensemen, a group he’s led in scoring in Carlson’s absence with 22 points in 27 games, with 15 of those points coming at even strength.

Gustafsson’s career trajectory has been an up-and-down and sort-of-strange one. He once produced a 17-goal, 60-point season with the Blackhawks in 2018-19. His numbers cooled off substantially the following season before he was traded to the Flames just before the COVID-19 shutdown, after which he appeared in 10 of their 12 playoff games in the bubble.

Gustafsson then signed in Philly, was traded after 24 games amidst a tough season for the Flyers, and was then moved to the Canadiens, for whom he appeared in 16 playoff games as they beat the Leafs in the first round and advanced to the Cup final.

The 30-year-old Swede signed back with the Blackhawks and wasn’t able to rediscover his magic in Chicago from 2018-19 before signing a one-year, $800,000 deal last summer with Washington, where he’s racked up an impressive seven goals and 38 points in 61 games.

The Why

We didn’t need this move to know Kyle Dubas is fully going for it this season, but this might be his most unforeseen move of the many trades he’s executed in the past week and a half. It’s also definitely his most controversial one.

Rasmus Sandin was seen as a significant part of the future of the Leafs‘ blue line — he was described as such by Dubas during contract negotiations last summer — and has shown signs of growth and promise as a skilled puck-moving defenseman, albeit he is undersized and at times has been exposed against heavy forechecks. He was in tough to play top-unit PP minutes at any time during his Leaf career with Morgan Rielly on the roster, he doesn’t penalty kill (so far), and he was not suited for a shutdown role inside the top four at this time.  This dynamic is similar to the one that led the Leafs to trade Travis Dermott to Vancouver at last year’s deadline after the addition of Mark Giordano.

That said, the development curve is rarely a straight line upward for young defensemen who have just 140 games of experience in the NHL, and the 2018 first-round pick’s potential to give the Leafs quality, cost-controlled service over the next several years and possibly grow into a top-four role is noteworthy.

We know Sandin was concerned about his ice-time opportunity in the summer when he hesitated to sign with the team, and he was now relegated to the team’s #7 with the addition of Jake McCabe yesterday (not to mention the addition of Luke Schenn today).  He also earns $1.4 million to Gustafsson’s $800k, with Gustafsson’s contract set to expire as a UFA this summer, so this helps the Leafs become cap compliant when Matt Murray is ready to return from LTIR (in addition to the Pierre Engvall trade). By subtracting Engvall and Sandin — who make around $3.6 million total — while adding Gustafsson at 800k and Schenn at 850k, the Leafs should be in the clear to activate Murray off of LTIR (although there may well be more to come).

Gustafsson is a veteran defenseman with experience filling an in-and-out-the-lineup, 6/7 role for teams during playoff runs and giving them decent shifts on an as-needed basis.

Part of the Leafs’ secondary scoring issue that has maybe gone a little under-discussed in the talk about the Leafs’ lack of bottom-six scoring in the past is that the Leafs do not receive much production from their defense core outside of Morgan Rielly. We can probably assume Gustafsson will only play secondary power-play minutes while in the lineup, although we have seen Sheldon Keefe be willing to ask Morgan Rielly to take a secondary role there before (it seems doubtful he would in this case). But Gustafsson has a respectable track record as a highly-productive five-on-five defender with his mobility, puck-moving skills, and heavy shot.

So far, Dubas has added Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Jake McCabe, Sam Lafferty, Erik Gustafsson, and Luke Schenn while moving out two roster players in Rasmus Sandin and Pierre Engvall plus a tweener in Joey Anderson. He’s effectively kept a first-round pick in 2023 and all of the team’s top prospects, including Matthew Knies.