Leafs will be busy and aggressive before trade deadline

Daren Millard, John Shannon and P.J. Stock discuss whether the Toronto Maple Leafs have a prospect or an asset to entice the Tampa Bay Lightning in a sign and trade for Steven Stamkos.

No two trade deadlines will ever be quite the same, even if the current plan for the Toronto Maple Leafs remains unchanged from last February.

Sell what can be sold. Maximize assets. Aggressively stock the prospect cupboard.

And while it’s far too soon to make a complete evaluation of the job former general manager Dave Nonis did a year ago, the early analysis looks promising. He made seven deals in the run-up to the deadline that saw nine players jettisoned from the organization, bringing a healthy amount of futures back in return.

They include a first-round pick that was parlayed into two seconds (Travis Dermott/Jeremy Bracco) and a third (Martins Dzierkals) at the draft last June; prospect Brendan Leipsic, who scored for the Leafs in his NHL debut on Saturday night; the fourth-round pick later used to acquire Martin Marincin from Edmonton in a trade; minor-league defenceman T.J. Brennan; and three picks in the 2016 draft: a second-rounder, fifth-rounder and six-rounder.

The Leafs also took on three expiring contracts for the remainder of the season – Zach Sill, Joakim Lindstrom and Eric Brewer – which is a carrot they’re likely to dangle again, and acquired injured forward Nathan Horton’s massive deal from Columbus to rid themselves of the onerous David Clarkson contract.

They were a series of moves that underscored the power of the organization’s financial might even during a rebuilding phase, with the Leafs able to boost returns by taking on salary – a premise that formed the backbone of the nine-player Dion Phaneuf blockbuster with Ottawa last week.

That trade netted a second-round pick in 2017 and prospect Tobias Lindberg in addition to the contracts of Milan Michalek, Colin Greening and Jared Cowen, which gave GM Lou Lamoriello a pretty strong jump on the trading season that runs through 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 29.

Lamoriello still has nine impending unrestricted free agents on his NHL roster – the type of players almost exclusively moved at the deadline – and will be aggressive into trying to turn them into longer-range assets.

The value of that strategy for an organization in the midst of bottoming out came into view during Saturday’s visit to Vancouver, when Leipsic shook off any jetlag that came with his late call-up to score against Ryan Miller. Making it all the better was seeing the 21-year-old Winnipegger’s parents, Kathleen and Greg, celebrating in the stands at Rogers Arena.

Were it not for a terrible run of injuries at forward, Leipsic probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pull on a Leafs sweater so soon, but the winger has made a strong impression in the American Hockey League this season.

“He's a greasy little guy,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after the 5-2 win in Vancouver. “He's got a real good skill level and tenacity about him.”

While it was only one brief heartwarming moment during a bleak stretch of play, it was also a reminder of the possibility built into Toronto’s plans for roster reconstruction. As the thinking goes: Short-term pain for long-term gain.

None of the players dealt away at last year’s deadline have left the Leafs with any regret. Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli, sent to Nashville for Leipsic and a first-round draft pick, are now depth players in Buffalo and Anaheim, respectively.

Daniel Winnik went to Pittsburgh for two draft picks and re-signed with Toronto on July 1. He has one year beyond this one remaining on his contract, but is a candidate to be moved again.

Elsewhere, Korbinian Holzer has been in and out of the Ducks lineup, Clarkson has had another season derailed by injuries, David Broll is in the AHL with Syracuse, Spencer Abbott is in Sweden, Carter Ashton is in Russia and Olli Jokinen is out of hockey.

The Leafs arguably have more attractive assets to peddle this time around, with rugger blue-liner Roman Polak and scoring winger P.A. Parenteau the most likely to draw interest. Shawn Matthias, Michael Grabner and Brad Boyes are among the other forwards on expiring deals while Leo Komarov, with two years left at $2.95-million per, would carry value if Toronto ends up making him available.

Darren Calabrese/CP
Leo Komarov. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

It should make for a busy two weeks at Air Canada Centre – assuming the market looks like it has in years past.

As much as another firesale signals another lost season for the Leafs, an overwhelming majority of the fanbase seems to support the plan. They only had to see the picture of a smiling Leipsic holding up the puck from his first NHL goal on Saturday night to be reminded of what’s at stake.

“I'm just pretty grateful that this day came finally,” said Leipsic.

Yes, sometimes patience is required.