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Photo Credit: © Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Offseason Trade Targets: Undervalued Right-Defensemen the Leafs Could Pursue

The Leafs will be heading into an important offseason and with the 2019-2020 season in question, it might not be too early to look ahead. Dubas and co. will have a number of decisions to make especially on the defensive side of the coin. With Muzzin and Holl signed long term it seems like the Leafs have finally found the shutdown pairing they have longed for but they still are looking for a partner for Morgan Rielly.

During the 2019-2020 season, Rielly spent most of his time at even strength playing with either Cody Ceci or Tyson Barrie. Both players will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the year and have a low chance of resigning. Rielly also spent a small amount of time with the upcoming RFA Travis Dermott. While Dermott seems to have all the tools to be a good top-four defenceman, there hasn’t been a long enough sample of his play on the right side to be convinced he could fill the position next to Rielly in the immediate future. Rasmus Sandin is another player who I believe can play on his off-side but is probably more suited to play on the third pairing as he continues to grow at the NHL level. The only other real option on the right side is Timothy Liljegren. A player who impressed during the 2019-2020 season with the Marlies but struggled with the Leafs in sheltered minutes.

Just this morning, the Leafs signed Mikko Lehtonen, a left-handed defenseman from the KHL. This certainly changes the complexion of the offseason. Lehtonen has played on the right side in the KHL but it’s still unknown whether he can do it at the NHL level, let alone in the top-four. While the Leafs could certainly have both Dermott and Lehtonen on their off-side, I’d be surprised if that’s their number one option. Research has shown evidence of positive results when players are positioned on their correct sides as defending in transition and puck-moving is easier. Liljegren will most likely spend another year with the Marlies meaning that Justin Holl will be their only legitimate right-defenseman.

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This all leads to a possible search outside the organization. The Leafs have a few options, each providing their own strengths, and limitations.

  1. Sign a player through unrestricted free agency or outside the NHL
  2. Trade for an established right defenseman
  3. Trade for an underrated right defenceman, who can potentially step into the Leafs top-four

Today we are going to look into the third option.

Specific criteria were followed in order to find the most suitable underrated defensemen as possible partners for Morgan Rielly.

  • Defensively responsible with good underlying shot suppression numbers
  • Inexpensive: The Leafs will be up against the cap, and can’t afford to spend a lot if they plan on signing their RFAs.
  • Capable puck-mover: We have seen what happens when the Leafs have only one strong puck-mover on each pairing so it’s vital that Rielly’s partner doesn’t struggle in this regard
  • Medium-to-high possibility of being traded

Ilya Lyubushkin

Team: Arizona Coyotes
Age: 26
Shoots: Right
Undrafted

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The Coyotes signed Ilya Lyubushkin from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl from the KHL in the summer of 2018. While he only has eight assists in 92 career NHL games, his impact with the team could be worth looking into, especially when looking at this past season.

Lyubushkin isn’t the tallest player but he’s strong on his skates and knows how to use his body. Not only does he throw a high quantity of hits, but he also provides quality as well as can be seen in the ironic clip with Morgan Rielly below. Furthermore, he hustles when he sees an opportunity to separate the man from the puck and often breaks up cycles as a result. The Leafs are a bottom-five team in allowing goals off the cycle at even strength and could use all the help they can get in this regard. 

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In the past, Morgan Rielly has had partners who can break up cycles such as Zaitsev and Polak but those players struggled to make an effective first-pass once they gain possession of the puck. In contrast, Lyubushkin is a capable puck-mover. He doesn’t always make eye-opening passes like Travis Dermott for example, but he can make short accurate passes under pressure. In this video, Lyubushkin uses his body to hold off the Blues forward, then makes a composed pass to his teammate on the half wall.

 

The biggest question mark with Lyubushkin is whether he can handle a larger role with the Leafs. He has been stapled to a sheltered third pairing in his first two years in the league. In his rookie year, he had mediocre results but grew his game this past season.

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Image from hockeyviz.com

Those who follow the Leafs know that players who thrive on sheltered third pairs don’t always find immediate success in the top-four, as is the case with Travis Dermott. In contrast, we have seen Justin Holl do well in the top-four, but mostly when he is paired with a superior partner like Jake Muzzin. Luckily, if Lyubushkin came to the Leafs he would most likely play with a very good partner in Morgan Rielly, who could carry the load offensively.

Why he could be moved

The Coyotes will be in a weird spot this offseason. They will be up against the cap and are at risk of losing their best player in Taylor Hall. It looks like they could have a bit of a roster remodel due to the number of moving parts.

With that said, we will hone in on the right defense situation of the team. As of right now, Hjalmarsson is the only real lock. The Coyotes could help their cap situation by moving either Demers or Goligoski but these aren’t easy trades, as both players own modified no-trade clauses and have prominent roles on the team. Ultimately, the Coyotes might be in a situation where they have to choose between Lyubushkin and other RFA Jordan Gross, who might end up being a cheaper option.

RD Age 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22
Alex Goligoski 27 5,475,000 5,475,000 UFA
Niklas Hjalmarsson 32 5,000,000 5,000,000 UFA
Jason Demers 34 3,937,500 3,937,500 UFA
Ilya Lyubushkin 25 874,125 RFA
Jordan Gross 24 925,000 RFA

Henri Jokiharju

Team: Buffalo Sabres
Age: 20
Shoots: Right
Drafted: 2017, 1st Round, 29th by CHI

Jokiharju easily has the most potential when compared to the other players on this list. He has already played his fair share of 2nd pair minutes with both the Sabres and Blackhawks. His results have been mediocre so far, but given his skill set and age, there’s a ton of potential there.

Jokiharju is a cerebral, mobile player who can make effective passes in all three zones. When using Charting Hockey’s transitions data, Jokiharju completes zone-exits at an efficient level, and in particular, he generates possession zone-exits at the 92nd percentile.

Photo from ChartingHockey.ca

I am a fan of Jokiharju’s defending in transition as he is able to keep a tight gap and can recover if needed, thanks to his skating. The clip below isn’t a jaw-dropping highlight, but it shows Jokiharju (#10) holding his blue line, staying with his man, before blocking the shot.

Like many young defencemen, he has room to grow without the puck. In particular, Jokiharju could play with more intensity from shift-to-shift, especially when defending in his own end. In addition, he would benefit from being tougher in puck battles along the boards and in front of the net.

Why he could be moved

The Sabres had an interesting first half of 2019 as they traded for three right defenders, Montour, Miller, and Jokiharju in the span of six months. Despite being an RFA this summer, it seems unlikely they will move Montour as they traded a first plus more for his services. Miller and Ristolainen could be moved but it would constitute a larger trade.

RD Age 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen 25 5,400,000 5,400,000 5,400,000 UFA
Colin Miller 27 3,875,000 3,875,000 3,875,000 UFA
Brandon Montour 26 2,850,000 RFA
Henri Jokiharju 20 (ELC) 925,000 925,000 RFA

It’s clear that the Sabres have a logjam at this position, and in a similar way to Edmonton, could use some good forwards. It’s an odd situation as, not too long ago, the Sabres traded Alex Nylander for Jokiharju, but I wonder if they would be interested in a winger who can be a strong contributor in the NHL today. Players like Pierre Engvall or, in a larger deal, Andreas Johnsson come to mind.

Matthew Benning

Team: Edmonton Oilers
Age: 25
Shoots: Right
Drafted: 2012: 6th round, 175th by BOS

A Benning to Leafs trade has circulated before in the rumour mill and I wouldn’t be surprised if they resurface again in the offseason. Matt Benning might not impress in terms of chance creation or point production but he has posted strong underlying defensive numbers, especially in the past two seasons. Benning does a lot of the little things right. It feels like the puck is usually going in the right direction for the Oilers when he is involved in the play. He is positionally sound and does not take many risks in terms of jumping up in the play.

Below, Benning (#83) makes two moderately difficult entry stops, then defers to his partner for the breakout.

As a puck-mover, Benning can make a good first-pass and as a result, won’t need to defer to Rielly for zone-exits as much as Rielly’s past defensive partners. When under pressure from incoming forecheckers, he usually looks to make the simplest play to get the puck out of his zone. Furthermore, Benning doesn’t have the vision or skating to generate a ton of entries.  When faced with the task of carrying in the neutral zone, he usually resorts to dumping the puck in.

Benning is on the smaller end but has an innocent nastiness to his game. Over the past two seasons, Benning has dished out 187 hits. For context, this would place Benning as one of the most frequent hitters on the Leafs just in front of Dermott who has 178 during this time period.

If Benning is the player the Leafs acquire, I think Keefe would get creative to make it work effectively. Muzzin and Holl would certainly still take the other team’s top lines but Keefe would have the option to move around the bottom two pairings depending on the situation. For Rielly’s defensive zone faceoffs he could have Benning on the ice and in the offensive zone he could put out Dermott.

Why he could be moved

The Oilers have a plethora of right defensemen. This season Benning fought for ice-time with Adam Larsson and the emerging Ethan Bear. Furthermore, Benning’s minutes took a hit after returning from a concussion mid-season and they never seemed to increase thereafter. It didn’t help that GM Ken Holland traded for veteran defenseman Mike Green at the deadline although we never saw the true effect of this, given the season lockdown.

RD Age 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22 2022-23
Adam Larsson 27 4,166,666 4,166,666 UFA
Kris Russell 32 4,000,000 4,000,000 UFA
Mike Green 34 2,687,500 UFA
Matthew Benning 25 1,900,000 RFA
Ethan Bear 22 720,000 RFA
Evan Bouchard 20 894,167 894,167 894,167 RFA

The Oilers clearly have some decisions to make. Russel has a modified no-move clause and based on Bear’s deployment this season, I’d assume they will be keeping him around. They also have Evan Bouchard in their prospect system. He isn’t a lock to make the team next year, but he is surely a big part of the future plans. That leaves Larsson, Benning, and Green. Even if they move Larsson, the resigning of Green, on a short term deal, isn’t out of the question. Holland has a history of trusting veterans and signing him would give them a sturdy top-four option as they wait for Bouchard.

Matt Roy

Team: Los Angeles Kings
Age: 25
Shoots: Right
Drafted: 2015: 7th round, 194th by LAK

In a recent interview with NHL.com, Matt Roy described his game:

“I’m a defensive-minded player, I try to have clean breakouts, make a good first pass out of our zone to the wingers… and I try to play physical when I can. I think there’s an element of consistency there, I take pride in that… I think that it makes it easier for everyone on the ice if they know what I’m going to do.”

Video from NHL.com 

Roy’s game at even strength grades out extremely well in models such as RAPM. This year he saw a steady increase in ice time as the season went on. He is one of the few players on this list who has played well in second pairing minutes. I was curious to see how Roy’s deployment would grow especially after the Kings traded Martinez.

Image 1 from hockeyviz.com                                                                   Image 2 from evolving-hockey.com

 

Why he could be moved

The Kings have done a great job during their rebuild. They have compiled a number of draft picks and have one of the best prospect pools in the league. The Leafs and Kings are clearly not in the same phase and have already made two trades with each other, over the past year and a half. With that said, another trade might not be out of the question. The Leafs are still in need of an RD and the Kings are looking to get younger.

RD 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22 2022-23 2023-24 2025-26 2026-27 2027-28
Drew Doughty 11,000,000 11,000,000 11,000,000 11,000,000 11,000,000 11,000,000 11,000,000 UFA
Sean Walker 745,000 RFA
Matt Roy 700,000 700,000 RFA
Kurtis MacDermid 675,000 875,000 875,000 UFA

As of right now, the Kings have four right-defensemen on their roster. Doughty is still performing at a high level and continues to be a leader for the team. Sean Walker is an RFA and spent the majority of his season with Kurtis MacDermid on the third pairing. MacDermid just got signed to an extension and has played right defense in the past, despite playing mostly on the left side this year. While Roy doesn’t have the level of competition for his job as the other players on this list, the Kings aren’t in a situation where they need to win now. It might take a player as good as Kapanen or Johnsson to get the deal done, but it might be something worth exploring.

Honourable Mentions:

Mackenzie Weegar

Weegar might be one of the most underrated players on this list. After battling injuries throughout the year, Weegar posted impressive numbers and earned trust from the coaching staff as the season went on. Weegar does a lot of things well and drives play at a high level. On the right side, the Panthers have Ekblad, Stralman, and Brown. Ekblad is a core piece of the team, and Stralman has a modified no-trade clause.

Before Joel Quenneville was hired, Weegar was severely underused by the Panthers. This year he saw a change in deployment which is a major reason why he’s in the “Honourable Mentions” category despite being an impending RFA.  The Panthers did a good job this year giving Weegar a prominent role on the team. When healthy, he spent most of the season on his off-side playing alongside either Ekblad or Stralman. He averaged 17:17 of 5v5 ice time, which ranked third on the Panthers. Despite having some immoveable contracts among their left defencemen, I would still be surprised if the Panthers trade Weegar.

Troy Stecher

If you follow Canucks news, you won’t be surprised to see Stecher’s name on this list. Stecher is an RFA this offseason and could be at risk for being the odd man out in Vancouver. His future will depend heavily on whether the Canucks bring back Chris Tanev and whether the team looks outside the organization to find a right-handed defenseman.

Stecher has posted strong defensive impacts this year on a relatively weak defensive team and has a history of top-four minutes. Despite this, I am questionable about his ability to step up into a contending team’s top-four, especially when compared to the other players on this list.  In addition, considering his arbitration rights, I am expecting him to receive a raise from his current 2.325M AAV contract which could add to the risk of this acquisition.

With that said, the Leafs have shown interest in Stecher in the past and I wouldn’t be upset if they traded for him. Stecher might not be a strong puck-mover but if Rielly takes on the majority of the puck transportation load, this pairing could work.

Conclusion

Trading for an underrated defenseman is a tough route to go through as you need to find a player who isn’t as valued on their team as they should be.

If the Leafs can find an underrated defenseman for the upcoming season, it would give them a competitive defensive lineup to complement their elite offensive forwards. When you have a forward group as good as the Leafs do, you can get away with league-average defense and still compete for the Stanley Cup. While the Leafs are probably striving for better than league average, you want to see progress from year to year, and trading for one of these players will certainly push them in that direction.

 

I hope everyone has been staying healthy and safe during this time. As always, thank you for reading.