Looking back at the 2015 NHL Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs chose uber-talented winger Mitch Marner fourth overall and passed up defencemen Noah Hanifin (fifth), Ivan Provorov (seventh) and Zach Werenski (eighth).
Today, Marner has been demoted to the fourth line in his second NHL season as he figures out the defensive side of the game (nothing strange for a kid), but just last week Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello wanted to stress that the 20-year-old still holds an important role in the future of the organization.
“Mitch is an extremely important part of our team, there is no question about that,” Lamoriello said. “I don’t feel in any way whatsoever that Mitch will not get back to where he was in a short period of time. He’ll determine that, the coaches will determine that, I’m extremely comfortable with that, but he’s a very very important part of this organization and an important part of any potential success that we have the ability to have.”
Still, considering how the Maple Leafs are currently built with plenty of young scoring depth and a need for blueliners, would the team consider a do-over if they could?
With the Carolina Hurricanes in town Thursday night, the Leafs are hosting the team that chose Hanifin in that draft. Carolina, in fact, is a team with the exact opposite needs as Toronto — the hype around them has been built on their excellent collection of defencemen. Meanwhile, scoring is a real sore spot, with the ‘Canes scoring the second-fewest 5-on-5 goals so far with 10 in seven games.
“When you look at what they have on that blue line and how much money they’ve invested in it already, they’ve got pieces they have to move,” Nick Kypreos said on Hockey Central at Noon. “They can’t play everybody. The one that comes to mind now is Haydn Fleury. He’s another guy who hasn’t developed as quickly as others have, but I think he’s going to be a good player in this league.
“That’s the type of guy now where Ronnie Francis has to go, ‘OK, I can’t play everybody, I can’t pay everybody, I’m going to have to move some of these very good pieces I have on the blue line to get our secondary scoring.’ To me that makes sense now to build a package around Fleury for Carolina to go get Matt Duchene.”
The ‘Canes have been one of the many teams linked to Duchene, but a factor that could work against that coming together is his contract. Duchene is paid $6 million against the cap for this season and next before becoming a UFA, and you have to wonder if a budget team like Carolina would pay up for that uncertainty. Consider also that Duchene’s contract would expire in the same year as Jeff Skinner’s.
And that brings us to the Maple Leafs, who would be able to offer up young scorers with upside, and who won’t hit UFA eligibility for a while yet.
“That’s where Ron Francis goes, ‘Listen, this Marner thing ain’t working for you, he’s on your fourth line. I’ll take him,'” Kypreos said.
The natural follow-up then would be, how much sense would a Marner-Hanifin trade make? Would the ‘Canes have to offer up much more? Certainly the Leafs winger is the better NHL player today, but with Hanifin’s pedigree and the fact it more often than not takes blueliners longer to develop, there is still some question on which of the two will be the better NHLer over the course of their careers.
Hanifin currently plays a little more than 18 minutes of ice time per game, which would be fifth among Toronto’s blueliners because they lean on their top-four more than do the Hurricanes. But if a hypothetical move like this was made, you’d figure Hanifin would slide into Toronto’s top four and move Ron Hainsey down to the bottom pair. At the same time, Marner would move back up in the lineup with Carolina.
The ‘Canes have committed a lot of salary to their blue line already (see below via capfriendly) and Hanifin is the next up for a contract. At some point the minutes that need to be doled out for those big-money players dry out, and it would make more sense to acquire a difference-maker up front.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a Hanifin-for-Marner trade because, as Kypreos mentioned, the ‘Canes are loaded with young defencemen. Freshly signed Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin are unlikely candidates, but with their new deals you wonder if 25-year-old Justin Faulk becomes more expendable. If not him, Fleury is another possibility on the NHL roster, while Jake Bean (13th overall in 2016) is in the WHL.
On paper at least, these two teams make for excellent trade partners. But of course, what’s easily said isn’t always easily done.