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William Nylander: Stuck between hot takes and cold hearts

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Bob McKenzie imagines a Leafs’ future with William Nylander, and I imagine one without a superstar defenceman.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Is there anything worse than the sober, moderate voice? Don’t you hate people who come along and take all the fun out of life with their reasonable positions and their sensible and pragmatic takes on things? It’s like a tepid glass of water on a hot day, or a long soak in a warm tub. It’s a partly cloudy to mostly sunny forecast, day after day.

No one does that better, er, I mean worse, than Bob McKenzie when it comes to trade talk.

He was on Leafs Lunch today with Andi Petrillo and Patrick O’Sullivan, and he poured tepid water all over the ceaseless suggestions that the Leafs should move William Nylander for that perfect young right-shooting, puck-carrying, high-scoring, shot suppressing, big, strong, tough, mobile, agile, saintly and kind defender we all know is out there.

They start the ball rolling when Petrillo asks McKenzie about a comment made by Craig Button on another show yesterday, where he said he does not think Nylander will be a Leaf in 12 months. Now that’s a hot take! That is smoking hot.

What McKenzie provided in answer were two separate ideas.

First, on Nylander and what McKenzie believes the Leafs think about him (he got a bit fanciful, but he clarified this is his opinion, not inside information):

I think that Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock ... when they envision the future of this Toronto Maple Leafs team that can compete for a Stanley Cup in the next two to five years in their minds, that they do so as they sit and dream at night about that moment when they are actually contending for the Stanley Cup, that Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander are all on the team.

He expands on that seriously, drawing on the Chicago Blackhawks experience with paying a lot of elite players all at the same time.

The other idea he explores in a thoughtful way is the nature of who is on the market, who is selling, who is buying. He says this:

The problem we run into in our game now is everybody wants there to be absolutes. So you’re a “buyer” or you’re a “seller”. This guy is “available” or he is “not available”.

And I think all of these situations are really, really fluid, and that if the right offer came along, and Kadri was the guy who had to go back the other way to make it happen, then they’d say, “Sure let’s do it.”

He’s using Nazem Kadri as the example because O’Sullivan asked about him.

To his first point, I think that’s bang on. To his second point, can I get an amen?

I’ve written more than my fair share of stories asking the question, “Should the Leafs trade this guy?” One of those stories ended up on reality TV. And I like doing them, they’re fun, and it’s an opportunity to look at a question from more than one side, to check my own assumptions and biases.

Very often the answer is from readers, “For the right deal, yeah.” And, well, yeah. That’s nearly always the answer. There are very few genuinely untouchable players in the NHL today. You cannot get the Pittsburgh Penguins to trade you Sidney Crosby. The Capitals are keeping Alex Ovechkin, thanks. And Connor McDavid is not going to be repatriated to his homeland, no matter how many fantasy scenarios are invented daily to make it seem plausible.

For the Leafs to have three players who meet or nearly meet that criteria now is outstanding. Truly outstanding. Is that something you want to break apart for any reason?

But the holes on the team are very visible. Some days more than others. To get, you’ve got to give. If you have the time, the full Leafs Lunch conversation with McKenzie also includes a discussion about defenders they might want that could be had for the right deal. Not surprisingly, this conversations turned to Anaheim, and their surplus.

Filling the holes on the Leafs defence is something a lot of fans think can only be done by pasting a single star onto the D corps so big he covers all of their sins. They want a big, exciting, name guy. And as McKenzie talks about in his longer discussion on finding defenders, sometimes they just aren’t there.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The need for a star defender on a competitive team seems axiomatic. Build from the nets out is nice and pithy and maybe is true.

But is it as true when the rarest commodity is defenders?

I watched two Orlando Solar Bears games, my first ECHL games, so naturally I’m an expert! I’m not of course, but one thing I did see clearly was that the difference between the ECHL and the AHL starts in the net and moves to the defence first. The Solar Bears have five or six forwards who could play AHL games on any given night. The Marlies right now have some of them filling in for injured players. Is there a defender on the Solar Bears that could make the jump as effectively? Not with Nikolas Brouillard out with a serious injury, there isn’t.

And is there in turn a defender on the Marlies who you could play in the NHL tomorrow if you had to? Andrew Campbell if you need a low minute third pair guy for very few games. Rinat Valiev is out with an injury, so he doesn’t count. And then the well has run dry.

Not every team is this light on depth, but most of them want defenders. Given that rarity drives up cost, isn’t now the right time to look at the defence by committee approach McKenzie talks about with Petrillo and O’Sullivan?

The core is Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev. Connor Carrick and Martin Marincin are NHL defenders, but they aren’t top four. (Consider this an admission that I was wrong, oh, so very wrong about Marincin in the T25U25.) They need someone else to add in there, but to believe that that someone must be better than all three of those guys seems star struck, not wise.

I think the Leafs shouldn’t even be looking for this unicorn. They should be looking for someone who can become a top four with the right set of strengths and weaknesses to balance the three imperfect defenders they have now. Imagine a long, tortured metaphor about a team of horses all pulling together.

I don’t think trying to swap a forward of Nylander’s quality for a defender to fit a win-now scenario is prudent. I do think swapping a forward or two of the level below Nylander for a prospect with the right skill set and real potential is a much better idea. A really fantastic idea would be to get two.

As for where to look, the team the Leafs keep kindly helping with their goaltending issues, to the point of perhaps overpaying them for one and handing them a very, very good AHL starter for free, is the team I’d look at for likely suspects. The fact that’s the same team with the surplus is surely a happy coincidence.