9 defence targets: Maple Leafs could strike trade through Vegas

HC's Gord Stellick and John Shannon both believe the Vegas Golden Knights will finish dead last in year one, but as long as they're entertaining for fans, players and the league, that's all that matters.

The common refrain among NHL front offices come June is that there are no good defencemen available.

That is not the case this spring, as the unique twist of the NHL Expansion Draft has kicked open the door for blueliner-seeking clubs to acquire an unprotected defenceman through Vegas.

Convince Golden Knights general manager George McPhee to draft one of the many blue-chip defencemen exposed in the expansion draft, and for the price of a high draft pick (or two), you could fill out your blue line with a piece that otherwise would be unavailable.

We’ve already gabbed about the playoff-hopeful Toronto Maple Leafs — the consensus pick for “team on the rise” — and their significant need for a right shot to complement Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev in their top four, and we still believe Vancouver’s Chris Tanev (protected) would make a good fit.

But the list of the unprotected should have Leafs fans salivating at the possibility of finding a good righty by persuading Vegas into a draft-and-trade scenario. (Of course, there are other franchises hunting D-men, too. The Canadiens, Sabres, Stars, Oilers and Rangers spring to mind.)

Here are nine exposed, (mostly) right-shot defencemen who could improve Toronto’s blue line overnight, plus a few more worth mentioning.

Mathew Dumba
A No. 3 defenceman on one of the league’s best defensive teams, Dumba is a right shot who can log big minutes (20:19 per night in 2016-17). Dumba wields a strong point shot (he led all Wild D-men in goals with 11) and can improve a power-play unit. The best part? He’s only 22 and his cap hit ($2.55 million) is modest. Dumba — a subject of “quality trade offers” — could grow with the Leafs young D core. Our favourite pick of this bunch.

Sami Vatanen
Like Dumba, Vatanen skates the third-most minutes on one of the league’s premier defences. The 26-year-old right shot is used on both special teams and his $4.875-million cap hit provides cost certainty through 2019-20. The Finn’s recovery from shoulder surgery will keep him out of the lineup “longer” than four months, which is of some concern. It’s believed that Anaheim GM Bob Murray has worked out a side deal with McPhee to steer him clear of Vatanen and Manson. But — devil’s advocate here — what if a team like Toronto can offer more in a side deal?

Josh Manson
Manson is like Vatanen in that he’s a coveted right shot on a crowded blue line. Impressive in his first full post-season look, where he saw his ice time bumped over the 20-minute mark, the 2011 sixth-rounder has been a little late to bloom but plays a durable, defence-first style that would suit the Leafs’ needs. Manson, 25, is a bargain (for one more year) at $850,000. After that, he’ll be in line for a raise as a restricted free agent.

Ben Lovejoy
No one on the New Jersey Devils spent more time killing penalties than Lovejoy (3:15 per game), a top-four shutdown option priced at a fair rate of $2.67 million for two more seasons. Yes, he’s already 33 and far from flashy and there’s a good chance he scores once all season. But the Leafs need a little more safe and steady veteran presence, and Lovejoy is as healthy as ever. He played all 82 games in 2017-18 for the Devils, who don’t have a no-brainer pick off their roster for Vegas.

Colin Miller
The 24-year-old Miller — yep, another right shot — is a work in progress but the type of defender who could develop into a top-four mainstay.

The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native scored 13 points in 61 games in 2016-17 while averaging 15:48 of ice time but saw his usage dip slightly in the post-season. He’s good with the puck — retrieving it and transitioning it up-ice — so his 60.3 5-on-5 Corsi rating gets fans excited, especially when you consider that number ranks Miller second-highest on the Bruins after Patrice Bergeron.

There is promise here. It ain’t all gravy, though, which is why Miller was exposed.

“His history shows a tendency to skate pucks into traps, second-guess himself when clear and rapid processing power is needed, and hammer shots into traffic or wide of the net,” writes Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe.

Jake Dotchin
Young Dotchin already has a shaky history with the Maple Leafs. The defence prospect nailed superstar Auston Matthews with a dangerous-looking knee-on-knee hit during a critical game in April, then ended Marlies centre Frederik Gauthier’s season with a suspendable late hit during the AHL playoffs in May.

Dotchin, 23, impressed during his 11-assist, 35-game NHL debut this past winter. So much so, exposing him was a tough decision for the Lightning brass.

During an appearance on Sportsnet 590 The Fan Monday, former Bolts GM Brian Lawton suggested the Leafs grab Dotchin through Vegas for a second-round pick.

“I might even give a first-rounder for a player like him,” Lawton said.

Jason Demers
While there are more intriguing expansion draft options for Vegas among Florida’s forward group — Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault — how often do proven top-four right Ds become available? Not very. Which is why Florida decided to pay Demers a juicy $4.5 million per season in free agency last summer.

The 29-year-old is not cheap, but he’s reliable. You know exactly what you’re getting: a defender who can contribute to both special teams and isn’t afraid to play the back while Rielly or Gardiner join the rush. Demers falls into a similar category here as fellow veteran exposés Jack Johnson, Marc Methot, and Dan Hamhuis — except the other three are all left shots.

Marc Methot
The only left shot on this listicle, Methot has proven the perfect yang to freewheeling yin — and Toronto has no shortage of guys who want to fly up the ice. That Methot’s contract ($4.9-million cap hit) only has two seasons remaining means he doesn’t require a long investment, and taking Erik Karlsson’s favourite partner away from him carries some sweet intra-divisional spite. We’re of the mind Vegas must take Methot (or force the Sens to pay a hefty tax). Even if the Leafs are dead-set on a right shot, a handful of other teams would be interested in trading for Methot to improve their top four.

Trevor van Riemsdyk
The van Riemsdyk brothers uniting? It’s possible. McPhee reportedly has an agreement in place with cap-crunched Chicago to take $3-million centre Marcus Kruger off his books, but TVR could be headed out as well. The 6-foot-2 van Riemsdyk is coming off his most impressive productive season as a Blackhawk (16 points). He’s only 25; his best is still to come.

Other notable defencemen exposed to Vegas: Jack Johnson, Adam McQuaid, Dan Hamhuis, Niklas Kronwall, Griffin Reinhart, Marco Scandella, Alexei Emelin, Calvin de Haan, Paul Martin, Nate Schmidt.