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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

A guide to what the Leafs could do before the trade deadline

Trying to get a handle on just how good the Leafs are this season has proven tricky to this point, as we sit just over a week from the trade deadline. Sure, they’re likely a contender as far as any team in that next tier under Tampa Bay can be, but you could argue that with the addition of John Tavares they haven’t quite taken the leap most would’ve expected them to in 2018-19.

Truthfully, there’s a strong case to be made that they’re more-or-less about as good as they were last season. And while that’s still great, it brings up questions about how they can shore up the holes in their lineup to really make this year in their contention window count.

As of today, the league probably shakes out like this in terms of contender tiers.

Group 1: Lightning

Group 2: Leafs, Sharks, Predators, Flames, Bruins, Jets

Group 2A: Canadiens, Knights, Capitals

Stories like the Islanders are nice, and it’s tough to leave out of the Penguins out of the contention conversation any time, but right now, today, the above is what I’ve got for teams that I think are balanced in earning points in the standings and doing well in the run of play, at least enough to make not-surprising runs to the finals.

With all that said, while Toronto would ideally like to pull away from that second group, they’re probably smack dab in the middle of it, and that means they aren’t head and shoulders above the 2A tier either. The Leafs against any of those others listed is going to be looked at as a close, nearly coin-flip series in the eyes of most.

So do they have work to do before 3 o’clock on February 25th? Some believe that Kyle Dubas is still looking to make a substantial move, and there are teams out there, most notably the Hurricanes, who continue to pop up as potential trade partners. If the Leafs are going to be active, we should take stock of what they have, what they could be looking at, and what their overall situation looks like as we approach the deadline.

‘Untouchables’

There are players on this roster that are surely not going anywhere before next Monday. The original three headed monster of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander is untouchable, as is the fourth in Tavares. On top of that, Rielly and the newly-acquired Muzzin aren’t in the conversation, nor is Patrick Marleau (no-movement clause) or other lineup favourites or staples like Zach Hyman or Nazem Kadri. Those latter names aren’t untouchable in a skill sense, it’s just like, come on, they’re not going to be traded. We know that.

In terms of future assets, the Leafs are apparently making it clear that Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren are not going to be included in any deal for a rental, and I doubt they’d even move the former for a player with term unless the haul is a blockbuster. We may as well pencil Sandin in as “not being traded” as well. On the other end of things, Jake Gardiner is on an expiring contract but will be looked at as basically an internal rental, so he’s not going anywhere either.

Questionables

Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, the two most notable young step-takers this season. I’d be floored if either of these players are moved, but it isn’t one-hundred percent out of the question due to the nature of a lot of the talks we’ve heard about the Leafs having in terms of finding a quality right-handed back. These are the names we see come up sometimes when the rumour mill churns out things about Toronto potentially going after a player like Dougie Hamilton out of Carolina.

We also have to factor in that both these players are restricted free agents, and the Leafs have a lot of maneuvering to do with this roster in the summer in order to make things work. A decision on one of these guys now to make an easy transition to an established player with term could make sense. Just don’t bet on it.

Ranking futures

I mentioned Sandin as sort of an “untouchable” futures asset that the Leafs really don’t want to part with, but it’s worth taking stock of what the team has in their cupboard overall. They’ve already parted with this summer’s first-rounder, and clearly won’t offer up 2020’s unless it’s part of another substantial trade for a player with years left on their contract.

When it comes to picks and prospects as trade currency, here’s how I’d rank what the Leafs currently have:

  1. Rasmus Sandin (D)
  2. 2020 first round pick
  3. Timothy Liljegren (D)
  4. 2019 second round pick
  5. Ian Scott (G)
  6. Jeremy Bracco (F)

Problems

Marleau’s third year at $6.25M AAV is going to be a headache for the Leafs, but with a no-movement clause he’s not going anywhere so they’ll have to live with it. Looking elsewhere in the lineup, it’s no secret that Zaitsev’s cap number itself is close to being a NMC on its own, but the hope is that his contract is still a solvable problem. He probably can be moved, it’s just about finding a team that will make that deal and hopefully not having to add much sweetener from the Toronto end to make it happen.

Connor Brown isn’t a “problem” per se, but moving out his $2.1-million AAV (that goes through next season) and plugging in a guy like Trevor Moore is so glaringly convenient for this team. Brown is especially the type of contract you want to throw in to make the money work in a deadline deal, but if not, he’s a prime candidate to get moved in the summer.

Cap situation

At CapFriendly, it says the Leafs will have around $20-million in “deadline cap space”, a number that might mislead some into thinking they can blow the doors off and add whoever they want. That’s not exactly the case.

Toronto’s projected cap space, which factors in the sum of the current cap hits on the roster and projected use of LTIR ($0 in the case of the Leafs), actually has them sitting with $4.3-million when it’s all said and done. And it’s in Toronto’s interest to leave that space open, since Matthews and Marner will likely both in bonuses adding up to $3.7-million. The Leafs don’t want to push themselves over now and kick those bonuses down the road to next season when things get really tight.

Essentially, if the Leafs want to keep things tidy and save themselves from some headaches next season, they’ll have to move money out for money in.

Potential for major deals

Okay enough about the Leafs’ internal situation, let’s talk about what we all want to talk about most: Actual trade targets.

The potential for the Leafs to make a major deal seems quite limited after already trading for Muzzin, but there are some well-connected folks out there who think they’re not done yet.

It’s fairly common knowledge that the Leafs did have conversations with the Blues about Alex Pietrangelo earlier in the season, but those talks broke down with St. Louis’ insistence on getting Nylander back in the deal. With the Blues’ ascent into playoff territory recently, I’d assume these talks have been abandoned completely, but who knows? If there’s still a real hockey trade to be made there with substantial roster players, maybe the window is still open.

The most commonly talked-about trade partner for the Leafs now is the Carolina Hurricanes. The two teams have been circling each other for a while, going back nearly a year according to a few sources. It’s easy to draw a line from the Leafs to any of their three notable right-handed defencemen in Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton, and Brett Pesce. All three do a good enough job driving play, and either would certainly be the best right-handed option on the Leafs, but it’s worth looking at how often they’re used in all situations to see if the “Hamilton isn’t being used properly” talk is legit.

via MoneyPuck.com

Oh. It is.

Mid-major deals

Toronto still has some decent options out there in what I would consider “mid-major” targets; In other words, players that aren’t going to shake up the lineup in a huge way as key cogs like those mentioned above, but would provide upgraded support and certainly grab a few headlines. I’d put Radko Gudas and Chris Tanev in this group as far as defencemen go, as well as the outside shot at winger Ryan Dzingel. Gudas and Tanev both have term through next season at $3.35M and 4.45M AAV respectively, while Dzingel is a free agent at the end of this season looking at a serious raise from $1.8M (which he will not get in Toronto). While Dzingel would be a pure rental scorer only, either Gudas and Tanev would likely provide upgrades on the Leafs’ right side back end for this year and next, albeit a marginal one. Again, this goes back to the money in-money out wall the Leafs are now up against, so names like Brown and Zaitsev would have to be involved in any of these talks.

Minor deals

The Wings’ Nick Jensen is the primary minor target I could see the Leafs going after, a serviceable righty on the cheap that would give them a better look on the back end. And somewhat weirdly, there has been a bit of talk about them kicking tires on Kyle Clifford – a fourth liner through and through – out of Los Angeles. It’s something Elliotte Friedman alluded to on his 31 Thoughts Podcast this morning, citing Dubas’s strong relationship with Clifford’s agent in the past.

Outside that, not many others really exist, unless you consider Wayne Simmonds or Michael Ferland a minor deal. I mean, I would consider those minor additions considering the Leafs’ current forward depth, but the proposed price to acquire these guys is looking substantial. I can’t see Toronto putting up relatively high picks to bring in either.

Offseason consequences

As mentioned earlier, the Leafs will need to be careful about keeping $3.7-million in projected cap space open in order to absorb performance bonuses for Marner and Matthews. That means if they wanted to get into the market for the biggest name rentals like Panarin, it’s going to hurt later, even aside from the assets given up. Also, Toronto has a decision on the horizon about negotiating with Jake Gardiner or letting him walk on July 1st. As things stand right now, it seems an almost-certainty that he prices them out and signs elsewhere, but there is apparently still interest from the Leafs in keeping him. If Dubas makes a move to get another blueliner with any term at all before the deadline, that will pretty much end all that talk.

What’ll probably happen

To wrap all this up, if I had to predict what the Leafs will actually do prior to the deadline, I can envision a few scenarios. Ranked in terms of likeliness to happen, here’s what I see Dubas potentially getting done before or on February 25th:

  1. Toronto moves Nikita Zaitsev and his remaining five years x $4.25M out with a sweetener in what’ll be looked at as a lateral deal for a washed out player like Tanev in order to get out from the term. I’m not big into the “sources say” game, but they have been shopping Zaitsev since last summer. That much I do know.
  2. Unless the Flyers keep winning, Toronto puts together a modest package for Radko Gudas. Something like Brown and a pick or middling prospect.
  3. Toronto swings a minor deal, like a pick swap or depth exchange, in order to get Nick Jensen or Kyle Clifford, or both.
  4. The Leafs deal for Dougie Hamilton in a blockbuster. We’re talking Johnsson or Kapanen and more going out. This is the dream.

There’s a decent enough chance the Leafs simply sit back and let the deadline pass, having the Muzzin deal be their only real in-season change. They’re an upper echelon team, and they don’t need to do anything. But with Tavares in the fold, this is a true contention window now, and every run is precious. You have to wonder how far off from Tampa they think they are. With that in mind, I think they at least get some tinkering done before the clock strikes three.

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