TORONTO — The Timo Meier sweepstakes are in full swing, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are reportedly one of four teams sharpening their pencils and prepping their best offer.
The Maple Leafs join the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Vegas Golden Knights as four contenders with “significant interest” in prying the Sharks’ top goal scorer out of San Jose, Kevin Weekes reported on Twitter Tuesday.
“I truly believe the Carolina Hurricanes hold the keys to that car if they want it,” former Hurricanes adviser Mike Futa said on Real Kyper & Bourne on Tuesday.
The Devils have plenty of cap space now and in the future.
The Hurricanes and Golden Knights have obvious lineup holes (and LTIR relief) with injuries to star wingers Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, respectively.
The Maple Leafs feel like the long shot here.
Fitting Meier — the biggest available game-breaking forward — into this season’s cap picture is doable, particularly if the Sharks are willing to retain salary.
The gamble would be sorting out the restricted free agent’s future in the off-season.
Meier requires a one-year, $10-million qualifying offer, or a long-term contract that would keep his AAV down.
We all know how much money GM Kyle Dubas has already committed to his top four forwards for 2023-24.
Yet there is strong belief that Dubas is still prioritizing an impact forward, with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Ryan O’Rielly on the market as well.
“At the beginning of the year, when (Jake) Muzzin went down, my focus shifted automatically to defence. We accumulated a lot of injuries on D,” Dubas said last week.
“Our depth guys have stepped up and done well. With them doing that, the way the team played as a whole defensively opened it up to say, ‘We do feel somewhat comfortable with the group.’ If we can improve it, we will do so.
“But it’s shifting the focus from just the back end to the overall team and how we can improve that.”
Toronto’s move is coming.
If it is indeed Meier, that would be the biggest blockbuster of Dubas’s tenure.
“Anything can happen at any time,” Justin Holl told reporters of the looming March 3 trade deadline. “So you have to be prepared.”
Holl scratched for first time this season
Once upon a time, all Holl knew was the healthy scratch.
But this season, despite some swings in performance, the right shot has been a top-four fixture … until now.
Holl will take a seat in the press box Wednesday versus the Chicago Blackhawks, leaving 39-year-old Mark Giordano as the only Toronto blueliner to have played in each of the club’s 55 games this season.
“I know I made some plays I don’t like,” Holl said of his minus-3 showing in Saturday’s 4-3 home loss to the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets.
Keefe has been keen to get righty Conor Timmins, who hasn’t played since Jan. 27, back into the lineup.
“You’re looking for someone to take out. So, don’t give me a reason,” Keefe said.
Holl struggled with boxouts around the net Saturday, and it was his man, Kent Johnson, who got enough position to tip home the game-winner near the blue paint.
Timmins slides in alongside Rasmus Sandin on the third pair, while Timothy Liljegren gets a promotion to the top four alongside Giordano.
This marks Timmins’ first appearance since inking his two-year extension, which puts pending UFA Holl’s future with the club in question.
“I’m super excited to be here for another two years. I think it’s been a really good fit so far, and it’s a great group of guys, great team,” said seventh man Timmins, striving to be an every-day player.
“That’s a goal of mine, for sure. Everyone wants to play every game. We have such a good team here, that’s not always the case. But you just have to do what you can with your opportunities and work as hard as you can when you’re in the lineup.”
The self-aware Timmins considers himself simply “a piece of the puzzle” in Toronto, where the playmaker appreciates the focus on puck possession. He’s been eager to take advantage of the organization’s resources and understands his game needs development.
He says Dubas initiated contract talks with his agent a couple months ago, and the two-year deal came together smoothly.
“This is the first spot where I’ve found a good fit and really found my game,” Timmins says. “They’ve really taken an interest in my development. They’ve given me all the resources to keep improving.”
Matthews targets return
“It sucks watching,” Auston Matthews admitted to reporters Tuesday, following his first yes-contact practice since suffering a knee sprain before the all-star break.
“It’s been feeling better and better every day.”
Matthews still needs an official thumbs-up from the medical staff Wednesday morning, but all signs point toward him facing off against Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks.
The return of Toronto’s No. 1 centre “can’t be overstated,” says Keefe, who has watched his players scuffle along with a 2-3 record during Matthews’ recent ailment.
Look for Matthews to centre Michael Bunting and William Nylander, while John Tavares operates between Alexander Kerfoot and Mitchell Marner.
Gavrikov scratched for trade-related reasons
With Zach Werenski injured, Vladislav Gavrikov has emerged as the Blue Jackets’ top minutes muncher. And one of the most desirable pieces on the rental market.
“Zero maintenance,” coach Brad Larsen said last week. “Big body. Physical. Great defender. Knows what he is. Knows what style of play he needs to play to be effective. You appreciate his game when you see him every day and what he does. He’s not the flashiest guy but consistent in what he brings.”
Gavrikov will be held out of Columbus’s lineup to preserve his health and trade value.
No doubt, the Maple Leafs have some level of interest, but Dubas is on record saying he won’t spend a first-round pick on a rental.
During the Leafs’ home-and-home against the Jackets on the weekend, Keefe noted Gavrikov’s hard defence, ability to close space, his smart stick, and his willingness to block shots.
Nylander gets rough and rowdy
Nylander took exception to what he deemed a late hit from Nick Blankenburg into the end-boards Saturday and retaliated with a whack.
Matthews, watching from afar, got a chuckle out of the incident and believes it’s worth taking a penalty on occasion to fire a “message” at the opposition.
“I had a pretty good laugh when I saw him do that. It was great,” Matthews said. “When it happened, it looked worse than when you slow it down.”
Upon review, Keefe wondered if Blankenburg deserved an embellishment penalty for his role in the exchange. The coach doubled down on his appreciation for Nylander’s aggressiveness.
“It shows emotion. It shows intensity, competitiveness,” Keefe said. “He thought the guy hit him a bit late, so you respond.
“Every now and again, you’ve got to let a guy know you’re not going to let him take advantage of you. That’s part of being a competitor. Just another thing to add to the list of things Willy has added to his game in terms of consistency and being engaged.”
Maple Leafs projected lines Wednesday vs. Chicago
Bunting – Matthews – Nylander
Kerfoot – Tavares – Marner
Engvall – Kampf – Jarnkrok
Aston-Reese – Holmberg – Anderson
Rielly – Brodie
Giordano – Liljegren
Sandin – Timmins