Why the Maple Leafs are shopping right-side defencemen

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss the Maple Leafs defence and how the team can use their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning as a early season measuring stick.

TORONTO – Life comes at you fast.

For years, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ No. 1 need was a defenceman who can patrol the right side.

Now? Kyle Dubas is shopping them.

The league’s other 31 clubs have been made aware that either Travis Dermott (per Elliotte Friedman) or Justin Holl (per Nick Kypreos) is available for the right price.

To think: A few months ago, Dermott was all smiles after inking a two-year contract extension and Holl was being protected in the expansion draft.

In our estimation, that price for one of these expendable right-side defenders would be an upper-mid-round draft pick. (Or perhaps a rugged D-man with less term on his contract.)

That is because the cap-tight Leafs have little to no flexibility to take on a salaried player in return, they are short on picks as is (just three in 2022), and Dubas must clear money for both the short- and long-term future.

In about four weeks, Ilya Mikheyev (broken thumb) and his $1.645-million cap hit will need to slide off long-term injury reserve and onto a roster currently toting less than $1 million in cap space, per CapFriendly.com.

Looking beyond this season, Dubas has already committed to a $2.5 million raise for blueline leader Morgan Rielly.

The GM must also sign an established goaltender — preferably Jack Campbell, although his price is rising — to pair with Petr Mrazek and dole out raises to both halves of his promising third pairing, RFAs Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.

Righty Liljegren, 22, has played his best NHL-level hockey in back-to-back wins over Detroit and Vegas and will be given a third consecutive game Thursday versus the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“With Holl missing games, it’s given Lilly even more opportunity,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “His confidence is getting higher with that, and he’s earning the trust of Dean [Chynoweth, the Leafs defence coach].”

Keefe has decided the 29-year-old Holl should miss games because of a sloppy start that saw the former shutdown guy go minus-7 without a point in seven games.

Dermott blocked a shot with his foot Tuesday and is a game-time decision Thursday. Provided he can play, Holl will be healthy-scratched for a third consecutive night.

“It doesn’t change the fact that we still believe he’s a really important player for us, that when he gets back in — and he certainly will get back in — we expect him to be better,” Keefe said.

“And we hope that we don’t have to come back to this. That’s really what you’re looking for. I’ve got full believe in Hollsy. He’s played a lot of really good hockey for us.”

Says Holl: “It’s obviously frustrating, but all you can do is control what you can and have faith in your abilities.”

As for Dermott, who is now getting time alongside Rielly, the Maple Leafs are still uncertain where he slots. He’s not a power-play quarterback, not a go-to shutdown guy, and he’s still establishing himself as a penalty-killer.

On one hand, Dermott is young enough (24) to bet that he still has unseen potential. On the other, he’s played 217 NHL games and has yet to entrench himself in Toronto’s top four.

“So, you’re always kind of looking for him to take that next step. And I think we’re still waiting for that piece,” Keefe said. “But he’s played good for us. He’s right in the mix with all the guys.”

Holl is on the books for $2 million next season; he holds a 10-team no-trade list.

Dermott carries a $1.5 million cap hit, has no say in a trade, and will still be under his club’s control as an RFA in 2023.

Either would make an enticing cost-certain gamble, considering the signing prices for right-side D-men these days.

If/when a defenceman is moved, it appears the Marlies’ Kristians Rubins would be the next man up.

The undrafted 23-year-old was recalled as insurance Thursday after posting three points and a plus-2 in his six AHL games this season.

Keefe loves the big Latvian’s size (6-foot-5, 221 pounds) and offensive instincts, but is most encouraged by the prospect’s willingness to add a touch of nasty to his game.

“As he’s matured and evolved as a pro, I see him really recognizing how valuable it is to defend hard and be physical,” Keefe said.

Left unsaid in a story that is as much about math as it is merit: Rubins is still on his entry-level deal, and he’ll come much cheaper than Holl or Dermott next season.

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