Why the Maple Leafs traded for Ilya Lyubushkin, again

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss the Maple Leafs' trade for Ilya Lyubushkin immediately after Mark Giordano went down against the Coyotes, why the move was necessary, and what Brad Treliving may target next at the trade deadline.

TORONTO — The need simply grew too big to ignore.

So desperate had the Toronto Maple Leafs become for a right-shot defenceman that, prior to Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes, Sheldon Keefe had already held discussions behind the scenes about deploying one of the sport’s most elite forwards as a blue liner.

Then once Mark Giordano‘s head crashed into the end-boards during a first-period scoring chance and the veteran needed assistance off the ice from Morgan Rielly and trainer Paul Ayotte, Mitch Marner became the best option to play D.

“We’re in a jam,” the head coach said, multiple times, the morning after the trade market’s No. 1 RD, Chris Tanev, was dealt to a competitor.

Publicly and privately, Keefe had been pleading to Brad Treliving for a righthanded defenceman.

And while the general manager was on the same page, he had been choosing patience.

[brightcove videoID=6347960573112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

It wasn’t until after Giordano departed the Coyotes game with a head injury (the severity of which is unknown) and Marner partnered with T.J. Brodie, wondering when to pinch and how big his gaps should be while skating backward, that Treliving made the leap on Feb. 29.

Treliving hopped on the phone with Anaheim Ducks GM Pat Verbeek and secured the services of stay-at-home righty Ilya Lyubushkin at 50 per cent retained in exchange for Toronto’s 2025 third-round draft pick. He also convinced the Carolina Hurricanes to retain an additional 25 per cent of the 29-year-old’s salary for a 2024 sixth-rounder.

The deal fills a gaping immediate hole and widens the growing wasteland that is the Maple Leafs’ draft capital.

Double retention means Lyubushkin will only cost the Leafs $687,500 against the cap. That’s less than the NHL minimum and leaves leftover cash for another addition prior to the March 8 deadline.

Two more picks out the door means the Leafs, barring future moves, won’t select until the fifth round in 2025. But that’s tomorrow’s problem.

The urgency to act today had been mounting, especially after Treliving swung and missed on top target Tanev and, months ago, Nikita Zadorov.

Back in the summer, the executive had stated his intent to bolster his questionable blue line mix. He had called every executive employing a defender who curved his stick the opposite way of Morgan Rielly’s.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s blue line kept getting weaker and more awkward. The absence of righties John Klingberg (season-ending hip surgery), Timothy Liljegren (undisclosed), and Conor Timmins (mono) resulted in this week’s all-lefty defence group.

An imperfect mix of skill sets and handedness that felt destined to get exposed over what is sure to be a gruelling first-round playoff series.

When decent rental defencemen go for second-rounders (minimum), and you weren’t left with one until 2027, and you are reluctant to part with the prospects your opponents actually value (Fraser Minten, Easton Cowan), well, that makes meaningful trades tricky.

“[Treliving] is doing all he can to try to help our team while recognizing, at the same time, that the team has played really well and done a good job,” Keefe said Thursday morning.

“Brodie has been better on the left, but he has played more on the right than anybody on our team. When we have no righties in a jam like this, we have to trust and give these guys a chance to go out and play.”

[brightcove videoID=6347961169112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

The return of the six-foot-two, 200-pound Lyubushkin — a.k.a., the “Russian Bear,” as his Leafs teammates affectionately anointed him during his 2022 rental and only NHL playoff taste — should bring a stay-at-home partner for Rielly and permit Brodie to play his natural side once Liljegren (day-to-day) gets healthy.

The pending UFA’s numbers haven’t wowed in Anaheim (four assists, minus-13, 51 PIM), but he’s an established NHL D-man skating more than 17 minutes a night, knocking bodies and blocking pucks. Bonus: His Leafs teammates love his hard-nosed brand of hockey.

The Maple Leafs, now carrying three goalies, must clear a roster spot for Lyubushkin by Friday afternoon, but that may be as simple as placing Giordano on LTIR.

[brightcove videoID=6348022349112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

The Boosh is back.

And while it’s a win for Toronto’s blue line balance and cap conservatism, the trade is hardly a blockbuster.

It’s not perfect, but it’s what they got.

And, boy, did they need to go get something.

Fox’s Fast Five

• Though not heavily tested, Joseph Woll was solid in his first NHL action since suffering a high-ankle sprain 84 days ago.

“He got hurt with a certain movement that he has to repeat countless times in a game. That is probably the biggest hurdle for him to get over,” Keefe said.

“Outstanding. He was the difference in the game.”

Woll made 30 saves on 32 shots and looked calm doing so.

“Not really thinking, just playing. That’s something I miss a lot when I’m rehabbing; it’s a lot of focusing, a lot of thinking about how to get back,” Woll said. “Then you get to today and you don’t have to think anymore, which is nice.”

• Keefe earned his 200th win as an NHL coach but wasn’t aware of the milestone until after the buzzer sounded.

“It’s funny. Anytime I see those kinds of things,” Keefe said, “I feel like we should win every game. You show me the 200 wins, you show me our record (200-88-38), I would look at the losses and the overtime losses. Those things drive me crazy.”

• Game 4 hero Alexander Kerfoot had a couple conversations with Treliving before hitting free agency last summer, but when those “didn’t progress to anything tangible,” he signed with Arizona.

“Any time you come back to a place with familiar faces where you spent a lot of time, it brings a little added juice or energy to the game,” said Kerfoot, who spent four years as a Leaf and was a favourite among coaches and teammates. “I’m still good friends with a lot of guys on this team.”

Fellow Vancouverite Rielly, Marner, Brodie and Auston Matthews still stay in touch.

Kerfoot, who scored a shorthanded revenge goal Thursday, caught up with the guys when the Leafs rolled through Scottsdale last week.

“A very popular guy on our team,” Matthews says. “We all love him a lot. It sucks to see guys go, but it’s the business part of the game. Great person and somebody we all look forward to chatting with after the game. He’s been playing really well this year. We’re all really happy for him.” 

• The last time the Coyotes came into Scotiabank Arena and left without a point?

Oct. 17, 2002. The same day Matthew Knies was born in Phoenix, Ariz.

“I had no idea. That’s quite a long time. I feel pretty old,” the 21-year-old said, smiling. “Incredible. That’s a huge coincidence.”

Knies opened the scoring Thursday as the latest beneficiary of a magical Marner moment:

• A smiling Max Domi spoke on serenading Tyler “Hat Trick” Bertuzzi as the linemates walked to the team charter following Saturday’s big win in Denver:

“Me and Bert are so close now. He hates attention, and I just wanted to spotlight him a little bit there. He had such a big day and obviously his birthday. Like, most guys didn’t even know it was his birthday, myself included, until closer to the game because he’s not that guy. He doesn’t want that kind of attention, which I respect so much. And he’s super low-key, just a normal, humble dude. Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ on the tarmac on the way to plane was something [where] he couldn’t shy away from the camera there, so we had some fun with it. That’s just little things we do around to enjoy our long season.” 

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.