TORONTO — In this season of heightened expectations for the Toronto Maple Leafs, there has to be some temptation to go shopping. Competitors are loading up, the path through the Atlantic Division is perilous and there are only so many years to be considered a contender.
And yet, with Monday afternoon’s trade deadline fast approaching, there was a conservative feeling in the air at team headquarters following Friday’s practice.
“You’ve got to weigh cost versus the reward and you’ve got to evaluate the level of your team and where it’s at,” said head coach Mike Babcock. “And what you think you can do to help the team. Just because you may want somebody doesn’t mean you can afford ‘em.”
That is especially true when you’ve already cashed in your 2019 first-round pick and two mid-tier prospects to acquire Jake Muzzin. Organizational currency, just like money, doesn’t grow on trees.
The Leafs never seemed likely to be in on the major action anyway — not with general manager Kyle Dubas vowing to stay out of the rental market entirely. It would be a surprise to see him stray from that approach over the next couple days.
To make any significant addition, Dubas would probably have to deal from an area he’d rather leave as is.
Good luck getting him to consider moving either Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson — the young men otherwise known as Auston Matthews’ linemates. The same goes for 18-year-old defenceman Rasmus Sandin, the team’s first-round pick last spring. Perhaps you might pry Timothy Liljegren free from Toronto, but that’s not a prospect the organization would easily part with.
The Leafs can bolster their depth with the chips they’re far more likely to play: mid-range prospects or later-round picks. They may also deal from down the lineup in a move designed to ease their salary cap burden for next season, although that kind of transaction is much easier to pull off in the summer.
In the here and now, with Toronto on a three-game losing streak and having slipped to third in the Atlantic Division, it’s fair to assume the coach has a wishlist. How about a winger with some edge and a right-shot defender? However, Babcock doesn’t sound like he expects to find much under the tree on the NHL’s version of Christmas in late February.
“What I’ve found is you talk to your GM every single day and then you talk about your team and then there comes a point where, no different than [the coaches] talk about the team and who should play with who and all those things, then there’s a point that I have to make the decision and there’s a point where he has to make the decision,” said Babcock.
Even though this Leafs season feels like it’s heading down an eerily similar road — with a first-round matchup against Boston seemingly written in stone — the team has made improvements. They control play and create scoring chances more effectively than last year’s group.
Dominic Moore and Tomas Plekanec were two of Toronto’s centres in that series against the Bruins. Neither is left playing in North America today, with John Tavares having joined Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri and Frederik Gauthier down the middle.
Then there was the acquisition of Muzzin from Los Angeles, a move which made them deeper on defence. The lefty may still be finding his footing on his second NHL team, but he’s made his coach feel much more comfortable with the lineup overall.
“I think, to be honest with you, Muzzin has changed our team,” said Babcock. “He’s got to get his wife here and get everything organized and all that, but I think he has really changed our team already just because we can have six people on the ice at any time on the back and feel real good.”
Dubas must manage the merits of tomorrow against today. The Leafs intend to open a window of contention stretching out over a decade and want to inflict as little damage as possible on their future with moves made to help now.
It’s the yin and yang forever being balanced in pro sports.
With quality players available on the trade market and a potential playoff run hanging in the balance, it’s an enticing time of year. The Leafs dressing room certainly wouldn’t mind receiving an extra boost before the stretch drive.
“I’ve been through a lot of trade deadlines and what I find every year is that if you can improve the team the guys are all in,” said Babcock. “They want you to improve the team if you can. The part for the coaches and the players is we’ve got to do our part to push the GM into helping ya.”