I know, you know, we all know the Leafs need to try and improve their core of NHL defensemen. Rielly and Muzzin are good. Sandin and Dermott are nice. Holl and Lehtonen are varying degrees of (maybe?) okay.

The problem is that we don’t have a good option to play with Morgan Rielly. Holl is acceptable as a partner for Muzzin for now, but on a real contender may be better served as a third pairing guy. Lehtonen may be good but we have no idea how good. Dermott has yet to really take a big step forward like we hoped he could, and we’re still waiting to see how good Sandin will be in the NHL too.

But this Leafs’ team also wants to get out of the first round for once. It would be nice to have a defense group that’s better than okay, just okay. The Leafs have already seemingly taken a step towards being able to make a signing or swing a trade when they dealt Kapanen to Pittsburgh. There are other players on the roster that are heavily rumoured to being shopped, or at least made available in trades.

By now, you’ve all likely browsed CapFriendly’s free agents page to know what defense, maybe even just right-handed defensemen, are available and decided who you want the Leafs to sign. Alex Pietrangelo, Dylan DeMelo, Radko Gudas, Sami Vatanen, TJ Brodie, Mark Pysyk are names I’ve heard mentioned a lot. The problem with UFAs is that they’re generally older, and more expensive on the free agent market. It’s hard to get an underrated defenseman who can have a big impact as, say, Morgan Rielly’s partner through free agency. What you can usually find there are good bargain deals as a third pairing, or acceptable second pairing guy.

So what defensemen are out there, still under contract on other teams (including RFAs), that the Leafs can trade for? Who might be available in a trade that is some mix of young, good, and on an affordable contract the Leafs can fit under their cap?

New York Islanders

The New York Islanders, with a fully healthy defense group, are currently in the playoffs and ran these pairings in their most recent game:

Pelech — Pulock

Toews — Mayfield

Leddy — Greene

Their extras are Johnny Boychuk (RD), Thomas Hickey (LD), and Noah Dobson (RD). As far as prospects who are close to the NHL, they also have Bode Wilde (RD) and Sebastian Aho (LD) who were on their AHL team.

  • UFAs: Andy Greene, Derrick Brassard, Matt Martin, Tom Kuhnackl.
  • RFAs: Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews, Sebastian Aho (the other one) who is also eligible for arbitration.
  • Prospects in the AHL: Bode Wilde, Sebastian Aho/

According to CapFriendly, they will have $8,119,167 of cap space to work with to re-sign (or replace) all of the above free agents. Stop me if you’ve heard this song before, but if there’s a team that is particularly vulnerable to an offer sheet this off-season it will be the Isles. Having just over $8 million to re-sign their 1C, 1RD, and 2LD seems like... a lot. Especially since they still have to also replace any of the UFA’s or RFA’s that they don’t want to keep. They have some obvious candidates to shed to clear more cap space in Andrew Ladd and Johnny Boychuk.

Boychuck carries a $6 million cap hit for another two seasons. Andrew Ladd carries a $5.5 million cap hit for another three seasons. The problem is, they both have big cap hits for multiple seasons and aren’t good enough to be on their playoff roster. The Isles were reportedly close to trading Ladd at the past deadline, but it involved taking back Zach Parise... not exactly a deal that clears cap space. Boychuk’s deal at least has signing bonuses and has a lower total salary than his cap hit starting next season, but Ladd... woof.

The pipe dream for the Leafs would be getting Ryan Pulock, of course. But between him and Barzal, the Islanders are likely to move heaven and earth to clear the cap space they need in order to re-sign those two. Of the two, Pulock is the Isles distilled into a player as an underrated defensive defenseman — I don’t think he’s going anywhere.

The Leafs could also find a way to pry Noah Dobson or Bode Wilde from the Isles. Both are younger right shot defense, and Dobson even got his first taste of the NHL this year. Considering they’re both cheap (ELCs), the Leafs would likely have to take on one of the Isles’ excess contracts (like Thomas Hickey — $2.5 million cap hit for another two seasons) to pry either of them away.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes finished their season running the following defense pairings:

Slavin — Hamilton

Skjei — Vatanen

Gardiner — Fleury

Their extras were Joel Edmundson (rights traded to Montreal) and Trevor van Riemsdyk, and they had Brett Pesce on LTIR.

  • UFAs: Edmundson, Vatanen, van Riemsdyk, Williams.
  • RFAs: Fleury, Foegele.
  • Prospects in the AHL: Jake Bean, Joey Keane./

According to CapFriendly, they have $9,149,334 of cap space and only 16 guys with contracts, so they will need to re-sign or replace a lot of free agents. None of them are particularly important for their roster, except their two RFAs. But when Pesce returns from his injury, they will have five NHL defensemen making more than $4 million. They also have two pretty good defense prospects in the AHL right now, who are blocked by one of the better defense groups in the NHL.

The Hurricanes’ biggest need, as usual, is at forward. Their position of strength is, as usual, their glut of defensemen. They might also be one of the teams who have had financial restrictions in the past that could be exacerbated by the pandemic — they have let various team staff go (like Rick Dudley, now with Florida) and furloughed employees from their business-related departments. But they’ve also not made any furloughs or pay cuts for their hockey ops staff. So it’s hard to know for sure how much, if at all, that ownership is hurting financially.

The Leafs and Hurricanes have been linked in trade discussions for a while. The Hurricanes front office are very smart, and aren’t in the business of losing a trade. But they have needs and a glut that seems to match up with our needs and our... well, not as much of a glut but a position we are more willing to trade from.

I don’t know how willing they are to part with Pesce, or how willing we should be to acquire him considering he is still recovering from a pretty significant injury. If he can return to his previous form he’s on a nice contract for many years, is still relatively young, and is exactly the kind of RD we need. But those are all reasons why Carolina aren’t going to trade him lightly, and why they used the Kyle Dubas trick of asking for the moon for him.

Their other issue will be the expansion draft. They’re going to have a lot of defensemen they will likely not want to lose for nothing, and only so many defensemen or total skaters to protect... even if they let Dougie Hamilton walk in free agency. Speaking of Hamilton, next off-season he’ll be a 28 year old UFA, top-tier right handed defenseman. He’ll be worth a pretty penny on the free market, and I don’t know if Carolina is going to really try and re-sign him as a result of their cap and finances. However, you can be sure that if he gets close to testing free agency he’ll be next year’s Alex Pietrangelo but ratcheted up to eleven: local boy, right shot defense, only 28, part of the Kessel trade, etc.

So Pesce may be the pipe dream option, but just like with the Islanders there might be a more realistic trade involving one of their younger guys like Fleury or Bean. It would require us to take on one of their poorer contracts, but theirs aren’t nearly as bad as some of the Isles’ contracts.

Nashville Predators

The Nashville Predators, with a fully healthy defense group, are currently in the playoffs and ran these pairings in their most recent game:

Josi — Ellis

Ekholm — Fabbro

Tinordi — Weber (the other one)

Their extras were Korbinian Holzer and Dan Hamhuis, who already announced he is retiring.

  • UFAs: Holzer, Hamhuis, Weber, Mikael Granlund, Craig Smith, Colin Blackwell.
  • RFAs: none.
  • Prospects in the AHL: Frederic Allard, Alexandre Carrier./

Nashville are in a weird place. They likely still want to fight to stay competitive before their window is well and truly closed, but that window seems like it’s shutting soon. They have a few interesting prospects at forward, but none seem close to the NHL which is where they need the help. They also have two pretty important UFAs there in Granlund and Smith.

The two defensemen I would love are Ryan Ellis or Dante Fabbro, but they also happen to be their #1 and #2 options at right defense. Fabbro is a former top prospect who struggled in his rookie season, so you just hope the Preds might sell low on him if we can also help them at forward. I doubt it, since I don’t think the Leafs have something to give back to them that would dramatically help their attempt to contend that would entice them to deal Fabbro. I’m more interested in trying to get their 11th overall pick, but that won't help the Leafs' NHL defense.

Calgary Flames

The Flames recently finished their season running the following defense pairings:

Giordano — Brodie

Hanifin — Andersson

Forbort — Gustafsson

Their extras were Travis Hamonic (opted out), Oliver Kylington, and Michael Stone. They have Juuso Valimaki on LTIR.

  • UFAs: Tobias Rieder, Zac Rinaldo, TJ Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Derek Forbort, Erik Gustafsson, Michael Stone, Cam Talbot.
  • RFAs: Mark Jankowski, Andrew Mangiapane, Oliver Kylington.
  • Prospects in the AHL: ???/

The Flames are in a similar situation as the Flyers. They only have 13 roster players under contract, but they have just under $17 million in cap space to work with. Unlike the Flyers, their defense core is a mix of old and young, and they have five of their current defensement on the NHL roster as pending UFAs. There is one easy replacement for them in Oliver Kylington, who has a mix of NHL experience the last two seasons, and is only 23. He is an RFA but isn’t likely going to get much on his contract.

Their wild card is Juuso Valimaki, who was drafted one spot ahead of the Leafs when we picked Liljegren in 2017. He was breaking into the NHL last season when he suffered a terrible knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for all of this season — including the summer playoffs. They could re-sign Brodie, if he wants to return, and have a pretty strong defense group made up if Giordano, Brodie, Hanifin, Andersson, Valimaki and Kylington. They could all be locked up for pretty long and pretty cheap too.

There are two reasons why they might be willing to part with one of their younger defense: first, they need offense — even if they want to trade their best winger and center at the moment. Second, the expansion draft could cause them problems just as much as it could for Carolina. The only thing with the second issue is they might put off making any move to deal with that until next season.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues recently finished their season running the following defense pairings:

Parayko - Pietrangelo

Scandella — Faulk

Dunn — Bortuzzo

Their extra was Gunnarsson.

  • UFAs: Alex Pietrangelo, Troy Brouwer, Jay Bouwmeester.
  • RFAs: Vince Dunn, Jacob De La Rose.
  • Prospects in the AHL: Jake Walman, Niko Mikkola, Mitch Reinke. /

So this one is straight forward, in fact Katya already wrote about the situation the Blues are in with trying to re-sign Pietrangelo. The pipe dream(s) is actually the Leafs miraculously signing Alex Pietrangelo, or trading for Colton Parayko. Both would be arguably our best defenseman, and let alone the best right shot defenseman we’ve had in decades.

You could look at Vince Dunn, but he might just be a slightly better Travis Dermott in terms of age, handedness, and impact. He was their third pairing LD who played up in the lineup more once Bouwmeester was forced out of the lineup with his health issues. You could also look at two of their prospects in Tyler Tucker or Scott Perunovich, but neither have played professional hockey yet. Really, it’s Pietro or Parayko or nothing.

Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars are currently one game away from eliminating the Vegas Golden Knights and advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. Here are the pairings they used in the most recent game:

Lindell — Klingberg

Oleksiak — Heiskanen

Hanley — Sekera

Their extras are Stephen Johns, Ryan Shea and Taylor Fedun.

  • UFAs: Corey Perry, Mattias Janmark, Anton Khudobin, and Andrej Sekera.
  • RFAs: Radek Faska, Roope Hintz, and Denis Gurianov.
  • Prospects in the AHL: ???/

The Stars are going into next season with $15,591,302 of cap space, with 16 players currently under contract. They do have some important pieces to re-sign and replace, but none TOO important. Hintz, Faska, Perry and Gurianov are good pieces but not crucial ones.

The concern that Dallas reportedly has is with the team’s finances. The owner of the team is from the hospitality industry, which understandably took a big hit due to the pandemic. The Stars have a budding Norris-contender in Miro Heiskanen who is having a coming out party these playoffs. They’re not trading him any time soon. They also have a pretty strong defensive prospect in Thomas Harley on the way. If they want to save salary, John Klingberg has a cap hit of $4.25 million for another two seasons, but his actual salary is $5,750,000 next season and $6 million the season after.

A less interesting option who might be more realistic is Stephen Johns, a RHD who had a heck of a comeback story and has one year left at $2.35 million. He’d be more of a Justin Holl-type in terms of quality, but that could be helpful for depth and maybe a third pairing guy for Dermott or Sandin.

Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres have had a long vacation after another disappointing season. They have an all-new GM with a skeleton-thin staff thanks to mass firings. What he/the team does will be.... interesting. Here are the pairings they used in their last game:

Ristolainen — Montour

McCabe — Jokiharju

Dahlin — Miller

Their extras were (I think) Lawrene Pilut (who already left for Europe after not being given an NHL contract offer) and Matt Hunwick.

[Deep breath...]

  • UFAs: Wayne Simmonds, Vladimir Sobotka, Jimmy Vesey, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Michael Frolik, Matt Hunwick./

[Deep breath...]

  • RFAs: Curtis Lazar, Dominik Kahun, Tage Thompson, Victor Olofsson, Sam Reinhart, Lawrence Pilut, Brandon Montour, Linus Ullmark.
  • Prospects in the AHL: ???/

The Sabres are a mess and they have been for a while. The only players they have under contract for next year (so far) are Eichel, Skinner, Okposo, Johansson, Ristolainen, Miller, McCabe, Dahlin, Jokiharju and Hutton. So they have 10 roster players, and a projected $48,291,667 in cap space. However, according to a Frank Seravelli report, the Sabres are looking at imposing an internal cap in the low $70 million range.

That still gives them a lot of space to re-make their roster pretty dramatically, in an off-season when other teams in financial difficulties may also be looking to shed contracts. But that also means that they don’t have much that’s worth trading for. As far as defense go, the Sabres have been rumoured for a while to want to trade Ristolainen and Montour.

But the defense I want is Henri Jokiharju. In his sophomore season, he had strong defensive numbers despite being on a pretty bad team with some pretty bad defensemen. But he’s still young and on his ELC for another year, so a financially strapped team isn’t about to give him away. Another guy I’d be curious about is the rights to Lawrence Pilut, who is another young defenseman with some promise — even if he’s a lefty. He’s also cheap, but the Sabres previous front office reportedly would not offer him a one-way NHL deal and he was apparently so insulted by it that he already returned to Europe.

Of their defense who actually have a significant salary, it’s hard to have interest in any of them. I have a definite no to Ristolainen, an only slightly less emphatic no to Montour, and a maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe to Miller as a Dermott-like RHD for the third pair depending on the nature of the deal. At $3.75 million for another two years, that’s rich for the Leafs unless salary is retained on him or there’s money going back Buffalo’s way. The other player who might help their defense is, actually, a forward: Johan Larsson.

Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers were eliminated during the play-in round by the New York Islanders. Here are the pairings they used in the most recent game:

Weegar — Ekblad

Stillman — Stralman

Yandle — Brown

Their extras were Michael Matheson and Mark Pysyk.

  • UFAs: Evgeni Dadanov, Mike Hoffman, Brian Boyle, Erik Haula, Mark Pysyk.
  • RFAs: Dryden Hunt, Aleksi Saarela, Dominic Toninato, Lukas Wallmark, Mackenzie Weegar, Joshua Brown.
  • Prospects in the AHL: ???/

The big piece that would be interesting is Aaron Ekblad, who after having a bit of a slower ascent after being drafted first overall, has turned into a solid top pairing defenseman in his own right. He may not have the star power of an Alex Pietrangelo, but he’s also only 24. With  a $7.5 million cap hit for the next five seasons, he’ll also be easier to fit under the cap. The thing is, why would Florida want to trade him? Their defense outside of him is not very good and they’re not dealing with any cap trouble. They have $20,963,712 in cap space, albeit with only 13 players under contract right now.

The faint hope is that Florida may be another team where ownership is facing financial difficulty and want to shed contracts just to survive. They started clearing salaries even before the pandemic shut everything down when they dealt Trochek for a bunch of spare parts and expiring contracts.  They’ve since fired their more experienced GM for a rookie GM who is likely less expensive. There are rumours they are going to let a whole bunch of their expiring contracts walk in free agency because they’ll cost too much (Dadanov, Hoffman, etc).

Outside of Ekblad, the other name that gets brought up a lot is Weegar, who is 26 and played as Ekblad’s partner on the top pair. He’s an RFA with arbitration rights, so how much of a cap hit he’ll have is still to be determined. Is he someone else that will be too expensive for Florida’s liking, and they decide to punt his contract to keep Ekblad? He is a right-shot defenseman though, so he could be interesting due to his youth and playing harder minutes.

Being interested in a player doesn’t mean a trade will happen

One last thing I want to note. I picked the above teams because they have...

  • Potential cap issues
  • Potential financial issues
  • Potential roster issues
  • Has at least one defenseman I’m interested in for the Leafs/

One thing I sort of talked about in some cases, but is worth emphasizing, is that none of the above mean that any of the teams above will want to trade any of the defensemen that are interesting. If I’m interested in them, it’s because they’re some mix of good, young, and affordable for the Leafs. Those are all great reasons why their current teams would want to keep them.

The hope is that their potential issues with the cap, finances, or even the looming expansion draft if they have a lot of good defensemen, will give those teams reasons to want to trade them. If they have cap or financial troubles, they can trade other players and keep the good ones. The Leafs can help offer incentives to further help them address their issues to convince them it’s worth doing the trade, though.

If the other team has cap issues, the Leafs could take on a bad contract (not likely given our own cap issues) or retaining salary on a player the Leafs send the other way. If the other team has financial issues, the Leafs could trade for a player before signing bonuses are paid so the other team doesn’t have to, or trade for a player with a higher salary than cap hit, or trade them a player back that has a salary bonus paid already/lower salary than cap hit.

Or maybe the Leafs will just punt this issue down another season, make what smaller moves they can to improve the defense, and then see if Dougie Hamilton is more willing to leave his team in free agency than Pietrangelo likely will be.

What do you think Kyle Dubas should do?

Swing for the fences on Parayko, Pulock, Ekblad, etc378
Get a guy who won’t cost as much like Miller, Weegar, Dunn, etc156
Roll the dice on a young RHD like Fabbro, Bean, or Jokiharju214
Clear the decks for the Dougie Hamilton sweepstakes next year82