Maple Leafs Mailbag: Patrick Kane trade buzz, Sandin's stalemate and top-six shuffle

Could Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) be traded to the Maple Leafs? (Joshua Bessex/AP)

School's in, and hands are raising.

The people have questions.

What’s the deal with Rasmus Sandin not having a deal? Which Marlie could make the leap? How should Toronto's top six shake out? Is it safe to dream about Patrick Kane heading north? And, most important, what rap music should I be listening to?

Yes, it's time for the first Maple Leafs Mailbag of the 2022-23 season.

Great question. And a biggie.

I sometimes wonder if Sheldon Keefe has considered wiping his top-six slate clean. Try splitting up Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner. Let Marner drive the John Tavares line as the second-line centre battles a natural age decline. (Tavares will be 32 when the puck drops.)

A Michael Bunting–Matthews–William Nylander unit could be interesting. It’s no secret Matthews and Marner love working together, but there are 82 games of runway to at least experiment.

Regardless of who gets Marner, there is an obvious hole to fill in a scoring role, and Ilya Mikheyev's departure to Vancouver creates some winger intrigue for Keefe's middle six.

Alexander Kerfoot has Keefe's trust and would be the easy pick. He's coming off a career-best 51-point season and probably doesn't get enough credit for his offensive upside.

Considering the term given to Calle Järnkrok, I'd expect him to be given a chance farther up the lineup at some point before Christmas.

And Adam Gaudette — who sniped six goals in 10 games for Team USA during May’s world championships — is my dark horse candidate to eventually vie for a second-line role.

The way GM Kyle Dubas has structured his pay scale, the Maple Leafs would benefit greatly from meaningful NHL contributions upfront from a Marlie or two making less than $800,000.

The false starts of Nick Robertson's big-league career have been frustrating. (Even more so for the player himself than an antsy fan base.) And the left wing's one-goal, 10-game stint in 2021-22 showed there is still more development needed.

That said, big brother Jason Robertson didn’t solidify himself as an NHLer until he was 21. Nick turns 21 next week. Don't give up on the kid just yet.

Dubas met with Robertson, Joey Anderson, and a few other Marlies forwards upon the conclusion of last season and dangled a carrot.

"What their opportunity is going to be in training camp was made abundantly clear in terms of what they are competing for. We do need those players to begin converting from being good prospects and Marlies to being good players for the Leafs," Dubas said.

"There are guys who may not have as high a profile but can play specific roles and provide specific elements, whether it is speed, physicality, power, or presence. A Bobby McMann, Curtis Douglas, Joey Anderson — players in that mould — in addition to the Robertsons and the like. That is where the focus will be for sure."

Like Robertson, Anderson has some sibling pressure to make a push. (Younger brother Mikey has become a regular on the Kings blue line.)

He's a smart bet to get an opportunity. As a natural right wing, however, Anderson is competing against new guys Järnkrok, Adam Gaudette and Nicolas Aubé-Kubel for a bottom-six spot. The path for a left shot like Robertson, or maybe Alex Steeves, is a little more open.

I'm really digging JID's The Forever Story. He's a master of flipping flows and makes rhyming sound easy and fun.

Danger Mouse & Black Thought's Cheat Codes has some absolute bangers.

Roc Marciano and The Alchemist's The Elephant Man's Bones, Meyhem Lauren & Daringer’s Black Vladimir, and Kota the Friend’s Memo are all solid. And I keep coming back to Pusha T’s It’s Almost Dry, which looks like it’ll be difficult to dethrone as my favourite rap album of 2022.

Wrote a song about it. Like to hear it? Here it go.

The Coles Notes: Sandin, 22, and Dubas have reached a standstill, and the next pressure point won't arrive for a couple of weeks, when Sandin must choose whether to show up at Ford Performance Centre without a contract.

Dubas has reason to draw a hard financial line here.

Consider that RFA defenceman Erik Brannstrom, 23, just signed a one-year extension with Ottawa for $900,000. Brannstrom is a decent comparable to Sandin, a fellow first-round pick.

The former had 14 points in 53 games last season; the latter had 16 points in 51 games.

Stray thought: Will take-one-for-the-team Mark Giordano play the right side on occasion to make some space for Sandin on the left?

Sept. 21. Giddy yap.

Better question: Do you take Auston Matthews to win the goal race or literally anyone else?

I’ll spot you the field and nab Matthews.

For a guy who popped 60 in 73 games, health is the only obstacle at this point.

The Maple Leafs' No. 1 centre is firmly in his prime at 24, scoring is on the rise, and he's not trying to rehab an injured wrist during training camp. More important: He's as hungry as he is accurate.

Matthews' goals-per-game rate has risen in each of the past three seasons. As Jon Cooper proclaimed, 70 is not beyond range.

Only one player has launched a Rocket threepeat. Alex Ovechkin did so twice, capturing four in a row from 2013 through 2016 and another three from 2018 through 2020.

Since the award's inception in 1999, Matthews and Pavel Bure (1999 and 2000) are the only other snipers to successfully defend their title.

Let’s go with yes.

Jacob Markstrom said as much on 32 Thoughts: The Podcast last month, and I love to see such confidence.

No doubt, the Flames were dealt a potential death blow in losing two 100-point stud forwards in one summer. But GM Brad Treliving took a breath, crawled off the mat, and rebounded with one of the most memorable off-season performances I can recall.

Jonathan Huberdeau is about as fine a replacement for Johnny Gaudreau as you can get. Call it a wash.

Matthew Tkachuk is an agitator supreme. He's younger than Nazem Kadri and is a wise bet to pile up more points. But Kadri provides coveted centre depth, arrives with championship experience, and he's more trustworthy defensively than Tkachuk.

Even if you prefer Tkachuk to Kadri, you must add the MacKenzie Weegar factor.

The top-four, right-shot defenceman further bolsters an already sturdy blue line. Chris Tanev has had months to heal. And the rest of the group's bitter playoff loss to Edmonton should douse fuel to the fire.

I'm not guaranteeing a Pacific crown or another 111-point regular season by the Flames, mostly because I'm betting on better showings by the divisional rivals around them.

I am saying that I prefer 2022-23's mix of skaters to that of 2021-22, particularly when the post-season rolls around.

In Treliving, we trust.

Ah… this might be the biggest roster question on Leafs Nation’s mind.

As members of Toronto’s endangered middle class, Kerfoot (one year remaining at a $3.5 million cap hit) and Justin Holl (one year at $2 million) must be sick of hearing their names recycled in fake trades.

Dubas said at the draft that he had surveyed the market and believes his players could fetch decent return via trade.

Still, we're not convinced the Maple Leafs improve by dumping useful contributors for cap relief. We're equally unconvinced that the return for Kerfoot (a versatile 50-point guy asked to do his damage at even-strength) or Holl (an experienced penalty-killer and minutes muncher) in this climate would excite Leafs fans.

Columbus salary-dumped Oliver Bjorkstrand — a more dynamic offensive threat than Kerfoot — to Seattle for a third- and fourth-rounder.

Vegas just nabbed Adin Hill, a decent young goalie, from San Jose's crowded crease, for a fourth.

All of this is a long way of not-so-confidently saying, yes, Holl and Kerfoot are still bets to be on the opening roster. But that's no guarantee they finish their contract campaigns in Toronto.

The premise of your question might be askew.

I don't sense that Dubas is trying to shed players to sign Sandin. The D-man's negotiation has more to do with the Leafs not wanting to overpay a young player that simply hasn't put himself in a position of leverage — yet. For now, there is a line in the sand, and my guess it's Timothy Liljegren's $1.4-million AAV.

Now, while we just touched on the market for Holl and Kerfoot not being very rich, that doesn’t mean they have negative value. These are established NHLers. They are worth something. For now, other teams do not value them as much as Toronto does.

That applies to Jake Muzzin, too. Unlike Holl, I haven't heard a single whisper that the Leafs are trying to deal the hard-nosed defender. Despite a rocky, injury-riddled regular season, Muzzin was excellent in the Tampa Bay series. He is a trusted, beloved and respected voice in a room light on playoff wins, and Jason Spezza's retirement has only reinforced the roster's need for some Muzzin-like wisdom.

If and when the Maple Leafs ever decide to move on from Muzzin, other teams will want him (health permitting, of course). Hey, did you see how much stay-at-home guys like Erik Gudbranson and Ben Chiarot signed for this summer?

Oh, baby. Patrick Kane is a bona fide superstar, but that seems like a load to surrender for one playoff run.

Kane's situation is fascinating, no doubt. And to achieve the highest return in trade, the acquiring club would need assurance on an extension.

Absolutely, fan bases in Toronto and Buffalo and pretty much everywhere else should dream of a disgruntled, determined no-brainer Hall of Famer taking his three rings and running off to join another circus.

As desperate as Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson is to rip his roster to the studs and give himself the best odds of drafting Connor Bedard, Kane holds a complete no-move clause in his contract's final season and thus all the leverage. (Same goes for Jonathan Toews.)

If you're Kane, maybe you slow-play this thing out. See which teams look like legit Cup contenders after the all-star break. Then tell Davidson you'll only accept a deal to Team X. That way, you control your own fate, the way Taylor Hall targeted Boston out of Buffalo or Claude Giroux aimed for Florida out of Philadelphia.

When trade deadline rolls around, Chicago will have already paid the bulk of Kane's salary. Davidson could offer to retain 50 per cent of his star's prorated salary to ease the cap hit for the contending team and max out the Blackhawks' return.

How about a first-round pick, a mid-round pick, a quality prospect, and a roster player?

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