When Kyle Dubas traded his first-round draft pick and two nice prospects for Stanley Cup winner Jake Muzzin during the bye week, the rookie general manager might as well have commissioned a skywriting airplane to spray an all-caps notification over Lake Ontario: WE’RE GOING FOR IT.
And why the heck not?
With superstar building blocks Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander all set to get paid big bucks next season, Jake Gardiner bolting toward UFA status, and excellent support players Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson due significant pay bumps as well, Leafs Nation might look back at 2018-19 as the best roster of this true window of contention.
And Dubas knew he needed to bolster the blue line if his group is to survive the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning — “the team that’s running away with hockey,” as coach Mike Babcock puts it.
So, is Muzzin enough? Especially with rival Boston expected to be in the thick of the arms race? Or do the Leafs pull the trigger on one more complementary move?
Same as it ever was: a right-shot defenceman who can break out of his zone, kill penalties and do the dirty work.
Yes, every playoff-bound roster could find a use for a sandpaper winger, and in Wayne Simmonds and Micheal Ferland, two of them are available. But as the highest-scoring club at even strength and with so many top-nine wingers that, when healthy, they have one skating on the fourth line, it’s difficult to see Dubas outbidding the more goal-hungry bidders (Boston, Columbus, Nashville, Islanders, et al.) for a scorer.
While there are some serviceable stay-at-home, righty defenders on bad teams and expiring deals that could bolster Toronto’s blue line depth — Nick Jensen, Adam McQuaid, Ben Lovejoy — Dubas has said publicly that he’d prefer a defenceman with term.
Makes sense. The Muzzin trade was the biggie, and it has paid immediate dividends, but with the futures of UFAs Ron Hainsey and Jake Gardiner unknown and only one righty skating in the top six, there is already an eye to the future.
That’s why Carolina’s Brett Pesce, Vancouver’s Chris Tanev (ankle injury, week to week), or Anaheim’s Brandon Montour or Josh Manson could be a fit if their GMs are willing to deal big. All three of those non-divisional opponents need scoring wingers, and the Leafs organization is flush with them.
Toronto has also been rumoured to be looking at a couple of bottom-six forwards: L.A.’s Kyle Clifford and Detroit’s Luke Glendening, a Babcock favourite with a dirt-cheap cap hit ($1.8 million) through 2021.
• Jake Gardiner, 28, $4.05 million cap hit
• Ron Hainsey, 37, $3 million
• Par Lindholm, 27, $925,000
• Tyler Ennis, 29, $650,000
• Michael Hutchinson, 28, $1.3 million
• Martin Marincin, 27, $800,000
Potential assets to move:
Timothy Liljegren or Rasmus Sandin: The Maple Leafs’ most coveted prospects are both first-round picks and defencemen honing their skills in the AHL. Dubas steered the Kings away during the Muzzin deal, so moving either Liljegren (righty) or Sandin (lefty) means a major win-now piece coming back.
Draft picks: The Leafs spent their 2019 first, but could package their extra fourth- and seventh-rounders to sweeten a deal.
Kasperi Kapanen: Fast, skilled and able to contribute to your PP or PK, Kapanen could be the key to a major deal. He’s already proven he can complement the elite (Auston Matthews), rapidly making the jump to the Leafs’ tough-to-crack top six in his first full NHL campaign.
Andreas Johnsson: Less heralded but just as effective as Kapanen, Johnsson won MVP at the Calder Cup last June and blends a fierce forecheck with soft hands around the net.
Connor Brown: The one-time 20-goal man and coach’s favourite never takes a shift off. Brown’s modest cap hit ($2.1 million) makes his contract movable, and he’d play higher up the lineup on most other rosters.
Nikita Zaitsev: The only right shot among Toronto’s top-six defencemen, Zaitsev was given a long-term contract by Lou Lamoriello that Dubas will look to shed. Some trade partners might appreciate the cap flexibility and penalty killing, even though Zaitsev won’t generate much offence.
2019: 2nd, 3rd, 4th (own), 4th (STL), 5th, 7th (own), 7th (DAL)
2020: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th (own), 7th (SJS), 7th (EDM)
One bold move the Maple Leafs could make:
Trade one of their high-scoring, head-turning rookie wingers now instead of trying to fit them both under an incredibly snug salary cap when they become restricted free agents. Kapanen (18 goals) and Johnsson (15 goals) can both score, skate and contribute to special teams. They have exploded in the final season of their entry-level deals, and unless they take significant discounts or someone else gets moved, we can’t see how they both remain Leafs come September. As tough as it may be to give away a hot stick you properly developed, Kapanen and Johnsson’s trade value is high enough now to lure a solid defenceman with some term.
I think the Maple Leafs should not…:
Mortgage the future for a gritty player up front. If this group of forwards isn’t deep enough to get the job done, that’s on them. No team has scored more at even strength, the power play has finally turned a corner, and it’s possible the Maple Leafs finish the regular season with seven 20-goal scorers. Offence is not the issue — and overpaying jacked-up rental rates for more of it is not the play here. Yes, like most viewers, I’d like to see more hiss and vinegar from the group, but that has to come from within. Try to further upgrade the blue line if possible.