It’s not too early to talk about trades in the NHL, as Jake Muzzin (acquired in late January) and Jack Campbell (acquired in early February) can attest. And it’s already started up, with the standard line on the Leafs being: they haven’t got the assets or cap space to make moves, they’ll stand pat on what they have.
Stand Pat Theory
It is entirely possible that Kyle Dubas does nothing between now and the deadline. That very conservative approach could be exactly what the Leafs want to do rather than a position the salary cap is forcing them into. They currently have too many players in a very real sense, and will likely just bounce Timothy Liljegren and Nick Ritchie up and down to solve the problem of everyone getting healthy at once. It’s unlikely everyone will stay healthy at once, and space will open up to recall whoever is off the roster quickly. We’ve already seen the first example of this.
Doing nothing leaves the Leafs with depth at all positions, particularly in goal, and with the only weakness being the top four on defence. That kind of depth is what traditional deadline moves are meant to accomplish — get an extra goalie, a forward and a depth defender. The Leafs are already there.
It’s highly unlikely, no matter the assets on hand, that the Leafs could get a top-four defender as a rental. Or that they’d want to. They could pay the double retention price for the last bit of P.K. Subban’s big contract, but that seems... unwise. Rumours of his decline are a little exaggerated, but even at half of half of $9 million and prorated, it’s a lot to pay for a guy who used to be someone special. The Nick Foligno trade might have taught that lesson too well last year.
It’s a risky proposition, however, deciding that what Dubas has done in the past is exactly what he will do always in the future. That way lies looking up all the Los Angeles Kings whose names start with J and picking the next trade target. Dubas may do the very conservative thing and juggle his over-filled roster until the playoffs. He may, instead look to shore up that defence like he did with the Muzzin trade.
Early Trade Theory
The cap space is actually easy to find to add someone on defence who isn’t a rental. All it requires is a choice to do without the depth up front and move out one or two of those surplus forwards as well as a defender. That creates enough space for a modest-sized (prorated, remember) salary. Modest is the key word here. Hampus Lindholm is likely out of reach without a major weakening of the forward ranks.
Jacob Chychrun, the fantasy acquisition to beat all else out there right now, likely is unattainable at only $4.6 million AAV because Arizona will want an asset haul for him. They’d start with Matt Knies and work their way up to realizing Leafs’ first-round picks are not very good. Chychrun’s salary is possible to fit on the Leafs’ roster with some effort that might even be worth it, but I don’t see a deal as possible there no matter how much it would be nice to get a really good, young defender.
There’s some names out there that will attract attention. John Klingberg in Dallas, David Savard floundering badly in Montréal, everyone older on the Ducks, Colin Miller on the Sabres. But an old name might be more what the Leafs need. Adam Larsson, wiling away the season on a Seattle team that is underperforming expectations might be available. Larsson is paid a modest $4 million for three more years after this one, and he’s 29, Muzzin’s age at acquisition.
What Do the Leafs Actually Need?
Before we get shopping too hard on any defender of any kind, a look at the shape of the hole to be filled is in order. The Leafs have questionable defence because there are questions still unanswered, but some facts are clear:
- Morgan Rielly is locked up into his dotage and is not likely to get better defensively. He is a top PP threat.
- Rasmus Sandin is easily the number two PP guy, the Leafs don’t need another.
- TJ Brodie is the defence right now.
- Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren, at the moment, are “six of one, half-dozen of the other” third-pairing players. No one expects Dermott to be more anymore.
- Justin Holl peaked at 27.
- Topi Niemelä is years away.
The unclear things are:
- What’s up with Jake?
- Will Liljegren improve a little, a lot, when? Can he be Brodie-lite?
- Is Sandin ready for a bigger role yet?
Most choices out there are left-shooting defenders, which is not the first concern, but it will become an issue if most of the defenders shoot left. Every famous name is a guy who plays on the power play, the one thing the Leafs don’t need. Getting Tyson Barrie and demoting Morgan Rielly to power play two to make Barrie feel useful was possibly the most frustrating cycle of doubling down on a bad bet by Dubas and Sheldon Keefe until they did the same thing with Joe Thornton. Let’s not do it a third time.
Klingberg is a power play defender. Chychrun is at least a second unit guy, and is likely a better fit on the Leafs. Larsson is a PK guy who has seven minutes of power-play time in the last three years. He’s a righty as well. These are, after all, the reasons we’ve been talking about him for years.
Which leaves me with this: Are the Leafs minus Holl and Dermott plus Larsson better or just the same with a different lineup?
Is Larsson’s term deal at low salary interesting enough to make that move now?
Larsson’s results have always shown him to be a bit like Brodie — very good defensively, with nothing offensive to speak of. And like Brodie, there are valid questions to ask about those results. Brodie’s mystery was all about what was him and what was Giordano. Larsson’s mystery is more, what is him, and what is the fact that every single other player on his team (prior to this year) was horrible, bad or dreadful defensively. Was he showing up better from the comparison? Judging players by their results on the Oilers or Devils is a very difficult task, fraught with pitfalls.
The Man Blocking the Door
This might very well be an entirely moot discussion. You can get lost in the weeds of analysing which player is better than the others, laughing over the people on TV who will endlessly talk about Ben Chiarot, and fantasizing about how good these players would have been on the Leafs five years ago.
It is relatively easy to make cap space this season, but next year, with questions about how fast revenue will rebound and the cap will go up? Ask this guy if it’s going to work:
Hey... who is that host there?