Joining fellow GM Jim Rutherford as first to act, Kyle Dubas didn’t wait for the playoffs to even reach the halfway point to make his message loud and clear: He will be active this off-season in attempt to reshape a Toronto Maple Leafs roster that came up short once again.
In trading Kasperi Kapanen — a useful, young, club-controlled winger likely yet to touch his ceiling — for futures and some cherished salary-cap space, Dubas fired a flare Tuesday. He wants a paddle at the auction for unrestricted free agents and a seat at the table for any trade discussion that can improve his team.
While a tweak between the pipes cannot be ruled out, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are making a heckuva case for what adding some sandpaper to your bottom-six forward group can do (for Dubas, re-signing UFA Kyle Clifford may be the easiest place to start), the major hole that needs to be filled here is on the blue line. Specifically, the right side.
We don’t have much issue with a left defence depth chart that begins with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin and is fleshed out with a cluster of affordable, still-improving 20-somethings — Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, Mikko Lehtonen — who should all arrive at camp strong and hungry.
But with UFAs Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci expected to walk, Justin Holl stands alone as Toronto’s only NHL righty defenceman under contract. Until proven otherwise, Timothy Liljegren, 21, is a prospect.
Rielly and, the low-risk bet here is, Lehtonen check the boxes of offensive D-men who can quarterback a power-play unit and help spark offence from the rear.
But what 2019-20 reminded everyone involved is that the Maple Leafs are now desperate for better defenders, guys who can kill a penalty, box out an opponent, take or make a hit, stuff a cycle, trigger a breakout.
“If there’s another Jake Muzzin, we would certainly be interested, to put it mildly,” Dubas said.
As your grandmother’s saying goes: Muzzins don’t grow on trees.
Yet the impending league-wide cap crunch and a significant crop of impending UFA defencemen will present options at various price points for Dubas to spend his dough.
“I can look at the list right now, and there are certainly a number of players that have been very good NHL players for a long time,” Dubas said. “That’s obviously a positive. But knowing what the market is going to bear out for them in terms of opportunity and contracts is really difficult right now.”
With the understanding there are a lot of moving pieces, here is a look at 10 defencemen heading toward UFA status the Maple Leafs should explore.
Of all the impending UFA defencemen, none piled up more points (52 in 70 games) or logged more ice time (24:11 per night) than the St. Louis Blues’ captain.
Pietrangelo, excellent in all situations, is far and away the most desirable free agent for the Maple Leafs’ — and several other teams’ — needs, and Blues GM Doug Armstrong will need to move some money out to accommodate the type of long-term deal in the $9-million-AAV range Pietrangelo is worth.
This would be the big swing.
The 30-year-old Canucks righty said this summer he’d “love to stay here and play” in Vancouver for as long as possible and help steer one of the most exciting young cores in the sport. Yet Jim Benning is staring at a flattened cap and surging salaries, and it seems unlikely the GM can afford to give righties Tanev and Troy Stetcher (RFA) both the pay bumps they’ll need.
Toss in the massive 2021 contracts that will need to be plotted for franchises cornerstones Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, and the front office will have to trim somewhere. Then there is the not-so-small matter of bringing back UFAs Jacob Markstrom (a must) and Tyler Toffoli (a luxury).
Tanev, a Toronto native, will be coming off his healthiest campaign in years and is precisely the type of fearless shot-blocker and penalty killer the Leafs sorely need.
3. T.J. Brodie
A lefty content to play his weak side, Brodie quietly skates 20-plus minutes nightly and has established himself as a dependable defender.
The Ontario native is comfortable starting most of shifts in his own zone and still finishes most in the O-zone, chipping in complementary offence along the way. Remember, it was Brodie that Dubas was originally eyeing for last summer’s Nazem Kadri trade. Kadri used his modified no-trade clause to nix the deal, and Toronto turned its sights on Tyson Barrie instead.
Cap strapped, Flames GM Brad Treliving is expected to let at least one of his two 30-year-old UFA right defencemen walk. Brodie or…
Way back at the 2017 draft, the Maple Leafs were outbid by Calgary for Hamonic’s services when the heart-and-soul blueliner begged out of New York.
The bet here is that Hamonic, who skates with a defend-first mindset, will prefer to stay close to family and remain in the Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean his name shouldn’t at least be brought up.
5. Radko Gudas
A third-pairing guy on a deep blueline and a second-pairing player on a thinner one, Gudas should not break the bank — but may dislocate a shoulder.
The 30-year-old right shot is thick and nasty and willing to do the grunt work that becomes invaluable in the post-season. A seasoned penalty killer, Gudas enjoyed a plus-15 rating this past season in Washington, and he owns the type of positive underlying numbers that should appease Dubas and Co.
The Capitals might like to retain Gudas for depth, but they have to spend on goaltending and have made it clear that rental Brenden Dillon will be their first option for re-signing a blueliner.
Dubas’s dissatisfaction with his team’s play at the deadline prevented him from acquiring a depth rental like the former Buffalo Sabres defender. Understanding the importance of depth, and their own shrinking window, the Tampa Bay Lightning brought Bogosian into the fold for short-term gain.
Now he’s skating nearly 19 minutes per playoff game for a legit contender and raising his own stock for when he reaches the open market this fall.
Bogosian, 30, shouldn’t command a long-term commitment but fits the bill of a big righty (six-foot-three, 221 pounds) with sandpaper, happy to protect the house.
The Stanley Cup champion quietly enjoyed his greatest offensive season (20 points) after being traded from St. Louis to Carolina.
The Hurricanes have almost as many proven defenders as they have Storm Surge ideas, and they won’t all be coming back. Pending UFAs Sami Vatanen and Trevor van Riemsdyk will also come knocking for raises, and Carolina’s mid-season trade for cost-certain Brady Skjei was completed knowing someone would walk.
Edmundson naturally plays the left side, but his penalty-killing and commitment to snuffing out offence would be a welcome addition. At 27, Edmundson is younger than most on this list.
8. Dylan DeMelo
The mid-season move from Ottawa to Winnipeg did wonders for DeMelo (and his agent).
The top-four right shot excelled when inserted into a superior lineup. So what if he didn’t register a single point for the Jets? DeMelo hops over the boards to prevent goals and spring the breakout.
There is certainly a feeling that the 2011 sixth-rounder’s best NHL days are still ahead of him. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff would be wise to try to extend DeMelo and make him something more than a rental, but if he does hit the open market, Dubas should attempt to sell him on the idea of hanging around his home province of Ontario.
9. Andy Greene
During Morgan Rielly’s greatest season (2018-19), he was partnered with a smart, experienced lefty by the name of Ron Hainsey. Yes, Greene, 37, is getting up there, but his game is still sharp.
Another lefty whose consistent style of play doesn’t lose much on the right side, Greene’s leadership and professionalism have been embraced on Long Island. He almost always chooses the smart play over the exciting play, and the Leafs could use a little more of that.
If Greene is willing to take a one-year deal, he’d be worth a call.
10. Sami Vatanen
Less physical than most other candidates described here, Vatanen will give his team 21 minutes a night and chip in some offence.
His numbers took a beating during his time amongst the New Jersey Devils’ rebuild, but if slotted properly (i.e., not on your top pair) Vatanen can be a solid addition to a defence core.
A more cap-friendly UFA option from the same team is Trevor van Riemsdyk.