How you believe the Toronto Maple Leafs should approach Monday’s trade deadline probably says a lot about you. Are you content to have your gratification delayed, or do you want it all right now?
Just because the Leafs can score in bunches and are a legit contender in the East when goalie Frederik Andersen is locked-in doesn’t necessarily mean they should spend high picks and dip into their enviable prospect pool to go for it this spring, especially when the market and their needs don’t align.
“Our plan is to build a product here that we can be proud of, to give ourselves a chance to knock on the door every year — so when you arrive at training camp every year, you know you’re in the playoffs. We’re not at that stage yet,” head coach Mike Babcock says.
“Now, do we want to win today? One hundred per cent.”
Flush at the wings and sturdy between the pipes, Toronto requires a top-four right-shot defenceman and more centre depth, especially in light of third-line pivot Tyler Bozak’s likely departure this summer.
Most of the enticing stay-at-home defenders available — Ryan McDonagh, Jack Johnson, Matt Hunwick or Ian Cole — are left shots. And most of the best forwards on the market — Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Evander Kane, Mike Hoffman, Patrick Maroon — play wing.
Toronto could look at Detroit’s Luke Glendening, Edmonton’s Mark Letestu, or New York’s David Desharnais as a bottom-six centre. Taking a swing at Ottawa’s Derick Brassard would be a bolder tactic, but Pierre Dorion would prefer not to deal with a provincial rival.
As for righty blueliners, Vancouver’s Erik Gudbranson — a younger, better version of Roman Polak? — was removed from the market Tuesday upon signing a three-year, $12-million extension.
Chris Tanev would be a real difference-maker, but he’s now sidelined three or four weeks with a leg fracture. Detroit’s Mike Green can be rented, but the Leafs already have three guys (Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and the emerging Travis Dermott) capable of running a power-play and making stretch passes.
Pending free agents, age, cap hits:
• James van Riemsdyk, 28, $4.25 million
• Tyler Bozak, 31, $4.2 million
• Leo Komarov, 31, $2.95 million
• Dominic Moore, 37, $1 million
• Roman Polak, 31, $1.1 million
Potential assets to move:
Matt Martin: The Maple Leafs’ hottest stretch of the season has coincided with Martin’s string of healthy scratches. The Islanders may be interested in taking Martin back, but his contract ($2.5-million cap hit through 2020-21) is steep for a 13th forward and he could regain his fourth-line checking role when/if Komarov moves elsewhere.
Josh Leivo: A halfhearted trade-me-or-play-me request has gone nowhere, and Kasperi Kapanen has leapfrogged the patient Leivo on the depth chart. His contract is easily movable, and there has been interest from other teams, but Lou Lamoriello’s asking price needs to come down.
Garret Sparks or Calvin Pickard: The Leafs are hoarding two of the American Hockey League’s best goaltenders. Sparks and Pickard each deserve a chance to make it as an NHL backup, at the very least.
Kasperi Kapanen: Fast, skilled and willing to kill penalties, Kapanen is winning over Babcock more by the day. But if Toronto wants to add a significant piece, they’ll have to part with something good — and super sophomores Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner should be untouchable, unless we’re talking Drew Doughty or Erik Karlsson.
Connor Carrick: Struggling to secure a permanent spot on the third pairing — the coach appears to trust veteran Roman Polak more — Carrick is an interesting case on an expiring contract. He may be able to be pried away and should have better days ahead.
The UFAs: The safe bet is that van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Komarov all stick around for one last playoff run. At last check, none have begun extension talks. They won’t be shed for picks and scraps, but the possibility of packaging one or more of them in an effort to swing for more of a blockbuster-level deal absolutely exists.
2018: 1st, 2nd (own), 2nd (SJ), 3rd (SJ), 4th, 5th, 7th (own), 7th (ANA)
2019: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th (own), 4th (STL), 5th, 6th, 7th
One bold move the Maple Leafs could make:
Package their 2018 first-round draft pick with a highly coveted young player (Kapanen? Connor Brown? Travis Dermott? Timothy Liljegren?) to get a difference-maker on defence right now. New York’s Ryan McDonagh is the best name out there, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Chris Tanev or Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Erik Karlsson could be dragged away if you throw enough assets at Vancouver or Arizona or Ottawa.
I think the Maple Leafs should not…:
Dive into bidding wars with teams that are all-in on a 2018 Stanley Cup. The wisest course of action may be to sit tight. Nashville, Pittsburgh and Tampa could all get aggressive (don’t rule out Jim Nill in Dallas, either). As exciting as the Leafs are, however, they have a larger window and are better off staying the course. It’s a buyers’ market for wingers and left-shot defencemen. That’s where Toronto is deepest. The stars aren’t aligning just yet. Pounce later.