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What’s Next? What Happens in the Post Jake Muzzin Trade World?

It seems like all the other writers have more free time in their evenings and have handled the Muzzin trade, the press conference, his childhood years, and his likely impact on the Leafs blueline. This doesn’t leave a lot for me to add beyond saying after my initial heart sinking moment of giving up futures, I rebounded quickly to realize that I am very comfortable with the price the Leafs paid for an impact player, and when you consider that Grundstrom going means that Johnsson or Kapanen are staying, it’s a pretty good deal.

Anyway, like I said, most of the Muzzin angles have been covered, so that really leaves me with the “What’s Next for the Leafs?” piece to look at. Particularly three pieces, what’s happening on the blueline, what’s happening at the deadline, and what’s happening in the future.

The Leafs have 9(!!!) Defensemen on their roster

Yeah, let’s start with that. That’s a lot. Having 8 was already more than most teams, but nine really seems to point to something happening soon, and some decisions about the future already having been made.

We can assume that Rielly, Muzzin, and Dermott all can feel pretty good about the fact that they will have jobs on the Leafs past the trade deadline, and likely into next season but everyone else warrants a bit more of a conversation, especially when Kyle Dubas has heavily hinted at his interest in introducing Calle Rosen, Timothy Liljegren, and Rasmus Sandin as potential options for the Leafs next season.

Nikita Zaitsev has had his name mentioned as someone that Kyle Dubas would like to ship out, and really the only shot the Leafs have at re-signing Jake Gardiner comes if a buyer can be found for Zaitsev. He’s a bit of a hard sell with his term and contract, and it seems like he’s still got the support of Mike Babcock, although we’ll see what his usage looks like in the post Muzzin trade world. Zaitsev leaving would be a long term win for the Leafs, but takes away their one right handed defenseman who is playing significant minutes. Would he be more of an option for relocation in the summer? I’m thinking that will be the case since teams will have more cap flexibility, the Leafs can pay out his July 1st bonus, and we’ll all be further removed from having watched him play.

Jake Gardiner is polarizing as hell in this market, and given the recent booing I’m wondering if Gardiner is as excited to shave potential earnings off of his unrestricted free agency contract in order to stay in a market that doesn’t seem to really appreciate him. He’s also becoming a bit more redundant on the left, though the wise man might refer to that as depth, and depth heading into a serious playoff run is generally a good thing.

The catch with Gardiner is that he will have tremendous value at the trade deadline, and the Leafs could recoup the pick they lost in the Muzzin deal, and perhaps pick up a prospect as well. That’s some zesty asset management. The problem being with this, is that Jake Gardiner would be going to a team (likely a Western Conference team) that could then stand in the way of the Leafs and the Cup. There’s the internal debate similar to the one that was held last year over James van Riemsdyk if its better to have the internal rental vs. management of assets. Given some of the right handed D options like Nick Jensen, Mark Pysyk, Chris Tanev, and half of the Carolina Hurricanes being available, I personally would see what selling high on Gardiner would look like.

It’s probably best to treat pending RFA (with arbitration rights) Igor Ozhiganov like an unrestricted free agent because it’s hard to imagine the Leafs will be qualifying him. At times he was a reasonable stop gap and other times he was a reminder that Roman Polak can sometimes go by other names. Ozhiganov is another right shot, and if Zaitsev is out, it seems that Igor would stay. In fact, Igor is probably a good 7/8 D option on the Leafs, and is an organization piece you don’t mind having floating around for the playoffs. Another huge advantage to this is that of all the Leafs defenders, he’s the only one who is eligible for waivers, and can allow the Leafs to preserve their current depth. There might be some team (Dallas Stars) that might want to take a chance that Ozhiganov can be part of their longer term picture, and if someone wants to pay to try before they buy, the Leafs should probably let him go.

We’ll lump Marincin and Holl together here since they’ve been together in the press box all season. Both are players that fall into the if they aren’t going to get used here, they might as well get used somewhere else category. I’m not sure if there’s any return that can be expected on them, and they might be more valuable by being dumped on waivers and seeing if they can make it to the Marlies. Either one of them would still be a solid option for 7/8 D, but it seems like as the deadline approaches, they’ll be more in the 9/10 spot on the depth chart as I’m sure Rosen will see roster spot before they do if injuries occur.

Finally, Ron Hainsey, another potential rental option. Hainsey is a left shot who has played on the right side his entire time in Toronto, and for teams with cap space, he’s a good utility option to add to their roster for the playoffs. The problem is that is exactly what the Leafs want him to be for them too and unless someone comes a knockin’ with an over payment (assume 2nd round pick or better), I’d have to believe that Kyle Dubas isn’t going to tear Mike Babcock’s comfort food away from him.

To summarize, there’s still no shortage of decisions that need to be made on the blueline, but it appears that Zaitsev and Gardiner are the critical pieces to be determined in the next few weeks.

So is this it, or can we expect anything at the deadline?

According to NHLNumbers, the Leafs are presently sitting with over $18M of available deadline cap space. That gives them a lot of flexibility to add rentals, something the Leafs have really emphasized as something they don’t want to do. That being said, there are players who are still upgrades available, and when you look at the past few years, history has shown that acquiring players with term or RFAs has been done at a more reasonable return at the deadline instead of over the summer.

Perhaps the best options of who to pursue are still on the blueline, and would likely include Nick Jensen (Detroit), Mark Pysyk (Florida), and Radko Gudas (Philadelphia). The challenge is the Leafs are now pursuing these options with a first round pick and down two of their more appealing prospect options. Most signs are pointing to the Leafs needing to make moves off their roster to either free up room in the lineup, accumulate more futures, or make a good old fashioned hockey trade. The most likely options for the Leafs to move are…

Available UFAs Available RFAs Other Players Available
Jake Gardiner Garret Sparks Nikita Zaitsev
Ron Hainsey Igor Ozhiganov Connor Brown
Martin Marincin Johnsson/Kapanen Justin Holl
Par Lindholm
Tyler Ennis
Michael Hutchinson

I’ve gone through the trouble of excluding Matthews and Marner, and include Johnsson and Kapanen only because I’m willing to believe that Dubas will at least listen on them and TSN’s gone through the trouble of adding them to their clickbait trade bait board.

Looking at the list, it seems that one or two defensemen could find their way out, and the Leafs could potentially explore the rather interesting goaltender market that exists at the moment, but reality is the Leafs would still be dealing heavily from their prospect pool, and you have to wonder if Korshkov, Timashov, Bracco, or others will be put in play.

Taking a guess, at how this plays out, I wouldn’t expect a whole lot more from the Leafs. They took a major step and addressed their biggest need, beyond that they are sitting on the pieces that they can listen to some offers and wait to be wowed and they can wait to the 11th hour to see which lottery teams still have players they might want to unload and low ball them without mortgaging their future.

I’d be happy to be wrong as big trades are fun, but it seems like the big splash is done.

The Future’s so bright, I’ve got to wear shades

Alright, so Muzzin joining the Leafs blueline on an affordable deal through next season is helps with the immediate future, and it’s hard not to be excited about the future when Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Rielly, Nylander, Muzzin, Kadri, Kapanen, Andersen, Johnsson, and Dermott fill 11 of the 20 spots on the roster, with nice pieces like Hyman and Marleau deserving some mention too.

The problem might be with the fact that beyond Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and possibly Jeremy Bracco, the prospect pool is looking pretty shallow, and the Leafs now find themselves without a first round pick. The goalie situation looks pretty impressive with Woll and Scott ready to make the leap to pro, but the grading the organization overall we’re back to needs improvement territory.

The comfort comes from the fact that the Leafs roster is very young and very good, and immediate replacements in bulk isn’t a requirement, but with expensive contracts to Matthews, Marner, and significant pay increases to Kapanen and Johnsson happening this year, it would be nice to fill the roster out with swing for the fences prospects over whomever this free agency period’s version of Josh Jooris will be.

The 2020-21 season will likely include significant contracts for Muzzin and Dermott as well and roster improvement could best be aided through entry level contracts.

It should be noted that this is a great problem to have, but just not one that a smart organization loses sight of. Brendan Shanahan has expressed his admiration for the two decades of success Detroit was able to put together, and they did that through keeping their contracts in check, and not letting their prospect pool drain.

What’s Most Important

If you are under the age of 52 this is likely the best Leafs team you have seen in your lifetime, and I say that as someone who loves nothing more than pining over the 93 Leafs. As much as being aware of what needs to come next is valuable, what makes the most sense is to enjoy a team that has now checked all the boxes for having a great forward group, solid blue line, and reliable goaltending and should be able to go up against anyone in the playoffs and have a solid chance of winning.

 



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