There’s been a lot of overblown opinion about the Leafs not being able to survive the playoffs in the way they’re currently constructed because they aren’t ‘heavy’ enough, or lack the toughness to make a deep run. Whether there’s a shred of substance to that or not, expect that type of talk to get even louder in the next few days leading up to the trade deadline, especially given Toronto is staring down the barrel at the ‘big bad Bruins’ again in the first round.
Perhaps the Leafs will have a difficult time with teams like the Bruins and Lightning when they try to go up their bracket in April, but every other team in the league would. Still, misplaced as the emphasis on toughness may be, Toronto certainly has a weakness in two areas: right-side defence, and left-side forward. [It’s some sort of cruel joke that the Leafs are loaded with right-wingers but can’t find a competent puck mover from the back-end to support that side].
Anyway, there is a path to making everyone happy, in the form of left wing trade targets that are fast, can score, and don’t mind driving to the net hard. Two in particular, who are clearly on the trade block but to varying degrees, are Marcus Johansson out of New Jersey and Chris Kreider from the Rangers.
Chris Kreider (NYR)
If you try to look up Kreider highlights on YouTube, the search field auto-populates “chris kreider goalie victims“, which gives you an indication of the reputation he’s built up in the league. Still, while he might stir controversy among some fanbases (ahem…Montreal), Kreider would be an absolutely perfect fit for the Leafs. He’s relatively cheap at $4.625-million AAV through next season, still in his prime at 27, and plays a game that would complement Toronto’s forward group nicely. We don’t know how long Babcock is going to keep his current lines together, and most believe William Nylander will eventually land alongside Auston Matthews again, but adding a player like Kreider to the mix and running those three together would be dynamite. In that scenario, Kreider essentially represents a Zach Hyman-type burner who can really score; He’s one of the only players on a dreadful Rangers team who keeps moving play in the right direction this season and carrying them offensively.
That’s the type of ‘heaviness’ the Leafs can add, where they can tilt the ice with speed and relentlessness and some scoring to boot. In this case the Leafs would want to move out money in order to avoid bonus overages on Marner and Matthews and keep things opened up a bit for next season, but again, I’d rather they make this type of major move than unload a pick for the mirage of “toughness” on a replacement-level player.
Marcus Johansson (NJ)
Johansson, carrying a cap hit of $4.83-million, is a free agent in a few months so he’s the pure rental option here, something Toronto might want to look at for a couple obvious reasons: Fewer assets to get him, and cap flexibility next season. He isn’t as good as Kreider, and has had a rough go of it injury-wise the last little while, but that’s probably part of why he’s gone under the radar as a primary trade target. Johansson is also a ‘heavy’ player if you value physical size, listed 6’01 and 205 pounds, which is the same height and just a little lighter than Michael Ferland, who everyone apparently believes is the toughest player in league history now. Funny how those narratives work based on birthplace.
But physical stature aside, I think Johansson’s biggest selling point is he can play pretty much anywhere in the lineup. He can go back and forth on both wings, and has enough scoring ability to play alongside anyone in the top nine – though he’d arguably be the Leafs’ best left-winger if added to this group.
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Like Kreider, Johansson is still in his prime at 28 years old, and also can play a nose-to-the-net style. I mean, Toronto fans saw that first hand when he put the Leafs away two years ago doing just that, beating Martin Marincin inside (okay, not that impressive) and ending their season in overtime.
It’s these types of players that likely present as far better options for the Leafs than rentals like Wayne Simmonds or Ferland. In the case of Simmonds, he’s older than both and it’s difficult to tell if he’d even be much of an upgrade on anyone down the left side. Ferland might be alright, but the talk about him has been so overblown that his price could far outweigh what he brings to the team that acquires him for a playoff run. As we can see in Kreider and Johansson, there are fits out there that make a lot more sense.