Quick Shifts: 8 rental targets to help Maple Leafs' biggest need

Faizal Khamisa and Luke Fox discuss the Maple Leafs struggles with defensive depth, potential trade targets, and giving Petr Mrazek a chance to show his stuff.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Rest in peace, Clark Gillies.

1. We’ve seen what a key absence or two can do to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ blue line — expose its lack of depth.

For a club with Stanley Cup aspirations, there should be no question that general manager Kyle Dubas will do his best to bolster his greatest weakness in advance of the March 21 deadline.

Would Dallas trade bait John Klingberg make the Leafs better? Absolutely.

But we're not certain Klingberg is the perfect solution for this roster’s needs — or that Dubas can put together the best package to land him.

There are a handful of cheaper defenders on expiring contracts that check the proper boxes: experience playing against the opposition’s top six; kills penalties; capable of playing the right side; physical; and a cap hit that, with some massaging, could work.

Let’s take an early peek at eight impending UFAs, in descending order, who could be on Dubas’s wish list.

Ben Chiarot: Making deadline deals with the archrival Montreal Canadiens is never easy, but it can happen (see: Plekanec, Tomas). Chiarot will be the most obvious and in-demand rental, as his smashmouth style is ideal for springtime. Yes, he’s another left shot, but he comports himself well on the right side and ranks top-10 league-wide in PK time. He won’t come cheap (a first-rounder? plus?), and other contenders (Carolina, Florida, et al.) might be willing to offer more.

Josh Manson: The 30-year-old, stay-at-home defender is probably my favourite candidate on this list. Manson is big (6-foot-3, 224 pounds), mean and used to playing hard minutes in the physical Western Conference. The big catch here? We’re not certain the Anaheim Ducks are selling. Neither are they. A GM search is still underway, and the Ducks have surprisingly played their way into the playoff mix. They’ll re-evaluate in March.

Rasmus Ristolainen: The Flyers may not have waved the white flag yet, but it’s coming. Ristolainen is nasty, big-bodied (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) righty who clears out the crease and kills penalties. He has zero playoff experience and, as a long-serving Sabre, has always held a healthy distaste for the Leafs.

Anton Stralman: Reunion time? The 35-year-old Stralman began his NHL adventure as a Leaf way back in 2007 and has quietly been a steady presence on the back end for a bad Coyotes team. Yes, he’s a minus-3. But he’s a minus-3 on a minus-55 team who starts 68 per cent of his shifts in D-zone, drives play forward, and still logs 20-plus minutes a night.

Justin Braun: Some say the Leafs need more brawn. How about Braun? Another low-profile, steady veteran, Braun falls into that second tier of targets (i.e., more affordable). Philadelphia’s No. 2 penalty killer will be 35 by the time trade deadline rolls around, but he blocks shots and has enough legs to see his ice time rise to a three-year high.

Colin Miller: The Buffalo Sabres righty is expected to be on the block once he recovers from an undisclosed surgery that should have him healthy by mid-March. The 29-year-old has more offensive upside than most on this list — he scored three goals and put up seven points for Vegas during its run to the 2018 Cup final — but is happy to kill penalties. That he’s a Soo Greyhounds alum automatically raises eyebrows.

Ilya Lyubushkin: Like a younger Stralman, the 27-year-old Lyubushkin is a boring, stay-at-home right shot having a solid campaign in relative obscurity. The 6-foot-2 Russian carries a modest $1.35-million cap hit and throws hits. We’re getting into guys who might be a lateral move from Justin Holl here, but if Toronto wants a deep run, they’ll need players. Why not peruse the Coyotes’ fire sale?

Andy Greene: The 39-year-old’s feet are slowing down, to be sure, but as a No. 6 or 7 defenceman on a contender — which the Islanders are no longer — you could do much worse. The cap hit ($750,000) is right, Greene can play either side, and his leadership and experience (1,100-plus games including playoffs) is unquestionable. Would he join his first Canadian team if it meant a (final?) shot at a Cup?

2. Ryan McDonagh was nervous; Victor Hedman was motivated.

“I'm not going to lie. I had trouble napping today because I was pretty excited,” Hedman told reporters.

Two-time defending champions rarely get dealt an extraordinary test in January, one that might hinder a Norris and Conn Smythe trophy winner’s ability to sleep.

But the Tampa Bay Lightning walked into Staples Center Tuesday knowing they only had four defenceman available.

“It’s something new. It’s clearly not ideal,” coach Jon Cooper said postgame. “He was excited for this challenge. There’s guys that rise to the challenge. There’s guys that don’t.”

In case you didn’t already understand which category Hedman falls into, he went out and scored two pretty goals, set up a third with a primary assist and chugged an eye-popping 32:37 in ice time, propelling Tampa and its four defencemen to a 6-4 win in L.A.

“When you’re filling out those [Norris] ballots,” Cooper said, “he should be on it every year.”

Cale Makar and Adam Fox are the shiny new(ish) toys, playmaking wonders, and the future of elite D-men. But neither has delivered a tour de force performance over 60 minutes like the one Hedman laid down this week.

He is very much part of the present.

3. Colorado’s Kurtis MacDermid and Anaheim’s Nicolas Deslauriers delivered the early favourite for NHL Fight of the Year, a heavyweight clash that featured punches being exchanged for more than a full minute.

Neither combatant fell.

The next morning, Hockeyfights.com scored the decision 54 per cent for MacDermid.

Incredibly, this was the fifth time these tough guys dropped the gloves with each other over the past 14 months. Fans have declared MacDermid the winner in each round, but this was the tightest decision yet.

4. As the Maple Leafs’ schedule slowed due to postponed games, coach Sheldon Keefe noticed the Boston Bruins gaining on them in the Atlantic Division’s four-horse race.

“We're well aware we're in a division surrounded by elite teams that are rolling and don't lose very often,” Keefe says. “You can't take days off, take nights off. That's why it was frustrating that we gave up those points on the road, whether we’ve given up a lead or give them two points in Arizona. Those are tough points.

“You have to find a way to get your share points every single night, because everybody around you is not giving you the room to breathe. I think that's a very healthy thing for our team.”

Even though the top-heavy Atlantic features four of the NHL’s top 10 teams by points percentage, the Maple Leafs have declared an explicit goal to secure the No. 1 seed, dodge the wagons in Florida, and draw a weaker wild-card Round 1 opponent.

“We don't talk about the standings very often, but it's something that has been discussed, certainly, since Day One of camp — that our goal is to win the division, and we feel like we should,” Keefe says.

“We feel like we have an opportunity to win every game with the team that we have. So, yeah, absolutely, the goal is to win the division.”

Sports Club Stats is a handy resource for examining the odds of that happening.

Heading into the weekend, Keefe’s Leafs — who hold multiple games in hand over the Lightning and Panthers — have a 41 per cent of winning the Atlantic’s top seed. It’s very much within reach.

5. If there is an NHLer in favour of continuing to test asymptomatic players, we haven’t found him.

“It's evolved now,” Toronto’s Jason Spezza says. “For us that had it, the symptoms were pretty minimal. So, I think this is a natural progression. I trust the doctors with the league and the PA — have trusted them all along. I feel like they'll make decisions that are best for public health safety and for us as players.”

As of the all-star break, the decision is to only test symptomatic players and everyone about to cross the border.

“I feel like we're in a different place than we were two years ago with the virus, so I think it's a good step in the right direction,” Spezza continues. “We don't need guys missing games for no reason if they're feeling good.”

Michael Bunting is a rare Maple Leaf who has not submitted a positive test yet.

“A few of us have made jokes that we're just we're just dodging it every single day,” Bunting says. “If they take testing away… it just takes away one thing I have to do in the morning. So, I'm fine with them going that route.”

Calgary’s Blake Coleman says he only dealt with mild symptoms, and that was the case with teammates past and present that he’s spoken with. The laxing of testing is a “great” step in his mind.

“I think I speak for most people in our room and hopefully in the world: We’re all ready to move on, live life and have things be the way we should,” Coleman says.

“I’ve played through the flu before and felt worse than when I tested positive back in July. I think guys are ready to play.”

6. Brad Marchand versus Carolina Hurricanes is the feud we didn’t know we needed.

That a probable future Hall of Famer is willing to take on a whole team on social media is great theatre. Considering the sport has lost some of its bitter edge and so many opponents act all buddy-buddy until the post-season rolls around, I’m here for this one.

The Hurricanes travel to Boston Feb. 10, which gives the Canes’ Twitter masters plenty of time to conjure up chirps.

Bonus Marchand content:

7. Quote of the Week.

God love T.J. Brodie, who is one of the most soft-spoken and consistent players in the league. What he rarely is, however, is quotable.

So, I enjoyed Brodie’s comment on smooth-skating partner Morgan Rielly’s ability to join the rush.

“I’ll look beside me sometimes thinking that I'm jumping up — and he's already five steps ahead of me,” Brodie said, smiling.

8. I’m a sucker for jersey news, particularly throwback jersey news.

Icethetics, which is a great source for logo leaks, reports that the Buffalo Sabres are bringing back their 1996 “goat head” sweater. It will serve as the team’s 2022-23 alternate jersey.

Love it.

The best thing about this edition of the Sabres sweater is that the back reveals a hidden outline of a buffalo head when the arms are spread:

9. Everyone and their cousin seemed to have a take on the testy podium interaction between Oilers alternate captain Leon Draisaitl and reporter Jim Matheson.

My favourite was Mark Messier’s.

Appearing on “The Big Picture,” Messier backed Draisaitl’s “everything” response, saying he liked that the star player didn’t throw any teammates (goalies?) under the bus.

“But the bad part about it was that when you are in a position of leadership, when you are in a position to speak on behalf of the team, it’s really important to realize you’re not speaking one-on-one with the journalist asking you the question,” Messier said.

“You’re speaking to the fan base. You want to have a unified message between the team and the fan, so they can feel good about what’s going on. Even if you are struggling, you can give a coherent message about what you’re doing to get out of it.”

As the great EPMD would say, business never personal.

On the flip side, Edmonton was blessed by the fresh air of Brendan Perlini.

Perlini is only 25 but already on his fifth NHL franchise. He spent all last season playing in Switzerland before working his way back to the show. Gives a man perspective…

10. Few things have the ability to bring instant joy like watching a goalie goal.

Spruce Grove Saints netminder Tristan Martin scored the first in Alberta Junior Hockey League on Tuesday.

“I took my shot at the first one, and it was an icing. There was no pressure, and I went to play it, and they dumped it in again, and nobody was coming at me again so I thought why not give it another crack,” Martin told The Grove Examiner.

“I got the height on it, and the rest is history.”

11. You know what they say about assumptions.

In last week’s Quick Shifts, I mistakenly credited Pittsburgh’s improved penalty kill to assistant coach Todd Reirden, based on the fact Reirden oversees the defence. Wrong. Assistant Mike Vellucci takes great pride in running the PK.

The Penguins aren’t the only team that divides duties this way.

Hall of Fame defenceman Phil Housley, an offensive beast in his day, also runs the D and the power-play in Arizona.

12. Bummer that Willie O’Ree couldn’t be inside TD Garden in-person to witness his Number 22 getting hoisting to the rafters on the 64th anniversary of his becoming the first black player to skate in the NHL.

But what a week of recognition for Mr. O’Ree, who was also awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal and derserves all the flowers he’s getting.

When I was just starting at Sportsnet, Mr. O’Ree granted me one of my first one-on-one interviews, talking all the time in the world to graciously answer my questions. Years later, it remains my favourite story.

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