Why Sandin, Liljegren will be key to Maple Leafs' deadline plans

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas talks about his desire to see the team play more games at full health before making any decisions on moving players at the trade deadline.

We believe Kyle Dubas when the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager says he hasn’t landed on his trade deadline strategy quite yet.

But the general manager certainly dropped a giant breadcrumb as to what will sway his decision in addressing his roster’s greatest need before March 21: defensive depth

The most imperative question the executive must ask himself in a year Dubas, his skill-at-will vision, and his assembled core desperately needs a long spring is this: Can we win in the playoffs with 21-year-old Rasmus Sandin and 22-year-old Timothy Liljegren playing hard, meaningful minutes?

Without question, both homegrown blue-liners have potential.

But this is not a season for hope. This is a season for results.

With just 73 and 40 NHL games under their respective belts, are they good enough to deliver now?

“In terms of potential, those young guys probably have more than anyone else in our system,” Dubas told reporters Sunday. “But what can they be able to accomplish here with a little bit more runway? And what can we learn from them that can be instructive for us in terms of how we want to approach the deadline with them?”

Six weeks.

Twenty games.

There’s your runway.

Morgan Rielly is having the campaign of his life, and T.J. Brodie is riding steady shotgun. Dubas lauded Justin Holl’s post-Christmas bounce-back from a sloppy start and reinforced his faith that Jake Muzzin will prove his doubters wrong, though the veteran shutdown man needs to recover from his concussion. And the coaching staff seems to have lost trust in Travis Dermott, whose trade value has taken a blow as the seventh defenceman on the chart.

Much hinges on the kids from Sweden, and there’s a couple ways to unpack the comments from the man who drafted them.

Do they perform so well that Dubas only feels the need to add an affordable third-pairing defenceman for what he hopes will be a deep run? Do they perform OK but push Dubas to swing for an established top-four defenceman?

Or, does one of these impending RFAs look so unready that he becomes a trade chip himself?

Of course, injuries and ineffective play of other players could scramble the chessboard. And the longer Dubas waits to make his move — trust us, he’ll make one — the more cap space he can accrue for his next addition.

“As I’ve stated repeatedly, I've got a lot of belief in the group. But in terms of what we're going to do and whether we’ll add to it or not, I certainly think we want to take as much time as we can and use that to our benefit before deciding to do anything,” Dubas said.

“We probably don't have a whole lot of bullets in the chamber here. We're gonna have to pick and choose as we set our sights," he added.

“Because cap space — not just for us but for most teams in our position — is limited, when you go out and acquire somebody, you're probably done at that point.”

Liljegren would be a biggie, Sandin a monster. And while it’s encouraging to see a healthy Nick Robertson driving offence for the Marlies again, surely his run of injuries has hindered his value.

Dubas may be a little gun-shy when it comes to his 2022 first-round pick, considering how he ended up shooting himself in the foot with the Nick Foligno gambit due to the forward’s untimely injury.

But the Leafs’ first or the second will be in play for the right transaction, even if Toronto has already spent its third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-rounders in the upcoming draft.

This is a GM who has never blinked at spending a little of the future (Trevor Moore, Sean Durzi, Mason Marchment, multiple firsts) if he believes he can boost the present.

The irony here is the Maple Leafs are a 105-year-old franchise in the middle of what could well go down as their best-ever regular season in history, yet, as Dubas reminds, they are in “a dogfight” with the elite top end of the Atlantic Division.

Come March, there will be pressure to keep up with the Jonses, as you can bet Florida, Tampa Bay and Boston will all be buying. Dubas is far too pot-committed to stand pat.

On Thursday, he plans to demote extra forwards Nick Ritchie and Kyle Clifford to the Marlies to help accrue as much cap space as possible. And he’s keeping close tabs on AHLers Josh Ho-Sang, Joseph Blandisi, Curtis Douglas, and Antti Suomela — candidates to earn an NHL deal in mid-March and be available for postseason depth.

“We're in that mode now where we're trying to win,” Dubas said. “So, if we have to deal from that pool [of picks] to do something that we think can help us — great.

“Ideally, I'd like to keep the picks so that we're trying not to be short-term or confine ourselves to any window, and we're not going to be able to just pick in the second and fifth round every time and find players that produce. So I'd love to be able to keep the picks and allow [director of amateur scouting] Wes Clark and the amateur scouting staff to make them. But we'll evaluate that as it comes closer to.”

Dubas bites his tongue on empty Scotiabank Arena

One didn’t have to squint between the lines to see how Dubas feels about Ontario’s crackdown of arena gatherings.

The GM wisely avoided pouring gasoline on a fiery topic in NHL circles, but he clearly sides with commissioner Gary Bettman on this one.

That is, he’d love to see his players performing for a bustling Scotiabank Arena as soon as possible.

“This is home. For better or worse, this is home for us,” Dubas said.

“We play Carolina [Monday]. Next week we play Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Those should be jam-packed games in Toronto. But they're following the direction of the health authorities, and there's nothing I can say today that will sway that and will just get me in trouble.

“So I'll avoid that and just simply say that this is home for us.”

Were the Leafs, as Bettman strategically suggested, one of the Canadian clubs that considered playing out of province to seek a “home” crowd elsewhere?

“It's tough to ask our players and their families to pick up and move, or our players to move away from their families when their kids are in school. So, we'll get through this next stretch of three games,” Dubas said.

“We'll look forward to having 50 per cent back and then 100 [per cent] down the stretch and into the playoffs, which is a lot of fun for us because, as you know, we didn't have any last year.”

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