Maple Leafs shouldn’t go big-game hunting, could add veteran leader

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock chalks up the club's recent plays as highly entertaining for the players and fans, but not so much for the coaching staff.

The likelihood is Jarome Iginla wouldn’t be interested in heading east to Toronto to become a member of the upstart Maple Leafs.

Same goes for Shane Doan.

At this late stage of their respective careers, Iginla and Doan, both of whom have recently suggested they’d be amenable to a move before the March 1 trade deadline, would be looking for a serious chance at a Stanley Cup ring. Moreover, as western Canadian lads playing in the NHL’s Western Conference, staying west would almost certainly be a priority.

But if either were to be interested in taking a few laps for the club that Conn Smythe founded, they might as well be just a comfortable fit for a young Leafs team that suddenly finds itself in an intriguing position heading towards the final quarter of the NHL season.

After a solid 3-1 victory over Dallas on Tuesday night, the Leafs woke up Wednesday morning in third place in the Atlantic Division, two points ahead of Boston (with three games in hand) and three points up on Florida.

At the same time, the Leafs are tied in points (60) with Ottawa, with the Sens holding second by virtue of having played one fewer game. Just eight points ahead of both clubs, meanwhile, are the seemingly fading Montreal Canadiens, beaten handily by Iginla and the lowly Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday.

So if you’re the Leafs, sure, you’re looking over your shoulder at who’s coming hard, but you might also suddenly be dreaming grander dreams of finishing higher in the division.

Yessir, it surely has been a season of surprises in the 416.

Having seen the Leafs be aggressive sellers as the trade deadline has approached in recent years, we now have to consider them as possible buyers.

Which brings us back to Iginla and Doan.

Neither player, it should be noted, fits with the overall Leafs program of building with youth nor addresses Lou Lamoriello’s most urgent need. That would be depth on defence, with the club currently giving the most blue-line minutes to 25-year-old rookie Nikita Zaitsev and using four defencemen under the age of 27 in it’s top four.

But let’s be realistic. Acquiring another young defenceman under contract and capable of playing 20 minutes a game would be an expensive proposition. Winnipeg, for example, isn’t about to give away Jacob Trouba for free. Ditto for other similarly aged blue-liners around the league.

Right now, for where this surprising Leafs team is, making that kind of costly investment makes no sense. Toronto are still very much in the business of evaluating what it has and adding youth and depth at every position, and to think it has accumulated enough talent in the last few drafts to allow it to start trading chunks away would be getting ahead of itself, something this franchise has been known to do.

It’s pretty clear Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner are untouchable, and William Nylander should be, at least until you understand just how good he might be, not to mention whether he may need to be shifted at some point to his natural centre position.

Underrated Connor Brown isn’t far behind, while Nazem Kadri has proven he can be a reliable two-way centre this season. With Matthews, Kadri and Tyler Bozak, the Leafs have finally built some depth down the middle. James van Riemsdyk is 27 with another year left on his contract, and he’s third on the team in scoring with one less goal (19) than the rest of the team’s left wingers combined.

After that, the Leafs have lots of promising pieces, but not necessarily blue-chippers, either on the farm or elsewhere in their system. Goalie Joseph Woll, defenceman Travis Dermott and forward Kasperi Kapanen are possibilities, but none are going to land you a big fish at this point.

Instead, the Leafs have demonstrated a preference this season for going the more affordable route when it comes to improving their roster. When Jhonas Enroth wasn’t able to do the job as a backup to Freddie Andersen, Curtis McElhinney was plucked off the waiver wire, and against the Stars on Tuesday he blocked 39 of 40 shots for the win.

For blue-line help. the Leafs again went shopping on waivers this week to grab 25-year-old Alexei Marchenko from Detroit. He’ll get a chance he can be better than Roman Polak, Martin Marincin or Matt Hunwick.

In general, it’s hard to make trades in the NHL, and for the most part, the Leafs have been sending talent out of town in recent years for futures, not bringing it in. The last significant skater with an NHL resume that the club added via trade was van Riemsdyk in June, 2012.

All this is to say that the Leafs haven’t been in an aggressive acquisition mode for a long time, other than chasing free agent Steven Stamkos last summer. Given the patient attitude of Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan, that seems unlikely to change now just because the team is hovering around a playoff position.

Iginla and Doan, or another veteran forward with lots of experience and a reputation for leadership, might, however, be something the Leafs front office could consider. That type of forward could help steady a Leafs team that gets jittery every time it builds a two-goal lead, and would come at a fraction of the price it would cost to bring in a significant defenceman.

This wouldn’t be like bringing in Owen Nolan back in 2003 to add a big-name sniper. A player like Iginla or Doan would be brought in to help, almost as playing coaches, as this team continues to grow. Not to play like they were 25 again. Of course they’re not the players they once were, and neither would bring footspeed to a very fast Leafs team. But they could add something else, smarts.

As mentioned, that role might not interest either, but there could be other veteran forwards in the final year of their contracts like Iginla and Doan that might find joining the Leafs an intriguing move.

This isn’t the time for the Leafs to go big-game hunting or to make a major financial/cap commitment to a new player, not with a lot of money set to come off the payroll this summer. But if a smaller move for some experience would help the club make the playoffs and maybe become a tougher out in the post-season, it would be worth it.