Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs should trade for more than a forward

Watch as Chris Johnston and Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Central discuss the likelihood of Mattias Ekholm becoming a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs ahead of the April 12th NHL trade deadline.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Guess who dropped Mika Zibanejad from his fantasy squad before the six-point night?

1. Just because the bulk of Kyle Dubas’s trade conversations with opposing GMs have centred around the acquisition of a top-six forward doesn’t mean the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t also try to add a defenceman before April 12.

Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe, and several Leafs players have pointed to Jake Muzzin’s injury midway through their 2020 post-season series loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets as a crippling blow.

Dubas has also noted that, on average, Stanley Cup finalists lose one player per round due to injury.

Since trading Mikko Lehtonen, Toronto’s defensive depth gets pretty thin pretty quick. We like Rasmus Sandin (currently injured) and Timothy Liljegren as prospects, but they’ve played one NHL game between them since March 10, 2020.

Renting another NHL-level defenceman seems like a no-brainer, provided the money works.

In advance of the 2020 deadline, Calgary grabbed Erik Gustafsson for a conditional third-round pick. Washington obtained Brenden Dillon for a second and a conditional third. Montreal scored Marco Scandella for a fourth (and later flipped him to St. Louis). The Islanders got Andy Greene for a second and an AHLer.

These aren’t crazy prices.

“I don’t go in transfixed on any one area in particular, but I do think that, if we can, we’ll try to improve at any position that’s possible,” Dubas said Tuesday. “Some on our team, like defence and goaltending, are a little bit more stable.”

When everyone is healthy, sure.

“You can never have enough great defencemen,” hockey lifer Bruce Boudreau told Lead Off, when asked about the Leafs’ greatest need.

“If they could find a top-three defenceman to add to their roster, it would be ideal. Not easy to do. They got enough firepower and enough jam upfront to win.”

Former L.A. Kings executive Mike Futa agrees with Boudreau, suggesting Dubas would be better off bulking up his blue line.

“My add, if I was sitting in that chair, would be a defenceman,” Futa told Good Show this week. “It doesn’t scare me to throw some [depth] forwards into the mix and not miss a beat. But if they lose the wrong defenceman, I think there’s a huge dropoff to the next guy that goes in.”

Available top-three types are scarce.

The Predators’ Mattias Ekholm shoots to the top of the list, and it’s not even close. When Dubas talks about a willingness to put a top prospect on the table, we think Nashville.

Anaheim’s Josh Manson is said to be available; he’s also injured. Buffalo has been so bad, it’s difficult to judge if Brandon Montour or Colin Miller are worthwhile upgrades at this point.

David Savard — a righty, a shot-blocker, and a penalty-killer — fits the bill nicely, but he should command a bidding war. (We like a package deal that includes Nick Foligno.)

Then there are two stay-at-home veterans in Arizona — Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson — worth consideration. Neither wows with highlights but both are pending UFAs with the type of underlying defensive numbers that should intrigue Dubas.

Says Boudreau: “Any price that they have to pay to win it would be worth it.”

2. Here’s my unofficial NHL Mid-Season Awards ballot. (In real life, writers don’t vote on Jack Adams, GM of the Year or Vezina. This is not real life.) What struck me in going through this exercise is how easy the No. 1 picks are for most of the major prizes.

Hart Trophy
1. Connor McDavid
2. Patrick Kane
3. Auston Matthews

Norris Trophy
1. Victor Hedman
2. Jeff Petry
3. Darnell Nurse

Calder Trophy
1. Kirill Kaprisov
2. Kaapo Kahkonen
3. Jason Robertson

Frank J. Selke Trophy
1. Aleksander Barkov
2. Mark Stone
3. Mitch Marner

Vezina Trophy
1. Andrei Vasilevsky
2. Marc Andre-Fleury
3. Philipp Grubauer

Jack Adams Award
1. Barry Trotz
2. Joel Quenneville
3. Peter DeBoer

Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award
1. Kyle Dubas
2. Julien BriseBois
3. Don Waddell

3. Crazy how fast cap pictures can change.

It feels like yesterday Lou Lamoriello was giving away a young, top-four defenceman (Devon Toews) to another legit contender for picks because he couldn’t fill out his roster. Now, with captain Anders Lee ($7 million cap hit) joining the retired Johnny Boychuk ($6 million) on long-term injured reserve, the Islanders should be as significant a buyer at the 2021 deadline as they were in 2020, when they added Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Andy Greene.

The trick now is for Lamoriello to lure a premier left-wing rental like Taylor Hall or Kyle Palmieri from a divisional rival. The more expensive but intriguing play would be targeting a winger with some team control, like Detroit’s Anthony Mantha or Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell.

Without Lee, the Isles are down to just one double-digit goal scorer in their lineup (Brock Nelson, 12 goals). They’ll need an offensive talent.

4. I’ve absolutely loved watching Erik Karlsson play over the years, but I wasn’t a fan of his recent Zoom call.

Senators fans have a right to feel slighted by a comment like: “Obviously, I did not sign here to go through a rebuild. Go through what I did for 10 years in Ottawa.”

Karlsson’s Senators made the post-season five out of nine seasons. They won three playoff rounds and came within a goal of reaching the 2017 Cup Final. Most Canadian franchises yearned for that kind of success during the ’10s.

I understand losing stinks. I get that Karlsson, 30, wants San Jose to contend ASAP and his own injuries have put him in a difficult spot to live up to his $11.5-million AAV. But pointing the finger outward is not a good look when you’ve committed six more years to the city.

5. The six worst NHLers, according to plus/minus, are all Buffalo Sabres.

Bad team = bad stats. Surprise.

What’s particularly concerning here is that the No. 1 draft choice of 2018, defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, ranks 819th out of 819 players in the category.

When you’re a minus-28 through 29 games — and a dash-48 two and a half seasons into your career — it must wear at you.

“It’s the best league in the world. And it’s tough for any young player, even a player of his skill set – and, I mean, he is one of the top players in the game with the puck,” Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams said.

“You worry about if a player’s not having success, does it affect their confidence? Of course, right?”

Right.

One must wonder if the firing of defence coach Steve Smith was, in part, to give such an integral building block like Dahlin a different voice in his ear.

Enter new assistant Dan Girardi — a courageous defender, eater of pucks, and one of the most beloved teammates in every dressing room he entered.

“Dan Girardi, for me, is someone that was very, very well respected in the league when he played. High character. High compete. Thought the game very well as a defenceman, which I thought would be very helpful and in a short time to bring some fresh perspective,” Adams explained.

“I’ve been extremely impressed with Dan in his in his role as a development coach on our staff for the past few months — the attention to detail he showed, the discipline, the amount of work he’s done with our prospects.”

6. Plus/minus may be the most divisive stat in hockey, and not just because it comes with a built-in slash.

As of Friday, Montreal defenceman Joel Edmundson (+25) led all players in 2021, followed by Leon Draisaitl (+22), Mark Stone (+17), Darnell Nurse (+17), Jeff Petry (+15), Mitch Marner (+15), Zach Hyman (+14), Joel Eriksson Ek (+14), and Devon Toews (+14).

Difficult to argue that anyone among that group isn’t having a great season.

Need a goal or need to prevent a goal, Marner and Hyman are two guys Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe is tapping on the shoulder.

Here is how Keefe views plus/minus.

“It’s like a lot of stats that are out there, in that it’s certainly not everything, but it’s not nothing either. You got to look inside of each stat to really get a sense of how applicable it is to that player,” Keefe says. “Plus/minus is one, for me personally, you got to take out all the garbage that’s in there.”

It makes “zero sense” to the coach why a player gets a plus/minus during 6-on-5 situations but not 5-on-4. Once you boil down plus/minus to even-strength, it will tell a story.

“This guy’s on the ice for more goals for than he is against? Obviously, that’s a very positive thing. And if it comes up the other way, where he’s on the ice for more against than he is for, to me, all it does is give me something to look into,” Keefe says.

“Look at those goals and see what kind of role the player has maybe played in that situation that might’ve led to those stats — rather than the stats trying to tell me a story of this player. Is or isn’t this a good defensive player? Like everything, you got to look beneath it.”

7. As fantastic as Philipp Grubauer has been (17-7, 1.82, .925), the Avalanche need another goalie. Backup Hunter Miska has understandably faltered in his premature promotion (1-1-2, 4.16, .838). And after what happened in the summer playoff bubble, no one should have to tell GM Joe Sakic the importance of having a quality No. 2.

So, whom does Sakic acquire by April 12?

The best pure rental goalie, by 2021 stats, is Detroit’s Jonathan Bernier — and he left Thursday’s win with a lower-body injury. Sakic may prefer to wait a couple more weeks, to keep cost down and make sure he’s bringing in a sharp and healthy backup.

With goalies, it should be a buyers’ market. Carolina might be the only other contender looking to add, and it has got some fine starts from rookie Alex Nedeljkovic. Plus, Petr Mrazek is skating again:

Other UFAs Sakic could consider: Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark, Arizona’s Antti Raanta, San Jose’s Devan Dubnyk, and… Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.

Rinne and Predators GM David Poile have both gone public saying everyone wants the greatest goalie in franchise history to retire a Predator. Of course.

But if a Rinne rental trade gives the aging goalie one last shot at a Cup and the organization he loves an asset for the future, why not?

He can always re-sign with Nashville in the off-season.

“I believe in this team,” Rinne told reporters. “I do want to retire as a Predator.

“For sure, I want to have success. I’ve been fortunate that we’ve been, for most of my career, doing pretty well. For the [most] part, we’ve never been sellers at the deadline. Obviously, I don’t want to go through that. This is the team I want to retire [with].”

8. With the ouster of the enforcer and a premium placed on speed and skill, hockey fights dipped to a low of 0.178 per game in 2018-19. They remained at that level (0.179) in 2019-20. Many of us not only accepted fighting’s decline as the new normal but have wondered if it may eventually vanish altogether.

Well, scraps are up significantly in 2021. (So is irritability in general, we’re guessing.)

Dubas has a theory: “I think with there being so much familiarity between the clubs, you’re going to have more and more instances where tempers flare. Whether it’s between teams, or between teams and officials, everybody’s seeing each other so often. I think that leads to an increased focus on physicality and just the temperance part of it flaring a little bit and getting off the rails.”

Of the NHL’s 31 clubs, all but one (the New York Islanders, funny enough) has at least one fighting major. Sixteen teams have had at least five fights.

Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon leads the league with four himself.

And the defending champion Lightning — once painted as a skill-only squad — far and away tops all teams with 12 fighting majors, averaging 0.41 fights per game, the highest fight rate of any team in three years.

9. From the Maple Leafs’ perspective, acquiring goaltending prospect Veini Vehvilainen from Columbus in last week’s Mikko Lehtonen trade had as much to do with another prospect, Joseph Woll, as it did Vehvilainen himself.

With Aaron Dell getting scooped on waivers early and a couple of injuries limiting the club’s options, the 22-year-old Woll had become a taxi-squad fixture, even dressing as a backup on occasion.

Not an ideal spot for a young goaltender in whom the organization has placed high hopes and wishes to develop properly.

Woll finally played his first game in a year and a day, backstopping the AHL Marlies in a 31-save performance with a 4-3 win over Laval last Friday.

“In order to abide by the NHL’s rules on available goaltenders, Joe Woll’s development has kind of been squeezed a little bit. He’s only been able to play one game because we’ve had to bring him with us to serve as our No. 3, especially with [Jack] Campbell being in and out of the lineup, and Fred [Andersen] was injured as well,” Dubas explained.

“We felt getting a depth goaltender was important. And our staff, particularly our R&D staff, have been big fans of Veini for a long time, and he’s been an excellent goaltender in Finland and in international play and to start his career in Cleveland last season. We’re excited to have him.”

Vehvilainen is serving quarantine now, but the healthy competition for starts on the farm should serve Woll well.

Post-game, Woll extolled the virtues of soaking up knowledge from Andersen, Campbell and Michael Hutchinson every day.

“It’s pretty cool watching how stoic Freddie is, and I think that’s something I’ve really tried to take away from his game and try to be a leader back there and just be calm,” Woll told reporters.

10. On the topic of Toronto’s depth, Dubas notes that an influx of players are returning to the fold as their European pro seasons conclude. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, for example, has already served half his quarantine after putting up six points in 17 games with the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo.

“He had a really, really good season for them playing as their second-line centre in the KHL at 20. We’re happy with him,” Dubas says.

Filip Hallander, also a 20-year-old centre, was acquired in the Kasperi Kapanen trade. He’s put up 22 points in 47 games in the Swedish pro league. Denis Malgin, 24, has enjoyed a nice run in his native Swiss league — 34 points in 37 games. They, too, will fly to Canada once their seasons wrap.

“As we get deeper into the year, the [internal] competition will increase,” Dubas explains. “We feel good about the depth and where our prospect pool is at right now in terms of being able to challenge guys on the roster and push guys on the roster. We’re happy with that.”

Five bucks says Der-Arguchintsev pulls on a Leafs sweater for a game in 2021-22.

11. Not unlike Ralph Macchio and (my boyhood crush) Elizabeth Shue reprising classic roles for the streaming era in Cobra Kai, the original cast of The Mighty Ducks is reuniting nearly 30 years later for an appearance on Disney+’s The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers.

Like Macchio, Emilio “Coach Bombay” Estevez looks like he hasn’t aged a day. The kids, though…

The only bummer? Kenan Thompson, who played Russ “Knuckle Puck” Tyler in the trilogy’s second and third films (and killed it as host of the 2019 NHL Awards), was too busy with a little show called Saturday Night Live to make the reunion episode.

“If there is a season 2 and 3, we are holding the door open for any and all of the Ducks from the original films to return,” Estevez told Entertainment Weekly.

12. I guarantee you these have been worn while milking a cow at some point:

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