Ducks might offer solutions to Maple Leafs’ defensive needs

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman says it’s really hard to find or acquire a d-man of Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s caliber, but having someone of that ilk is exactly what the Maple Leafs need to get to the next step.

Forgive the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs if they look at each other with envy.

Each has a glut of what the other covets. Which should make them ideal trade partners, at some point.

“I’m going to do the best I can to give this group one more shot at this, and I’m going to do everything in my power to keep it that way,” Ducks general manager Bob Murray said upon signing defenceman Hampus Lindholm in late October.

But with Anaheim nestled firmly against the salary cap and so many opponents eyeing its young defencemen, something should give after the 2017 Stanley Cup is awarded. Maybe sooner.

The Maple Leafs certainly aren't alone in wanting to add talented defenders under the age of 26, but their wealth of attractive offensive weapons — which has the team hanging tight with the NHL leaders in shots and goals — and the fact they've made no major financial commitments to defencemen beyond Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner after this season make them a particularly smart fit.


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As fun as their offence is, the Leafs also rank among the leaders in shots allowed (32.3), while the Ducks are one of the best at suppressing shots (28.8). Both teams want more balance.

By design, the Leafs have stocked a wealth of still-developing weapons up front. To believe there is room to keep all of these teenagers or twentysomethings long-term is foolish. Because the Ducks, who have a recent trade history with Toronto, are firmly in win-now mode, they might even consider one of the Leafs' more established forwards: big-bodied scorer James van Riemsdyk or centre Tyler Bozak, whose long-view futures in Toronto are uncertain. (The Leafs are reportedly willing to listen on van Riemsdyk.)

More likely: Murray will covet Toronto's prospect pool and draft picks, which will be high if the Leafs remain on track for the lottery.

If Edmonton is placing its faith in McJesus, the Leafs' Holy Trinity is Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. They've gotta be untouchable at this point.

But what about AHL studs Brendan Leipsic and Kasperi Kapanen? Mike Babcock loves what Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov can bring to the table, true. But he also loves defencemen he can depend on, and the Leafs simply have too few of those.

The Leafs rank 22nd in defence, the Ducks 12th. Anaheim's offence is slightly above average, but let's look at its top four scorers.

Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are all 31 or over, all signed at big money through at least 2020-21, and all hold no-movement clauses. Jacob Silfverberg is widely viewed as the forward most likely to get poached by Las Vegas in this spring's expansion draft.

The club's fifth-ranked scorer, 23-year-old centre Rickard Rakell, is an excellent piece worth keeping. After that, the Ducks are starving for young forwards with top-six skill. (Elliotte Friedman recently reported their interest in Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons.)

If the Oilers taught us anything recently, it's that the price for a top-four defenceman is higher than Afroman doing the EdgeWalk.

This is where the Ducks — that rare NHL team with plenty of talented defenders — come in. (The Carolina Hurricanes are another team flush with young D, but trading across conferences is always a safer bet.)

While both Toronto and Anaheim have reason to hold on to their good players and prospects, most of whom have yet to reach ceilings unknown, 2016 has reminded us that, yes, big hockey trades that fulfill positional needs can still happen.

Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson.

Blockbusters can happen, people; Murray and Lamoriello have made bold moves before.

The Ducks and Leafs would be trading from positions of strength to help remedy a weakness. And while we don't expect a deal to go down before Monday's holiday trade freeze, this is something to look for close to the 2017 trade deadline or, more likely, in the off-season.

Babcock (and Toronto fans) should be able to stomach two playoff-free seasons, but a third would be cause for nausea.

Now, let's look at which Anaheim defence targets would align age-wise with the development of Toronto's new-generation forward core. Handy note: None of these contracts hold trade protection.

Hampus

, 22, $5.7 million cap hit through 2021-22
Lindholm is likely the No. 1 target on opponents' wish lists, and his testy contract negotiation with Murray this summer/fall makes one wonder if the Ducks would part with him despite the six-year commitment.

Lindholm's team-friendly cap hit drops to $5.2 million next season, which is cheap for a young blueliner who kills penalties and skates more than 21 minutes a night. Lindholm's production has dipped (one goal, two assists), but the role of No. 1 defenceman is his to take.

Sami Vatanen, 25, $4.875 million cap hit through 2019-20
A key component of the Ducks' power-play, the Finn is coming into his prime. Vatanen skates nearly 22 minutes a night and is right next to Cam Fowler when it comes to club leader Fowler when it comes to assists and power-play points.

Not only does Vatanen boast the best plus/minus of any defender on the team, but like Lindholm, his contract carries reasonable term and dollars.

Josh Manson, 25, $825,000 cap hit through 2017-18
Exceeding projections, this 2011 sixth-rounder ranks third among Ducks D-men in points (seven) despite virtually zero power-play time.

A rugged 6-foot-3, 215-pounder, the right-shot Manson logs significant minutes but is prone to penalties. Not the first player on opponents' shopping list, but Manson could be involved in a small deal.

Cam Fowler, 25, $4 million cap hit through 2017-18
The subject of rampant trade rumours during the Lindholm stalemate, Fowler is sometimes knocked for spotty play in his own zone.

Still, Fowler leads all Ducks in ice time, hovering around the 24-minute mark nightly, and is a beast on the power play who can fire his right-handed shot through with success. His seven goals on the season match Corey Perry's total.

Even if Murray keeps him for a playoff run, we'd bet Fowler won't see another contract in Anaheim. There's just too much younger, cheaper depth coming up behind him. Like...

Shea Theodore, 21, $863,333 cap hit through 2017-18
Theodore won't become a restricted free agent until the summer of 2018. Re-signing him should be manageable considering that's when Fowler and, um, handsomely paid veterans Kevin Bieksa ($4 million cap hit) and Clayton Stoner ($3.25 million) come off the books.

Like a Nylander, he'd be nearly impossible to pry free. The 2013 first-rounder still has much to learn, but the Ducks are giving him 17-plus minutes a game to improve and believe he'll grow into a top-four guy.

Brandon Montour, 22, $925,000 cap hit through 2017-18
The 2014 second-round pickup co-led the San Diego Gulls in his first pro season with 57 points last season and ranked second overall in the AHL in power-play points (30). An Ontario-born right shot that consistently contributes offence.

Rielly and Gardiner are both lefties, and anyone who's witnessed a Team Canada roster announcement knows Babcock prefers left-right equality.