Just like last season and the season before that, the playoffs will define the Toronto Maple Leafs. But each year that passes without a series win, the closer we get to some serious decisions about the roster and those who’ve built it.
After next season, William Nylander and Auston Matthews will have to be extended. Two years from now, Mitchell Marner and John Tavares will be up for new deals. That’s the entire core this generation of Leafs teams has been built around.
Meanwhile, GM Kyle Dubas’ vision for the team has brought them here, but he’s still waiting on a post-season breakthrough. This time, though, Dubas himself is on an expiring contract and has an uncertain future. If his team doesn’t win a series this time, could he be on the way out? Or will we hear of an extension before it gets to that point?
It’s important to consider the status of the GM because after six straight first-round exits, this trade deadline looms large over the team. Jake Muzzin is on LTIR, which may give the team more wiggle room around the cap, and they could have some intriguing assets to move for an impact player or two.
Although the 2023 draft is considered deep in talent and the Leafs haven’t picked in the first round since 2020, their first pick has to be on the table. Had Nick Robertson not been hurt, he could have been a more interesting trade chip.
The Leafs have made eight draft picks in the past two seasons combined, which has left their prospect cupboard a little thin. Matthew Knies, Toronto’s second-rounder in 2021, is the team’s top prospect and the one everyone in the market is wondering about.
Yes, Knies is an intriguing prospect who has 27 points in 26 NCAA games with the University of Minnesota this season. He may also be the sort of strong power scorer the Leafs will need one day.
So, should Knies be considered untouchable, or is he the main trade asset that could get Toronto a player at the deadline who helps its Cup hopes in the here and now?
“I don’t think this is a year where you can (have untouchables),” Frank Seravalli of Daily Faceoff told JD Bunkis Tuesday. “To be honest, I think when you look back at the way they looked at Matt Knies last year, I think they overvalued him. Not to say he’s not a good prospect or that he won’t turn into an NHL player, it’s just that he’s probably not the franchise centrepiece that anyone’s thinking he might be. He’s going to take time.
“Not knocking him at all, but if you really are going to improve your team and you’re trying to win a Stanley Cup this year … why wouldn’t Matt Knies be available?”
This isn’t to say that Knies must be traded at all costs, to get whatever player the Leafs seek. For instance, if you’re targeting to add Vladislav Gavrikov from Columbus, you might be looking at parting with a similar package to what David Savard returned to Columbus two years ago, or Ben Chiarot got for Montreal last season — that’s a first-round pick plus. In those cases, especially for an unsigned pending UFA, Knies is probably not the asset to part with.
Knies won’t be the most valuable prospect available across the league, but he’s the top prospect asset Toronto has. Moving him likely means the Leafs have landed a significant talent.
“I think (his value is) pretty high,” Seravalli continued. “High enough (that) it’s an impactful piece to put into a deal.”
COULD THE SAN JOSE SHARKS BE THE TRADE DEADLINE KINGMAKER?
A variety of players are always available at the deadline, and usually at least a couple highly impactful big names change addresses. And, every so often, one team with several players on the block influences the playoff stretch drive in a major way.
This year, the San Jose Sharks could be that team.
Kevin Labanc, a 27-year-old whose career season is four years in the past, has been a healthy scratch for a few games, but still has 10 goals and 25 points this season. If he’s available, could a fresh start re-energize him? Nick Bonino, on an expiring contract, has been a key playoff pickup before. James Reimer, also a pending UFA, could be a depth-goalie add (and we know how important that can be). Even Erik Karlsson‘s name has popped up as he has a throwback offensive season and challenges for the Norris Trophy.
But the No. 1 name we expect to move from San Jose — and who could have a major impact — is Timo Meier.
The 26-year-old is a dangerous scorer who finished with 35 goals last season and already has 28 goals in 49 games this season. He’s on an expiring contract, but will be an RFA this summer. The one potential complication here is that his qualifying offer comes in at a hefty $10 million.
The key to the Sharks getting a haul for Meier may depend on the player agreeing to a contract extension with an acquiring team.
“I think it’s generally understood that if San Jose gets in a position where they’re close somewhere, Meier and his agent, Claude Lemieux, are going to be allowed to talk to teams. As far as I know, no one’s been allowed to do it yet,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said on Monday’s 32 Thoughts Podcast.
This could still go the other way, though. What if the Sharks stay rather quiet on deadline day?
The Karlsson deal strikes us as one that’s more likely to happen in the off-season, if at all. And with Meier, his camp hasn’t completely closed the door on staying with the Sharks.
“Both options are still very real, getting traded or signing, but we have yet to discuss anything,” Lemieux told SJ Hockey Now’s Sheng Peng.