Maple Leafs look to improve blue line in narrow defence market

Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino joined the Andrew Walker show to discuss why the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t move any of their draft picks, and how Timothy Liljegren maybe two years away from being the player Toronto expects.

TORONTO – Six weeks have passed since Mike Babcock made an appearance in the seats at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Six weeks and there have been no further upgrades to his Toronto Maple Leafs blue line.

The Leafs suspected then what has become reality now: The price for a quality defenceman is awfully high.

Prohibitively high, in fact, although the search continues.

What Babcock saw when he watched Games 3 and 4 of the Predators-Anaheim Ducks series is two defence corps brimming with homegrown talent: Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Brandon Montour.

The only top-four defenceman on the ice acquired by trade was P.K. Subban and he came at the cost of Shea Weber. So, what was the lesson?

“You know, Tootsie’s is a great spot,” Babcock joked last week when asked about his decision to drop in on the Western Conference final. “Both teams had elite ‘D.’ We have lots of things on our team that are really good, there are some areas where we can improve. I think it’s important to see the best in all areas and so you know what you’ve got to get to on your team to be successful.

“So it was a good series to watch, that and I like country music.”

Internally, the Leafs are focused on taking incremental steps forward. There will be no wave of a wand to magically shore up the most glaring deficiency on a team with growing aspirations.

Toronto was in the middle of the Travis Hamonic trade talks during draft weekend, but couldn’t get the New York Islanders to bite on a package built around winger James van Riemsdyk. The Isles had some concerns about van Riemsdyk’s long-term health, according to sources, in addition to the fact he’s one year away from unrestricted free agency.

And so they shipped Hamonic to Calgary instead for three draft picks: A first and two seconds.

That further reduced the number of high-impact, right-shooting defencemen on a narrow trade market. The Leafs still have the option to revisit talks with Anaheim on Vatanen, or could perhaps try to get Chris Tanev out of Vancouver, but they’ll more likely settle for something less splashy.

Karl Alzner is currently travelling around North America and meeting suitors during this week’s free-agent courting period. Toronto has interest, but the 28-year-old is in prime position to land a big-money, long-term deal when the signing season opens on Saturday.

He might be priced out of range for the Leafs, just like fellow UFA Kevin Shattenkirk.

The other viable options on the open market won’t draw major headlines: Brendan Smith, a Toronto-born lefty who routinely plays the right side; Cody Franson, a veteran hoping for a return to his boyhood team; Matt Hunwick, a bottom-pairing stalwart in Toronto the past two seasons; and Roman Polak, another familiar face who suffered a broken right leg during the first round of the playoffs against Washington.

The Leafs will also look to find some solutions within.

They signed 23-year-old Calle Rosen and 22-year-old Andreas Borgman out of Sweden this spring and both will be given an opportunity to crack the lineup in training camp. Andrew Nielsen, Travis Dermott and Rinat Valiev are among those who have been seasoning in the American Hockey League.

Some patience will be required no matter what combination of those players joins Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick on the opening night roster.

Ideally, the organization hopes to draft and develop more defencemen over time to augment its impressive group of young forwards. They’ve looked at plenty of external options, but are rightfully wary of cost – both in terms of acquisition and/or how much salary cap space they’ll account for.

“We’re busy,” said Babcock. “We’ve been busy the whole time. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean anything happens as far as from (the media’s) perspective. It happens from our perspective because we’re gathering the information and putting ourselves in the best spot. A lot of deals that you think you might be in on you’re never in on.

“We’re going to do what we can to improve our team, we’ve been trying to do that since we finished (the season) and we continue to try and do that.”

In many ways, the search is best understood as being more about the journey than the destination. This topic will undoubtedly be revisited next off-season and the one after that.

It probably won’t fade away completely until the needs are addressed in-house – when 2017 first-rounder Timothy Liljegren and a few others are eventually ready to make the leap.

“Well I’d always like to get another ‘D,’” said Babcock. “But you can ask me that every year and I’ll tell you the same thing. How’s that?”

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