On the surface it seems pretty simple. The Leafs need to upgrade their defense. I’m not sure how much that’s actually true. I think they need to try something new with their defense, but I’m not sure it’s entirely on the personnel aside from Cody Ceci and maybe Martin Marincin. I wouldn’t mind if they were gone, but that’s an entirely different point.
If we assume that the everything we’ve heard is true and the Leafs are looking to upgrade their blueline, particularly with a defenseman who shoots right, can play in their top four, and is under contract beyond this season, the options for the Leafs quickly become very limited. I thought I’d do a little search to see just how many defensemen fit that bill.
Searching for under 30 year old defensemen who are either under contract beyond this season, or restricted free agents who shoot right and are active on an NHL roster were my search parameters. That search yielded 36 players. Of those players we have names like Cale Makar, Erik Karlsson, Charlie McAvoy, Dante Fabbro, Noah Dobson, Adam Fox, John Marino, John Klingberg, Seth Jones, and Adam Boqvist, all of who are pretty much sure things to not be traded. It didn’t take long for the list to become 26 names.
On the other end of the spectrum there are names like Connor Murphy, Erik Gudbranson, Chad Ruhwedel, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Carrick, and Tyler Myers that the Leafs are not going to be interested in at all. The reason being is the goal is to be upgrading the blueline. There is a very questionable name I’ve chosen to leave in that we’ll get to later, but for now we’ll remove these players and take our list down to 20.
Now, I’ve already pulled some of the names off of some of the younger defensemen that teams are going to be holding onto, but these ones particularly stand out as they are on non-playoff teams and the rebuild will be significantly more important to them. Cale Fleury, Henri Jokiharju, Filip Hronek, and Matt Roy aren’t likely to be going anywhere. Quickly we are down to 16 names.
Let’s keep on scratching names, and assume that since Jacob Trouba was just dealt to the Rangers the plan is to keep him there, and on the flip side of that deal, since the Jets gave up on Trouba for him, Neal Pionk is probably staying with Winnipeg for a while. Sorry Neal.
Stephen Johns just returned this month after missing more than a year to a head injury, we’ll assume that’s a pretty big question mark and not a long term solution. Greg Pateryn hasn’t been out as long, but just returning to the lineup after sports hernia surgery probably doesn’t put him on a wish list either. Quickly we’re looking at just 12 defensemen.
We’ll scratch 2 more names here, and those are Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Carlo, two players that the Panthers and Bruins respectively should want to hold onto, but also two players that aren’t going to be dealt to a division rival who is chasing down their playoff spot. We should probably do the same for David Savard and Brett Pesce who the Leafs are chasing in the wild card spot race. All of these players might be options in the summer, but for the trade deadline, they are probably off the table. Quickly we are at 8 players.
Scott Mayfield and Nick Jensen are questionable as top four defensemen at best, and given that both are on team friendly contracts and their teams are bound for the playoffs I’m going to go ahead and scratch them from the list as well. Isn’t this great? Out of a league with 31 teams and 23 players on each of those rosters, there are only 6 players who might be available to the Leafs who could in any possible way fit their needs for a right shooting defenseman, who is capable of playing in the top four, and I can guarantee that at least three of these names are going to make your eyes bleed.
I’m going to start with the one that I’ve already covered in depth to some degree on this site already, and that’s Mathew Dumba. Dumba hasn’t been great this year, but has a couple of strong seasons under his belt preceding this one. You can make a case for that being largely driven by the quality of his defensive partner, and I think that’s a fair concern to raise, especially when you likely need Dumba to elevate someone else, not just play with them. There’s also the issue of the $6M/yr cap hit that really makes it so the chance you’re taking on Dumba has to pan out otherwise the Leafs are in a worse situation than they were with trying to unload the Zaitsev contract.
Dumba checks the boxes of being physical, a strong skater, and keeping up with the uptempo offensive game of the Leafs. He might be more defensively responsible than Rielly or Barrie, but he’s not Jake Muzzin by any stretch. Perhaps the best comparison is Travis Dermott.
The next name is one that keeps on coming up frequently, largely because of Edmonton’s desire to acquire one of the Leafs forwards, and that is Adam Larsson. Larsson has draft pick pedigree and the history of being valued as being worth trading one for one for Taylor Hall. Neither of these things hold up particularly well, and instead he’s probably most noteworthy as a defenseman who hasn’t been able to crack 40% Goals for in the past two seasons, and has absolutely been shelled when it comes to shots. His four years in Edmonton can’t be written off as him not responding there, as his numbers weren’t particularly strong in New Jersey either. His contract is up after next season though, so if he came with a sweetener the dice could be rolled on him, but he’s a gamble, not an answer, and he’s not a particularly strong bet.
Sticking with defensemen the Leafs probably shouldn’t want, here’s Rasmus Ristolainen. There’s probably a lesson to be learned in here about how drafting a defenseman high doesn’t necessarily make them good, and that applies to the previous two players as well as Rasmus. There really isn’t a lot to say about Ristolainen that will make you want him on the Leafs. He’s expensive, he hasn’t been good, and the Sabres will probably want too much for him. That’s why I was debating including him that group of Gudbranson, Zaitsev, Myers, and Murphy above and not mentioning him at all. Unfortunately though he is young and perhaps deserves one change of scenery before being completely written off. I just hope that change doesn’t involve Toronto.
Might as well mention Colin Miller at this point since we’re talking Sabres. The former Soo Greyhound has been rumoured to Toronto in the past and it was a bit of a surprise when Vegas dealt him to Buffalo. While this season hasn’t been kind to Miller, and he seems earmarked for a Cody Franson type existence, he remains an option for the Leafs to consider, even if he’s potential more of a really strong 3rd pairing guy instead of a top four defender.
Damon Severson is a player who makes a ton of sense for the Leafs, but unfortunately, he also seems to be a player that makes a ton of sense for the Devils and if there is anyone there who is remotely thinking about their future beyond this season, he’s probably going to stay. The Devils have a 25 year old defenseman on a good contract, who controls the play well and only carries the drawback of not being a traditional defensive stalwart. Given that they will soon have a new coach and a new GM, and they currently have an analytics department that is singing this guy’s praises, I’m not sure Severson is on the move when they can deal Vatanen as a rental instead for a solid return or focus their efforts on unloading PK Subban and his mega contract. Sniffing around Severson makes sense, but expecting him to be available at this time seems unlikely. Perhaps this is something to revisit somewhere down the line.
That brings us to the player that is probably the best option, and that’s Josh Manson. The Ducks are hellbent on blowing it all up, and are willing to add salary in deals as well. They are an ideal one stop shop for the Leafs, but given that they are going to be focused on futures, the price for Manson could be off-putting. A player with strong numbers, a reason contract, and checks the box for the desire for the Leafs to have a more physical blueline might make him worth the price, that could start at Kapanen and Liljegren, for example. The Ducks are going to want youth, and will need to fill out a roster as they start selling pieces off.
Assuming those are the frontrunners of the conversation, I think I could wrap my head equally around any one of them. Dumba might not be having his best year this year, but I’m not sure I’d say he’s too far behind Manson or Severson in my considerations.
Supplies are limited
If anything going through this exercise has taught me that beggars can’t be choosers, and at least in season there is a need to compromise if the Leafs want to upgrade. It’s also got me reflecting on what the options might be this summer, as players like Ekblad, Savard, and Pesce may become considerations as well. It also seems to underline the importance of finding out exactly what the Leafs might have in Timothy Liljegren, who might not be the star top pairing defender he was once billed as, but there’s certainly some value associated with any quality right side defender in this league, and they should explore what he will become.
Given that there are few options available it seems like we will need to consider that upgrading the blueline might not be a possibility for the Leafs at the trade deadline, and that’s fine. Mortgaging the future as a bubble team may be unwise, and instead positioning themselves for the long term might be the smarter play. Dubas already seems to be doing that by looking beyond rentals, which is encouraging.
For now we wait, and live with the nightmare fuel of the potential of trading for Rasmus Ristolainen.