UPDATE: The trade has happened. All the details are here.
With the current cap situation on the Maple Leafs, after the Zaitsev trade, they have enough room to sign Mitch Marner, have Cody Ceci accept his qualifying offer of $4.3 million and add another minimum salary player at best.
There is no room there for an upgrade on defence because the Leafs were unable, or unwilling, to move out Zaitsev without taking back a nearly equivalent salary for this year. The reality is, the cost might have been too high to have avoided this outcome, and they need someone to play defence..
That leaves the Leafs with one option to actually add a player of note that doesn’t involve a trade of one of their younger stars: moving Nazem Kadri. He is the only asset the Leafs have, that they would be willing to trade, that will get them a player in return who is a true top four defender.
The Leafs have had a ton of calls on Kadri the last 2-3 weeks, especially at the draft in Vancouver. I don’t get the sense they are shopping him, more listening to teams. Happy to keep him if nobody forced their hand with a trade they can’t refuse. https://t.co/fmTtPXYVVW— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) July 1, 2019
What to make of that, then? There are few centres in free agency today, and there are a lot of teams that want to beef up their centre depth to compete. The Leafs will be adding Jason Spezza and Nick Shore as depth centre options, and Spezza, at least, could pinch hit on a re-imagined third line if he had to, so it’s obviously technically possible that if someone came along and offered a defender with some term and a cap hit in Kadri’s range that they’d be tempted.
As discussed here, Kadri didn’t have a high impact last season, and he could be seen as the next most inefficient use of cap space on the team after everyone Kyle Dubas has already traded away:
When you add in his age and his good contract, given the market right now, he’s a good bargain because centres are so hard to find and would be a second-line player on a lot of teams. That is exactly the sort of player a team can trade for a very good return. The Leafs are in the tough position, however, because their most valuable trade chip is the hardest player to replace with even a good enough substitute.
To make this worth it, the Leafs would need to be getting exactly the right defender, with some term on his contract, some years left in the gas tank, and he’d need to be a stylistic fit for the team.
I’m sure they are listening, but what are the chances they hear anything good enough to make them cut a deal?