The Toronto Maple Leafs have made the precursor transaction to their first splash of unrestricted free agency, acquiring the rights to Chris Tanev from Dallas. 

Per the club’s official report, the Leafs are giving up a 2026 seventh-round pick and the rights to AHL forward Max Ellis in exchange for the rights to the pending UFA defenseman.

This return, while technically something, is largely nothing. The Leafs expect to be a playoff team in 2026, so that seventh-rounder will come near the back of the draft, with an expected analytical value of almost 0, per Dom Luszczyszyn’s draft pick value chart from 2020.

As for Ellis, he is a 24-year-old minor league forward who played at Notre Dame and whose NCAA career amounted to essentially a half of one good season before signing with the Marlies in 2022. In two AHL seasons, Ellis has scored just 14 goals and 34 points in 85 total games. While it’s possible that Ellis could later bloom into something (Bobby McMann shows you can’t be totally sure), it is unlikely that he will ever mature into an NHLer at this age and level of production. 

In exchange for this paltry package, the Leafs acquire the rights / exclusive negotiating window to sign Chris Tanev before anyone else can on Monday. The Leafs want to get Tanev signed, and they seem to want to go long-term:

Of course, it sounds a bit unusual to go long-term on a player who will turn 35 in December. However, the Leafs are likely operating under the assumption that Tanev will not play out the duration of the contract as a declining and unplayable defenseman but rather will get injured and eventually land on LTIR, as Jake Muzzin did. Tanev’s physical and defensive style has led him to injury issues in the past, so it is not at all unreasonable to believe.

When a player lands on LTIR, the team can apply for relief up to the full amount of the injured player’s cap allotment, so if you have an owner who is fine paying extra money to players who no longer play for the team, it’s a convenient way to avoid salary cap trouble. The Maple Leafs, as one of the league’s most wealthy teams, have no issue with this nor a lack of experience; they spent exorbitant amounts to Muzzin, Matt Murray, and John Klingberg this past season, all of whom spent the majority or the entirety of the year on LTIR.

One could say that this is a cap evasion tactic, a milder version of when the Devils attempted to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17-year contract with New Jersey back in 2010 when he was already 27 years old. The NHL stripped New Jersey of a first-draft pick, although they later restored it and simply fined the franchise. But that seems unlikely to happen here until changes come to the CBA in 2026, as the Leafs are not the only franchise doing this. Pierre LeBrun reported that the Tampa Bay Lightning are offering Steven Stamkos an eight-year contract, and Stamkos is the exact same age as Tanev, so this tactic of going long on mid-30s players to keep the hit down, knowing the latter years may be on LTIR, is the style of the moment.

So long as you can get away with it, it makes a lot of sense. Chris Tanev is a good defenseman who will massively help the Maple Leafs for as many years as he has left in the tank. He is an elite defensive defenseman, a right-shot one whose hard-nosed, defensive playing style perfectly complements Morgan Rielly on paper — unquestionably, he would become Rielly’s best-ever partner in the NHL. Tanev played such a role next to Quinn Hughes during the star’s rookie season in Vancouver and could, health-willing, fill that role with great success in Toronto. Tanev made a massive impact in Dallas during the Stars’ playoff run, suppressing chances against and neutering elite opposing players. He’s a great defender, and while he doesn’t add a ton in the way of offense, he’s a very active defenseman who helps his team get the puck out of the defensive zone with possession.

Tanev is also a Toronto native, so if the Leafs can get the signing done, it will be something of a homecoming for the player. There also were few defensemen with a better fit for the Leafs than Tanev. He fills a need next to Rielly perfectly, kills penalties, plays top competition, and age is the only asterisk.

It feels like many in the hockey world have been predicting Tanev’s imminent decline since he signed his last deal in Calgary four whole years ago. It still has yet to happen, but the recent past doesn’t necessarily predict the future. There’s risk involved for Toronto, particularly for a player with some real injury history. But if you’re fine with only getting two or three good years out of Tanev and then stashing him on LTIR, it’s hard to complain about this transaction. We will see what the final terms are when/if they are announced.