The Toronto Maple Leafs’ tumultuous season has seen a new dose of chaos thrown into the mix.
If a coaching change, an off-season blockbuster deal that hasn’t panned out, and injuries to Mitch Marner and John Tavares weren’t enough to shake things up, the loss of the club’s two ice-time leaders in Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin will add a fresh test for Sheldon Keefe’s club to navigate.
Both defenders remain on the injured reserve with foot injuries, and while Muzzin will likely return first, neither seem likely to figure into the Leafs’ plans any time particularly soon. Unfortunately, that’s a key problem for Toronto, as the first half of the 2019-20 campaign didn’t see the club build up enough insurance in the standings to withstand any significant drop-off.
As it currently stands, Toronto sits third in their division with 56 points. Florida — who just dealt the Leafs an 8-4 shellacking on Sunday — sits just three points back with two games in hand. Should Toronto get pushed into the wild-card race, the Hurricanes sit tied with them at 56 points, with Philadelphia and Columbus only trailing by a pair.
Suffice it to say, the Maple Leafs need to maintain their current level, or risk winding up in a tough race for the post-season down the stretch.
So far, so good. Without their top two defenders Tuesday, the Maple Leafs managed to put away the New Jersey Devils with a 7-4 win — with recently called up Rasmus Sandin chipping in two points to prove he can help his team weather the storm for the time being. Justin Holl and Travis Dermott led the way in ice-time, each skating over 21 minutes in the tilt. Tyson Barrie and Martin Marincin lined up as the second pair, with Cody Ceci and Sandin rounding out the blue-line group.
But here’s betting things get tougher once the Leafs are up against a team better than one that struggled mightily even before they traded away their recent Hart Trophy winner. The state of Toronto’s blue line has many among the Maple Leafs faithful clamouring for a trade to shore up the back end for tougher affairs that’ll come.
So, what are the club’s options? Blockbusters won’t do, as the Leafs don’t necessarily require major surgery but simply a band-aid to keep things from getting out of hand until Rielly and Muzzin return. What will serve the club best is a stopgap option, a veteran defender who can come in, eat minutes, hold down the fort and chip in offensively when the moment presents itself.
Let’s take a look at a few realistic options for GM Kyle Dubas.
T.J. Brodie or Travis Hamonic, Calgary Flames
Let’s start closer to the surgery side of the spectrum. There’s no question T.J. Brodie could help the Leafs’ cause, having held a top-line role for much of his time in Calgary. Given reports over the summer that a Brodie (and Mark Jankowski) for Nazem Kadri trade was considered, it’s safe to assume the Leafs are interested in the smooth-skating defender’s services.
But as a longtime staple in Calgary, Brodie wouldn’t come cheap. The original reported deal had a two-time 30-goal-scorer in Kadri going the other way. While Toronto no longer has many of that calibre of extra pieces to move out — and is in no position to subtract from their blue line in the form of someone like Barrie — they do have a few pieces to entice teams, namely quick-footed depth winger Kasperi Kapanen and AHL standout Jeremy Bracco.
With both Brodie and the more defensive-minded Travis Hamonic set to hit unrestricted free agency at the end of this season, and the Flames stocked full of talented blue-liners old and young, there may be a deal to be had there. Both clock in with fairly reasonable cap hits ($4.65 million for Brodie, $3.86 million for Hamonic), meaning little would need to be done to fit either in, as well.
Brenden Dillon, San Jose Sharks
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman highlighted defender Brenden Dillon as a name San Jose could be looking to move, with the 29-year-old in the final year of his deal as well.
Though not able to provide the offensive spark that Brodie would bring, Dillon’s a fairly steady presence on the back end, and able to eat up to 20 minutes a night if need be.
At six-foot-four, 225 pounds, the New Westminster, B.C. native also brings the added element of size and a physical game, assets that will become more useful down the stretch as the games slowly shift from regular-season to playoff-style hockey.
According to The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz, a second-round pick and a prospect could be enough to pry him out of San Jose, meaning a deal starting with Bracco could be workable.
Alec Martinez, Los Angeles Kings
With the Kings in the same 2019-20 tailspin as their Californian counterparts, veteran defender Alec Martinez is reportedly on the block, too.
The fact that the 32-year-old has another year on his deal, at $4 million, likely increases the cost for potential buyers, but Martinez could be both a short- and long-term solution for Toronto.
In the short term, he can easily eat 20 minutes a night — having topped that mark in each of the past four seasons — and brings some offensive capabilities too, with a 39-point effort on his resume just a couple seasons ago. In the long term, Martinez’s familiarity with Muzzin from their Kings days can only help Toronto’s efforts.
Nikita Zadorov or Ian Cole, Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche are going to be the most interesting team involved in any trade deadline conversations given they’ve got an already promising squad and an absurd amount of cap space heading into the latter half of the season.
They also have a duo in Ian Cole and Nikita Zadorov who are currently limited to bottom-pairing minutes, but have shown the ability to eat more minutes if need be in the past and come with manageable cap hits.
Rumours were floated about a potential Zadorov trade last year before he signed a one-year deal to return to Colorado. With a strong team and title aspirations, there’s no reason GM Joe Sakic needs to mess with his current blue-line setup, of course. But if Sakic opts to swing for a bigger blue-line piece to bolster his top four, perhaps that pushes one of Cole or Zadorov out and on to the trade block.
Neither are particularly game-changing options for the Maple Leafs — but given the state of their blue line and the responsibilities thrust upon still-emerging talents like Dermott, Holl and Sandin, a steady, veteran defender to plug into the mix for the time being wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
Zach Bogosian, Buffalo Sabres
The veteran reportedly requested a trade out of Buffalo back in December as a limited role has left him often sidelined in the rebuilding Sabres organization.
Little has changed since, with Bogosian still rarely getting legitimate minutes in his current situation. While a healthy Leafs squad would probably have taken the same approach, the current crew could likely use the 29-year-old’s veteran presence, and could potentially get some special-teams use out of him as well.
The main issue here is cap hit, given the pending unrestricted free agent’s 2019-20 hit sits at $5.14 million per year. Perhaps Buffalo retains some salary to move on from the Bogosian debacle, and nets a future asset from the Maple Leafs to help their young guns’ cause.
Of course, the central question is whether a deal is truly needed at all, particularly given the losses on Toronto’s blue-line don’t appear to be season-ending. There’s no room for a slide down the standings, but the Leafs’ roster is still dotted with more than enough talent to make up for a weaker blue-line, in theory.
Looking at the names available — those who could potentially be acquired in deals that wouldn’t significantly alter the team’s current roster or prospect cupboard, how much would the needle truly move? The biggest X-factor right now appears to be Sandin.
With the young Swede impressing in the big leagues once again, perhaps a combination of him raising his level and Barrie finally finding his game stems the tide for Toronto’s blue line before their top-pairing game changers are back in the mix. Should there still be a blue-line hole seemingly in need of filling in Toronto, the question for Dubas is how minor or major a move is deemed necessary to shake things up.