Maple Leafs' 14 most intriguing trade targets at defence

Kyle Dubas has given himself options, trade chips and cap space this off-season to address his club’s biggest weakness.

When and how aggressively the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager strikes is a guessing game, but on a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday, his peer in Boston, Don Sweeney, noted how active the trade chatter between executives has been of late.

And Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher recently theorized that the flattened salary cap could give fans an uptick in “money in, money out” hockey trades as teams try to plug roster holes without breaking the bank.

Dubas could explore free agency to reshape a blue line that is particularly weak on the right side with Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci preparing to walk, but he’ll find a richer crop of options if he’s willing to wheel and deal.

His reported asking price for starting goalie Frederik Andersen is a top-four defenceman. Depending how big Dubas wants to swing here, he could dangle a top-nine forward like Andreas Johnsson or Alexander Kerfoot, his recently acquired 15th-overall draft pick (via Pittsburgh), or — gasp! — William Nylander.

Here are 14 of the most intriguing trade targets at defence for the 2020-21 Maple Leafs, covering a variety of price points.

Aaron Ekblad
Age: 24
Shoots: Right
Contract: $7.5-million cap hit through 2024-25

Ekblad is the big, young, right-shot, all-situations defenceman the Maple Leafs — and, oh, about 20 other teams — covet. The 2015 Calder winner hit a career-high 41 points in the shortened 2019-20 season and has taken strides to improve his defensive game under coach Joel Quenneville. The big question: why would Panthers rookie GM Bill Zito even entertain moving such a cornerstone piece? Well, the sense is that ownership in Florida — which swung big only one off-season ago with the Sergei Bobrovsky commitment — is now trimming salary (see: Trocheck, Vincent), and Ekblad is due more salary than any other skater on the roster. Such a trade would fall into three categories: long shot, game changer, and blockbuster.

Matt Dumba
Age: 26
Shoots: Right
Contract: $6-million cap hit through 2022-23

If not this fall, then eventually Wild GM Bill Guerin will be in a pickle with his prime defencemen and, barring some creativity, will be forced to move a young defenceman he likes or lose a great asset to Seattle in the expansion draft. “I am hearing from a lot of sources that they are shopping Dumba,” Wild insider Michael Russo said on the Sept. 3 episode of his podcast, The Russo Hockey Show. The Wild need scoring and help with their prospect pool. The asking price for Dumba will not be small.

Colton Parayko
Age: 27
Shoots: Right
Contract: $5.5-million cap hit through 2021-22

As Blues GM Doug Armstrong tries to make the math work and re-sign both RFA Vince Dunn and UFA Alex Pietrangelo, his six-foot-six, 230-pound horse has had his name pop up in trade rumours. Who wouldn’t love a nasty, playmaking right shot in their top four at a reasonable $5.5 million for the next two seasons? Parayko’s long reach, fierce slapshot, championship pedigree and improving defensive smarts fit the Leafs’ needs, and his $3.35-million actual salary for 2020-21 would appeal to so many owners today.

Rasmus Ristolainen
Age: 25
Shoots: Right
Contract: $5.4-million cap hit through 2021-22

Trade rumours have routinely engulfed Ristolainen. If trades are coming to Buffalo, and they likely are, Risto said himself he’d expect to be shown the door. As much pressure as rookie GM Kevyn Adams is under to right the ship, dealing a core player in his prime to a divisional rival would be quite the risk. “If changes will happen, I know I’m one of the first ones probably who is going to get traded,” Ristolainen said. The big Finn logs more than 20 minutes a night and is integral to his team’s penalty-killing efforts, an area in need of improvement in Toronto. Righties Brandon Mountour (RFA) and Colin Miller (two seasons at $3.875 million) represent other options who should be available in Buffalo, where everyone not named Jack Eichel is worth at least a conversation.

Troy Stecher
Age: 26
Shoots: Right
Contract: RFA (with arbitration rights)

Yes, the flat cap is challenging most clubs, but few will be hit as hard as the Vancouver Canucks. Upon playoff elimination, GM Jim Benning admitted he may have to cut bait with young players — because the trade market for past-their-prime contracts belonging to Loui Eriksson, Michael Ferlund, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle won’t be there. Stecher — rumoured available at the trade deadline — will want a raise, and his post-season performance might justify that. It feels unlikely that Benning can retain both Stecher and UFA Chris Tanev on his right side. Interested GMs must ask themselves if Stecher is a second- or third-pair guy on a contending roster and then offer accordingly.
https://twitter.com/vanessajang/status/1301573837268512768

Josh Manson
Age: 28
Shoots: Right
Contract: $4.1-million cap hit through 2021-22

The Ducks, with their stream of strong defencemen, and Maple Leafs, with their well of scoring prowess, have long seemed like apt trading partners who could help each other with a little balance. Anaheim GM Bob Murray was no happy customer with his rebuilding club’s performance this season, so roster tweaks will be on the agenda. Manson is an alternate captain with a modified no-trade clause, but if Murray doesn’t see a Manson extension aligning with his young group’s window, it’s worth exploring his value sooner rather than later. With Manson’s size (six-foot-three, 224 pounds), sandpaper and mobility, he’d be a fine fit with Jake Muzzin on the Leafs’ top shutdown unit.

Brett Pesce
Age: 25
Shoots: Right
Contract: $4.025-million cap hit through 2023-24

Dubas and Don Waddell have talked Pesce before. And with the Hurricanes’ rumoured interested in Frederik Andersen, surely they will again. Pesce is a stay-at-home, top-four defender and excellent penalty killer on a very pandemic-friendly contract. He’s also still in the process of rehabbing his right shoulder after undergoing surgery in March. Carolina’s bloated blue line is a jigsaw puzzle right now. RFA Hayden Fleury needs a raise. UFAs Joel Edmundson, Sami Vatanen and Trevor van Riemsdyk cannot all be retained. And Waddell must ascertain ASAP what it’ll take to keep his No. 1, Dougie Hamilton (UFA 2021), in Raleigh long term. Dubas could try to work out a deal for Pesce, or give up nothing but money and take a run at Edmundson and/or TVR if they hit the open market.

Niklas Hjalmarsson
Age: 33
Shoots: Left
Contract: $5-million cap hit through 2020-21

The dependable Hjalmarsson made the Blackhawks worse when he left and has been a fine addition to the Coyotes on and off the ice since he arrived. He’s heading toward a contract season and the back nine of his fine career. He is no longer a fit for Arizona’s contention plans, as the franchise seeks a step backward before moving forward, and would be better suited to a club that wants to win now. He’s more than comfortable playing the right side and will be worth every penny of his $5 million in 2020-21. Imagine how good Morgan Rielly would look with Hjalmarsson backing him up. The catch here is, how much do you give up for a top-four defenceman uncertain to return in 2021-22?

David Savard
Age: 29
Shoots: Right
Contract: $4.25-million cap hit through 2020-21

Essentially, Savard would be a one-year, right-shot rental who brings a completely opposite set of strengths than Tyson Barrie did. A shot-blocker and penalty-killer extraordinaire, Savard is a savvy vet accustomed to being deployed in defend-first situations and starts the majority of his shifts in his own end. He brings edginess and compete. The Maple Leafs got a firsthand look at what Savard’s commitment without the puck can achieve as the Blue Jackets ousted Dubas’s squad in the qualification round. Now, Columbus would like to hang on to Savard, a valued leader in that room, but he lacks trade protection. And the Blue Jackets’ need for goals is apparent.

Mattias Ekholm
Age: 30
Shoots: Left
Contract: $3.75-million cap hit through 2021-22

Nashville GM David Poile made a public vow when his club’s bad season was followed by a bad post-season. “Some players aren't going to be brought back,” Poile said. “We're not satisfied and going to make some changes.” That Ekholm’s name has surfaced in speculation is telling of the level of dissatisfaction in Music City. Poile won’t mess with the top two defenders, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, but something has to give to improve a forward group that has under-delivered for too long now. Ekholm’s contract is fantastic and could fetch a heckuva return. Poile is the rare exec with the gall to pull something this bold off.

Connor Murphy
Age: 27
Shoots: Right
Contract: $3.85-million cap hit through 2021-22

The six-foot-four Murphy is a better-than-average defender who starts most shifts in his own zone and still finished 2019-20 with a plus-2 rating on a minus-6 club. Unlike the names higher up on this list, Murphy’s acquiring price shouldn’t be super steep. A known asset who is coming off his busiest (21:15 average ice time) and most productive offensive season (19 points in 58 games), Murphy’s steady, workman approach could help solidify the back end.

MacKenzie Weegar
Age: 26
Shoots: Right
Contract: RFA

The Panthers will be more eager to get out from Michael Matheson’s hefty contract but could get more value if they entertain offers for Weegar, who is due a raise in October. A right shot mostly deployed on the left side, the underrated Weegar strived through injuries to post impressive numbers on a beleaguered blue line. Earning more trust under Quenneville than previous coaches, the Ottawa native hit a career high in ice time (20:07) skating next to Ekblad or Anton Stralman. The safe bet is that Florida re-signs Weegar, but it’s a season of turnover in Sunrise, so it’s worth tire-kicking.

Adam Larsson
Age: 27
Shoots: Right
Contract: $4.17-million cap hit through 2020-21

The Leafs and Oilers have a recent history of almost making trades, and Larsson’s name keeps popping up in those near-deals. Again, we’re looking at a big-bodied penalty-killer who can clog lanes, use his body and log minutes. With only one more season on the books and coming off a down year (Larsson’s minutes, points and possession metrics all dropped), the experienced defenceman could be a value option if Oilers GM Ken Holland wants to further entrust his young, emerging blue-liners and free up cap space for a goalie and some tertiary scoring.

Matt Benning
Age: 26
Shoots: Right
Contract: RFA (with arbitration rights)

A potential third-pairing target, Benning is a restricted free agent who could be obtained for a more modest price. Increasingly, the Oilers have entrusted Benning in defensive situations, and while he won’t be driving offence, there is strong belief that his best days as an NHLer are still in front of him. Benning made $1.9 million last season but is in no position to break the bank.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.