Why a trade with Flames could help Maple Leafs’ struggling defence

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano, left, is checked by Calgary Flames defenceman Nikita Zadorov during first period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

TORONTO — If Brad Treliving doesn’t already have Craig Conroy’s digits favourited on his smartphone, he should.

The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, of course, served as predecessor to Conroy as chief shot-caller and trade-broker in Calgary, and the two executives talk hockey often.

Treliving has a glaring deficiency on defence.

Conroy has three — count ’em, three! — proven NHL defenders entering the final season of their contracts and punching the clock for a franchise on the sad side of the playoff bubble.

“He knows what I think of those players. We’ve had those discussions a lot,” Treliving said during draft weekend in Nashville. “He’s got a lot of good players over there.”

Naturally, Treliving has eyes for Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov, Calgary’s trio of impending UFA defencemen whose extension negotiations are on pause. It was Treliving, after all, who recruited all three, luring Tanev in free agency and trading for and signing Hanifin and Zadorov.

The interest isn’t new, but the urgency is enhanced.

Treliving knew his adopted D-corps would be a “work-in-progress” (his term) when he waved so long to punching bag Justin Holl (plus-6 in Detroit); swung and missed on safe, stay-at-home UFA options such as Luke Schenn and Radko Gudas; and instead took a gamble on high-event John Klingberg, who can’t brush his teeth these days without creating a Grade-A scoring chance.

What the GM did not anticipate, however, was just how rapidly Toronto’s thin defence — hindered further by a penalty kill in disarray and uneven goaltending — would be exposed by the time the Flames rolled into town for Game 14, which is on Friday.

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Certainly, injuries to regulars Jake McCabe (groin) and Timothy Liljegren (ankle) and seventh D-man Conor Timmins (lower body) have exacerbated the predicament. But even at full health, the sense was the Maple Leafs needed to upgrade their blueline at some point before the March 8 trade deadline if they wished to make a deep playoff run.

With coach Sheldon Keefe reaching a boiling point Wednesday night after a porous 6-3 loss to a beatable Ottawa Senators team (playing without three regular defencemen of their own) and with the shaky Klingberg possibly being scratched or further sheltered in an 11-and-7 lineup, it’s difficult to look across at the opponent’s bench and not covet their trade assets:

• Noah Hanifin ($4.95 million cap hit): Hanifin is a top-pairing left shot logging 22:46 per night. Firmly in his prime at age 26, Hanifin represents Conroy’s most tantalizing trade chip. (He’s younger than centre Elias Lindholm, and the market is starved for durable D-men.) Hanifin is reportedly gunning for a deal in the range of Devon Toews’ seven-year, $50.75-million extension in Colorado. He brings offensive upside and smart puck movement but is not a heavy hitter.

Conroy was originally trying to keep Hanifin in the fold, but if he does decide to part ways, he’d fetch more in return from a team willing to extend the player. We don’t see an easy path for Treliving to give Hanifin and William Nylander the raises they deserve.

• Chris Tanev ($4.5 million): Tanev is precisely the type of heart-and-soul defender the Leafs should target. The right shot (and GTA product) can help stabilize a risk-taking lefty (ask Quinn Hughes), take on 18 or 19 minutes of tough defensive assignments, and busy himself with the unpleasant business of killing penalties, D-zone starts and eating three square meals of pucks a day. Health can be a concern for the 33-year-old veteran because he plays such a gritty, honest game. If/When Conroy does move on, playoff teams should be lining up to rent Tanev.

• Nikita Zadorov ($3.75 million): More snot, anyone? The six-foot-six, 248-pound Zadorov would inject physical presence and bruising boxouts to a Maple Leafs blueline that could benefit from a little more size and experience. On a complete D-corps, the 28-year-old Zadorov would be a third-pairing guy, but he’s averaged 18:10 over his 578-game career and is comfortable moving up and down a lineup, skating on the left or right. Zadorov hits and kills penalties and would likely be the least expensive of the trio to acquire in trade.

Now, just because Conroy and Treliving have a great working relationship (and operate in separate conferences) doesn’t mean a business transaction is inevitable here. The players and their agents have a say; Hanifin (eight teams) and Tanev (10 teams) also have no-trade lists.

We’d expect Calgary — winners of two in a row — to attempt to grind its way back into the playoff race before waving the white flag, and Toronto to explore its internal solutions before parting with more picks and prospects in the name of seizing the window.

But! If the Flames can’t claw into contention and the Maple Leafs’ defence doesn’t magically repair itself, the on-ice trade fit makes a world of sense.

Expect 19,000 pro scouts to turn out for the Leafs-Flames game Friday in Toronto, evaluating every shift Hanifin, Tanev and Zadorov take, and wondering what if …

One-Timers: Joseph Woll goes right back in the net Friday versus Calgary, while Ilya Samsonov draws the piping-hot Thatcher Demko and the Vancouver Canucks Saturday. Woll took ownership of Wednesday’s loss to the Senators. “I know that I need to be better for this team,” he said, after giving up six. “There’s a lot of urgency in this group. And we know that we need to start stringing some wins together. And, for myself, personally, I think that starts from the back end.”… Centre Pontus Hölmberg was recalled to the big club and defenceman Max Lajoie returned to the Marlies…. Calgary recalled stud AHL goalie Dustin Wolf (5-1, .924) from the Wranglers on Thursday.

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