Maple Leafs Mailbag: Will Toronto trade for Scott Mayfield?

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe yells at the referee while playing against the Detroit Red Wings during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, October 30, 2021. (Nathan Denette/CP)

As the season — and tempers — heat up, so do the questions.

Great variety was found when we cracked open the first Toronto Maple Leafs mailbag of 2022.

Yes, even though the franchise has burst out to arguably its best first half in history, fans are fixated on the tinkering that can make the lineup even better. And what might transpire if it doesn’t.

From prospective trade targets to the general manager’s fate, from the coach’s frustration to a Beijing-bound prospect, there’s plenty to unpack here.

Let’s dig in.

Does Scott Mayfield fit the profile of a player Kyle Dubas should target? Absolutely.

The question is this: With Noah Dobson (RFA 2022) set to join Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech as a properly compensated member of the Islanders’ top four, does Lou Lamoriello start planning for the future and trade Mayfield now for a better return?

Or does he see the physical D-man’s modest $1.45 million cap hit for 2022-23 as fine value for next season?

The Islanders haven’t been good. Their .500 points percentage places them 23rd overall. That said, they’ve only played 34 games, and we’ve yet to meet a GM willing to wave the white flag with 59 per cent of the season still left to play.

Mayfield is a cap-friendly, 29-year-old right shot logging more than 20 minutes per night for the first time in his career. He makes less than Justin Holl ($2 million) and plays with more edge.

That means he throws more hits, blocks more rubber but also spends more time in the penalty box.

Dubas would not only covet Mayfield’s size (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) but his offensive upside and fantastic underlying metrics. Bonus: Mayfield elevates his effort come postseason, posting 13 points, 120 blocked shots and 118 hits in 51 playoff games.

Desire on the Leafs’ side will be there. But it takes two to shake hands — and who knows Lamoriello’s plan?

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A less exciting but easier deal might be made for former Leaf Luke Schenn.

The 32-year-old is having a fine, plus-8 season for a mediocre Canucks team. While Mayfield is more of a second-pairing guy, the 226-pound Schenn is a bargain depth option. He’s on a $850,000 cap hit through 2023.

My theory: Keefe’s mounting frustration boiled over Wednesday night. He was tired of putting a positive spin on those blown 3-1 leads, and the regulation loss to COVID-stricken, last-place Arizona with the Coyotes assistant coach running the bench embarrassed him.

The Rangers came with a playoff-style forecheck and bullied Toronto’s young, small defence around. His team shrunk from the moment, and it triggered the same nightmares Leafs fans have from those blown postseason opportunities against Columbus and Montreal.

His message was to the players, but he was too emotional postgame to consider how it might reflect on his boss’s roster decisions — poorly.

I don’t think Keefe was trying to fire a subliminal at Dubas, with whom he has a long relationship, but it absolutely could be interpreted that way.

Exposed and soft are yikes words to hear from your head coach.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

That’s why Keefe backtracked Friday. Whether true or not, his “clarification” lets some theorize that the coach got his wrist slapped for being too blunt in a public forum.

Fact is, the Leafs did submit a soft defensive effort.

They aren’t as tough or deep on the back end since losing Zach Bogosian, and they should bulk up for playoffs and pray Jake Muzzin is healthy.

But it’s also true that their existing personnel have more in them, which they showed in the bounce-back game on Long Island.

“They defend really quite well,” Isles coach Barry Trotz said Saturday. “All the credit to Toronto. They came off a tough loss to the Rangers. They wanted to lock it down, and they did a pretty good job. It was tough to generate stuff.”

Dubas himself hinted heading into this season that this could be his last stand. If he goes out, it will be on his terms, with his core.

Defending hard is certainly part of it, but the Maple Leafs’ offence has averaged just 2.33 goals per game over the 2020 and 2021 postseasons. Their power-play shrunk to 13.9 per cent in those lost series.

It’s a 3-2 league. You don’t win by scoring twice.

Defence is an issue, sure, but it has not been the main issue in Keefe’s postseasons.

President Brendan Shanahan asserted a couple months ago that MLSE ownership has been “fantastically supportive” of his plan. In a results business, that support will be challenged if the plan yields a sixth consecutive first-round defeat.

Maybe.

Generally, NHL-level wingers reveal themselves earlier than any other position. But, hey, if Michael Bunting can make an impact on one of hockey’s best lines as a 26-year-old rookie, we’d be foolish to discount Pontus Holmberg at age 22.

At 5-foot-10, Toronto’s 2018 sixth-rounder is very much an NHL long shot, but he’s picking up steam and was just named to Sweden’s Olympic squad.

The left winger is enjoying a career year offensively with Växjö in the SHL and was named playoff MVP during his club’s championship run last spring, erupting for 14 points in 14 playoff games.

The book on Holmberg: fast feet, exceptional hockey sense, pass first, needs to improve his shot.

Timothy Liljegren still follows the Swedish league closely and has noted Holmberg’s breakout.

“Good for him,” Liljegren says. “Just a solid two-way player — good defensively, good offensively, [takes on] a lot of responsibilities.”

Pierre Engvall adds: “I’ve just heard from guys around how he’s a great player, skilled guy. So, hopefully he’ll be good.”

Sure.

I get that it doesn’t feel that way as we approach a 29-year drought, but plenty of Canadian teams have been able to land coveted free agents in the cap era (John Tavares, Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, Zach Hyman, et al.), and I’m not a fan of using the cap as an excuse.

Save Ottawa, Canadian teams routinely spend to the limit. And the Senators and Canadiens have gone on deep runs in the cap era.

Is there a significant portion of players who scribble Canadian teams on their no-trade lists? Yes.

And comments like this one, made by St. Louis defenceman Justin Faulk, are revealing in a tough way:

A pandemic landscape will make this deadline tricky north of the border, but there will be plenty of movable players without trade protection.

Athletes want to win titles. Build a contender, and they will come.

The sturdiest cores are often constructed patiently through the draft, and Toronto and Edmonton have some of the world’s best talent. It’s up to the front office to surround those pieces with the proper complementary pieces.

Heck, the 2011 Vancouver Canucks are probably the greatest cap-era squad that came up short.

Just because something’s difficult doesn’t make it impossible.

Not yet, no.

If anything, ugly losses like the one in Pittsburgh in October or in New York last week have helped him snatch his players’ attention.

Like the decision-makers above him, however, Keefe’s job safety should not be guaranteed until we see how he handles these playoffs. He’s been superb in the regular season and out-coached 2-0 when the stakes are high.

A non-Leafs question. Refreshing.

I touched on Josh Norris in my preview of the forward-loaded 2022 RFA class.

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His negotiation will be fascinating for several reasons:

• Norris hired the same agent, Craig Oster, as Brady Tkachuk, who played hardball and made out just fine.

• Pierre Dorion ignored the bridge and plunged long term to core pieces Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Drake Batherson. There’s a pattern.

• Norris need only look a few kilometres east, to 22-year-old Nick Suzuki’s eight-year, $63-million windfall, for his nearest comparable.

• Norris could wait to see how handsomely Winnipeg pays Pierre-Luc Dubois — the only RFA centre I have ranked ahead of Norris — and hope that ups his value.

• Salary cap space isn’t an issue in Ottawa. Actual salary can be.

My best guess is a $4.9 million AAV on a bridge and a $7.6 million AAV on a seven- or eight-year pact.

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