As we approach the two month mark of the NHL season it is becoming clearer which teams will be buyers and which will be sellers come April 12 — this year’s trade deadline.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will be buyers as we near the halfway mark of a season that may provide them with their best chance to contend for a Stanley Cup in recent memory. Their current three-game losing streak aside, the Leafs have dominated the rest of the opposition in the North Division for much of the season.
Toronto won’t have to face an opponent from another division until the third round, if they get that far. So, the idea that GM Kyle Dubas may push his chips to the middle of the table and go all-in this season makes sense. With that in mind, let’s take a look at which players make the most sense as trade deadline targets for a team looking to win its first Stanley Cup in over half a century.
MATTIAS EKHOLM, NASHVILLE
Contending teams should be, and likely are, tripping over each other to make a pitch for the Nashville Predators defenceman. The Preds sit eight points out of a playoff spot in the Central Division and have some big decisions to make in terms of the short-term direction of their team. Ekholm has one year left on a contract with a cap hit of $3.75 million per year. At 30 years of age, he likely provides the Predators with the best possible return among players they may make available.
A left shot, Ekholm has experience playing both sides of the ice and could give the Leafs one heck of a shutdown duo on their second pair with Jake Muzzin. Ekholm plays all situations and has chipped in nine points in 19 games this season. He is a strong puck mover who snaps a good first pass out of the defensive zone.
Ekholm completes an average of 2.6 stretch passes per game, which ranks 15th among all defencemen. The Maple Leafs complete more stretch passes per game than all but six teams in the NHL, so this is a skill that would fit nicely with a team that likes to attack with speed. Overall, Ekholm ranks top-30 among defencemen in controlled zone exits and entries.
The Maple Leafs emphasize puck possession and Ekholm is a player who can move it out and up the ice efficiently. Ekholm also uses his skating ability to recover loose pucks, averaging 23.6 puck recoveries per game (38th) and he uses his size to push opponents off the puck, averaging 2.9 puck battle wins per game (37th).
What would it cost to acquire the versatile Swede? Likely a first round draft pick and a prospect, similar to what the Maple Leafs had to give up to acquire Muzzin.
MIKAEL GRANLUND, NASHVILLE
There aren’t many teams that can boast the kind of firepower from their forwards Toronto can. While Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have played most of the season with either Joe Thornton or Zach Hyman on their wing, the second line left wing position has been more of a rotating cast of players. Alex Kerfoot, Jimmy Vesey and Ilya Mikheyev have all spent more than 40 minutes on the left side of John Tavares and William Nylander.
Enter Mikael Granlund of the Nashville Predators. Granlund is a bit of a Swiss army knife. He can play wing or centre, kill penalties, play on the power play and is in the final year of a contract with an annual average value of $3.75 million. Listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Granlund is a lot to handle in the offensive zone. He’s strong on the puck, has the skill to possess it at length, wins battles at a high rate and generates scoring chances off the cycle at a top-50 rate.
On a line with Tavares, who is almost impossible to knock off the puck, and Nylander, a skilled playmaker and scorer, Granlund could prove to be a nice fit. Beyond that, Granlund could also be used as a third-line centre. He’s seen time as Nashville’s top line centre this season, so he could be a nice fit on Toronto’s third line with Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev if Pierre Engvall falters.
The Maple Leafs definitely have existing options at second line left wing and third line centre, but Granlund would add more competition and insurance if others around him drop off in play or get injured.
ERIC STAAL, BUFFALO
Since Nazem Kadri was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, the Maple Leafs haven’t had a forward grab hold of the third line centre spot, perhaps until now. As mentioned, Engvall has found magic with Hyman and Mikheyev which may lessen the desire to look for a bottom-six centre. However, whether this line will hold up over the long haul and into the playoffs still remains to be seen.
Even if they do, the Maple Leafs haven’t had any issue adding players they feel can help the team win and finding a spot for them (see Joe Thornton). With that in mind, Eric Staal might still be a player of interest. A former captain and Stanley Cup champion, Staal has the type of experience that any contending team with a young core would find valuable.
Although he is having a down year in Buffalo — who isn’t — Staal is only one year removed from scoring 19 goals and 47 points in 66 games. With a better supporting cast around him, it would be reasonable to expect Staal to produce offensively at a higher rate than the nine points he’s collected in 24 games with the Sabres this season.
Staal has completed 22 passes into the slot at even-strength, which ranks 57th among all forwards. When he doesn’t have the puck, Staal is able to use his size and strength to get it back, ranking 22nd in puck battle wins in the offensive zone and 32nd overall. Again, for a team that thrives on puck possession, having forwards who can win the puck back and extend cycle plays and offensive zone time is never a bad thing.
Staal is in the final year of a two-year contract with an annual average value of $3.25 million. It likely wouldn’t cost much to acquire the pending unrestricted free agent who could prove to be a valuable add as a depth forward and insurance policy in case of injury to current Leafs roster players.