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Photo Credit: © Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Teams are trying to trade defencemen to the Leafs, Jake Muzzin is in the early stages of extension talks

Bob McKenzie dropped a few interesting Leafs-related tidbits on Insider Trading yesterday, reporting that other teams around the league are offering them defencemen via trade and that the team and Jake Muzzin have opened up talks on a contract extension.

“Lots of teams around the NHL are calling the Toronto Maple Leafs and saying, ‘Hey, would you like one of our defensemen? We can make you a real sweet deal.’

I expect the Leafs are making some calls of their own on that front.

The short-term strategy is just to get through their next three games — Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday are all home games, and then they get their All-Star break. Jake Muzzin could be back in the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup coming out of that break in the Nashville game on Monday, January 27.

The idea of trading for a defenseman is not entirely out of the question, but here is where it gets complicated: The short-term need for the Leafs is left side, where Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are out. But beyond the season, it is more on the right side. The question the leafs have to ask themselves: ‘Are you prepared to trade Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson or Alex Kerfoot for a like contract on defense, a young defenseman?’ That is a hell of a needle to threat for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that is one of the questions they’re going to have to ask themselves.

One other thing to note, and it’s preliminary, very preliminary, but the Leafs have talked to Jake Muzzin about a contract extension, but it’s just getting going.

Hearing that teams are getting on the phone with the Leafs right now isn’t a surprise at all given the fact their blueline has been completely decimated by injury. Jake Muzzin was placed on the Injured Reserve a few days ago with a broken foot while Morgan Rielly will also miss the next eight weeks with a broken foot.

In last night’s game against New Jersey, the team rolled with a top pairing of Travis Dermott and Justin Holl, a second pairing of Martin Marincin and Tyson Barrie, and a third pair of Rasmus Sandin and Cody Ceci. Navigating through injuries to two veteran defencemen won’t be easy for a club that already has a fairly thin blueline.

Thankfully for the Leafs, they have just two more games before the All-Star break and then they’ll have over a week off before returning to action. If all goes well, Muzzin could be back shortly after the break, meaning the Leafs wouldn’t have to go through a prolonged stretch with this completely tattered blueline. While there could be a deal out there that makes the Leafs better, perhaps short- and long-term, they thankfully aren’t in a position right now in which they desperately need to make a panic move in order to steer through a challenging schedule.

As McKenzie mentions, it’ll be players like Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Alexander Kerfoot who would be names other teams will be asking about in return for a young defenceman with a similar price-tag. Given Toronto’s cap situation, it’ll be incredibly hard to execute a deal for a worthwhile defenceman without giving up anybody currently on the roster.

But if the deal helps the team beyond this year, is it worth pulling the trigger? For example, if New Jersey were to retain half of P.K. Subban’s $9 million cap hit, making him a $4.5 million defenceman for the rest of this year and next, would it be worthwhile to send one of Kapanen or Johnsson the other way? What about Adam Larsson or Darnell Nurse in Edmonton? The Oilers badly need help up front, could there be a hockey deal to be made?

Moving along, McKenzie also notes that the Leafs and Muzzin are in the early stages of talks on a new contract. Muzzin is one of three Leafs defencemen who will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Given how poorly things have gone for Tyson Barrie, I can’t imagine he’s back again, and I doubt there’s an appetite to keep the Cody Ceci experiment going beyond this year. Muzzin is certainly the one of the three who makes the most sense to stick around long-term given how good he’s been since being acquired around this time a year ago.

He’s coming off of a deal that paid him $4 million annually over five seasons signed back in 2014 shortly after he broke into the league as a top-four defenceman. Though he isn’t producing as much offensively as he has in the past, Muzzin is still a very good defenceman and should net an increase on his $4 million annual salary. If Tyler Myers was able to command $6 million annually after back-to-back seasons with 36 and 31 points, Muzzin should be able to command something fairly similar.

He turns 31 years old in February, so we’re at the stage where long-term deals become a little risky. A shorter-term deal with a higher cap hit, like $5.5 million over four years, probably makes the most sense in this situation. 

Muzzin’s game is important to the Leafs as they don’t have anybody else like him who plays a physical, hard-nosed style while also featuring the smarts and skills to not be caved in as a defence-only guy. The Leafs can replace Barrie internally with Sandin or Timothy Liljegren taking a step forward, that isn’t the case with Muzzin.