The dream this summer is for the Leafs to address their weakness on defence in a big way. Writers and fans have been fawning over the idea of trading for Josh Manson of the Ducks ahead of the expansion draft, Shattenkirk will be out there as a free agent, and if we want to get really creative, we can probably still talk ourselves into Toronto blowing the doors off for a younger elite option like Trouba.
But those are all major targets that would require franchise-altering trades or contracts to get into a blue-and-white sweater, and as we’re likely all aware, it’s extremely difficult to pull off those types of moves. What we’re more likely to see is the Leafs address their needs with names in a tier or two below those already mentioned.
Tanev, Dumba, Vatanen, I’m not saying these three guys are on an equal field. They aren’t. They’re just the sort of slight upgrade options Toronto has a better chance of acquiring.
But then we turn our attention to Florida, a team that has its own expansion problems on the blue line, somewhat like the well-documented situations in Minnesota and Anaheim. Two players the Leafs could focus in on from the Panthers are Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk, both solid right-handed options.
We’ve heard a bit about Demers over the last few weeks as his name’s started to pop up more as a potential mover. It makes sense – Demers has a $4.5-million cap hit for four more seasons while Pysyk is a 25-year-old RFA. While both would instantly improve the Leafs’ top four, for Toronto, trying to pry Pysyk from the Panthers might be the better play.
According to DTM’s GAR (Goals-Above-Replacement) Model, he was the most effective overall blue-liner of that entire group in 2016-17.
From a few standpoints – money, age, and overall impact – Pysyk has the edge over Demers, who just turned 29. Toronto could acquire Pysyk’s rights as a restricted free agent, and have more control over their price point. In terms of what’s going the other way, over at Sportsnet, the Nation Network’s own Jonathan Willis floated a potential Leafs deal for Pysyk involving Connor Carrick, a pick, and Kerby Rychel. That’s probably a fair hypothetical, but I think that’s at the high end of what it would take.
Considering he has modest boxcar numbers (17 points this past season) and is coming off a bridge deal worth 1.125-million AAV, I’d like to think Pridham and company could lock him in for a few seasons at a much better hit than Demers. Did I mention he’s four years younger?
There are a couple different ways the Leafs can address their weak back-end. Mainly, they can try to directly improve their shaky shot-suppression game, or they can embrace fire-wagon hockey even further and bring in another offensive-minded player (ex. Vatanen). Pysyk obviously represents the former route, and that’s where I think they should lean unless they can get an overall offensive juggernaut like Shattenkirk. He brings precisely what Toronto lacks in their top four aside from Gardiner. As you can see above, he’s almost an inverse of Zaitsev in terms of defensive ability – essentially a Josh Manson Lite.
Lamoriello is going to do something in the next couple weeks to attempt to bolster that Toronto defence corps. And that could come in the form of a blockbuster trade or, in the case of Shattenkirk, a 50-million dollar contract. But if those options aren’t presenting themselves, Pysyk is one of the best targets he could hone in on to make the Leafs instantly stronger, likely without giving up much in assets or dollars.