How Kyle Dubas can fix the Maple Leafs defence: Trades, UFAs, prospects

NHL insider Luke Fox joins the Jeff Blair Show to discuss the many challenges facing the Maple Leafs of any attempts to try and trade Patrick Marleau, without including a top prospect like Timothy Liljegren in the deal.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

The Toronto Maple Leafs defence is neither good enough nor deep enough to win a Stanley Cup.

“We need more,” said Mike Babcock, before leaving for the summer.

Take that as a criticism of management if you wish, but it’s a fair assessment by the head coach, especially when you consider the excellence of starting goaltender Frederik Andersen and the personnel an already below-average D corps is about to lose.

First, some facts.

The Leafs surrendered 33.1 shots against per game this season, ranking them 24th overall. No team worse off in this category reached the second round either. During their series loss to Boston, Toronto’s shots against swelled to 35.4 per game, second worst among all 16 playoff teams. The only team more porous, Calgary, was dropped in five games.

Babcock has said he doesn’t count shots but rather scoring chances. Fine. The Leafs ranked 25th in scoring chances against in the regular season (2,390), and only one team that gave up more (fellow Round 1 victim Washington) made the post-season.

Toronto also rated 20th in goals allowed in the regular season (3.04). That average, too, ballooned in the Boston series, to 3.29. Only one team leakier than Toronto in either the regular or post-season survived. That would be San Jose, which qualified in spite of its goaltending, while the Leafs were a contender because of theirs.

Bottom line: The D needs an upgrade.

Instead, re-signing young forwards is the top priority, and two of Toronto’s 20-plus-minutes-a-night horses, Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, are on target for free agency. Gardiner (plus-19) and Hainsey (plus-30) also represent two thirds of the Leafs’ defence leaders in plus/minus. Criticize the veterans all you wish, but the puck ends up in the other team’s net when they’re on the ice.

The past ain’t pretty, so let’s look to the future: What will the Maple Leafs’ defence look like in October? And what options are there to shake things up for the better?

Who they have left…

Morgan Rielly — who’s improved in every NHL season — emerged as the true No. 1 defenceman the Leafs have been searching for, and Jake Muzzin did some fine shutdown work once he found his groove.

The left side of the top four is in a good place heading into 2019-20, Muzzin’s walk year. (Yikes.)

“To come through and go through camp with it and start the season fresh, it’ll be really exciting for me. I feel really comfortable already, and that’ll put me in an ‘I’m at home’ type of feeling,” Muzzin said. “For us, taking the next step, we need to get a little bit grittier… it’s everyone winning every battle, especially when it comes to playoff time.”

Travis Dermott will enter the final season of his entry-level contract and, with a summer off to fully rehab his shoulder, has been publicly challenged by Babcock to take another giant step.

Nikita Zaitsev is the top-rated right shot on the depth chart, but GM Kyle Dubas is expected to explore trade options for the feisty Russian.

The cap-friendly Calle Rosen, 25, and Justin Holl, 27, have outgrown the Marlies, but they have a whopping 21 games of NHL action combined.

Who they have coming…

Now, the good news.

Rasmus Sandin is looking like 2018’s late-first-round draft steal. The 19-year-old left shot has comported himself extremely well as an AHL rookie, piling up 28 points in 44 regular-season games and adding four playoff assists to lead all D-men.

Sandin has surpassed 2017 first-rounder Timothy Liljegren (right shot) in development, but Liljegren only turned 20 on Tuesday. The potential is there.

There is a reason Dubas re-signed hardnosed prospect Andreas Borgman to a mid-season extension, and AHL coach Sheldon Keefe has already been impressed with the puck-moving skills flexed by Mac Hollowell — the 20-year-old prospect who just joined the Marlies’ playoff run after a career OHL season in which he piled up 77 points from the back end.

The Marlies upset Rochester in a Round 1 sweep and are off to another solid post-season thanks to their blue line.

“The guys have proven to be capable,” Keefe told reporters Tuesday. “Certainly in Sandin and Liljegren’s case, when you look at them, if not for their development and their ability to take on extra responsibility throughout the season, we’re probably not even playing in the playoffs. Those guys are huge parts of our team and Hollowell’s addition, we think, is a positive one.”

Who they could sign in free agency…

As wonderful as Sandin and Rosen have showed in the minor leagues, asking them to step in and be equal to Gardiner and Hainsey by October is a tall order.

Barring some lightning-strike moves, Toronto’s cap crunch should prevent Dubas from chasing the big fish like Erik Karlsson, Gardiner, Alex Edler and Tyler Myers — although the latter is certainly worth kicking tires. Myers is six-foot-eight, coming off consecutive 30-point seasons, won’t turn 30 until February, and Winnipeg can’t afford to keep him.

(Also: Is there a reason Vancouver hasn’t extended Edler yet? Weren’t they close, like, three months ago? The longer this goes…)

More realistic (i.e., affordable) UFA targets feature slower and/or older veterans who can kill penalties and provide a stay-at-home security so Rielly and Dermott can flaunt their foot speed and offensive flair.

To me, Tampa’s Anton Stralman is the jewel of this secondary group that includes names like Hainsey, Ben Chiarot, Ben Lovejoy, Dan Girardi, Marc Methot and Adam McQuaid. Stralman should be interviewed.

Toronto’s blue line depth was so exposed in April that Babcock figured it safer to play Gardiner (back) at 70 per cent health in an elimination game than any of his other options. He’s screaming for reliable options to fill the bottom pair.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Who they could trade for…

We’re treading into William Nylander and/or Kasperi Kapanen blockbuster trade territory here, but if Dubas were to pull a Masai Ujiri and swing for the fences, he could try to solve his right-handed defenceman problem once and for all.

A big ticket like Drew Doughty, Ryan Ellis, Aaron Ekblad, Alex Pietrangelo, or P.K. Subban would rock Leafs Nation on a John Tavares level. No doubt, Los Angeles and Nashville in particular are desperate for young offence.

More doable trade targets include Vancouver’s Chris Tanev, Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba (RFA), Philly’s Radko Gudas or Ivan Provorov, Ottawa’s Cody Ceci (RFA), Muzzin’s old L.A. pal Alec Martinez, Colorado’s nasty Nikita Zadorov, and Carolina’s Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton, or Justin Faulk.

None of these moves would come together easily or without sacrificing some scoring talent, of course.

But consider the drastic roster overhauls made over the past 12 months by the eight GMs whose teams are still playing hockey. Half of them fired their head coach.

New York, Carolina, Columbus, St. Louis, San Jose, and Colorado all boldly shook up their cores via trade — top six forwards, top four defence or starting goalie — before breaking through.

In Toronto, all attention is on an unsigned Mitch Marner for the moment, but in order to improve as a whole, Dubas must exhaust all options and address his greatest weakness: the blue line.

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