The Leafs defensive unit, particularly the right side, has been a source of concern for what seems like forever. This offseason will be no different as Kyle Dubas looks to revamp his blue line once again. Last summer saw him trade for Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci – two players that failed to stabilize the group – and while there will be options to pursue in free agency, Dubas will likely look to the trade market once again in search of solutions for the Leafs defense.
There have been countless names thrown around in recent weeks and months, and today we’ll dive a little bit deeper into some of those players and their potential fits as trade targets for the Maple Leafs.
Aaron Ekblad – 24 years old – RHD – 6’4″, 215lbs
If Dubas decides to go big game hunting, there might not be a more perfect fit for the Leafs’ needs than Aaron Ekblad. The hulking right handed defenceman can play big minutes in all situations and led the Panthers with just under 23 minutes of ice time per game. He established a new career high with 41 points in just 67 games this past season, and that was without much time on Florida’s top power play unit. Perhaps even more enticing for Toronto given their stylistic needs, Ekblad’s isolated defensive impact was better than any defenceman on the Leafs roster last season.
Ekblad also fits the timeline for this Leafs group, at just 24 years of age and signed for 5 more seasons with a cap hit of $7.5 million. While it’s hard to imagine new Panthers GM Bill Zito being interested in moving Ekblad, Florida’s ownership has made it a priority to cut salary moving forward. Ekblad’s actual salary increases to $9 million in 2021 and that might make the Panthers willing to listen. An unlikely acquisition at best, the price for Ekblad would be high and the conversation likely doesn’t get very far without William Nylander’s name being in the mix. I’m not sure either of Zito or Dubas are prepared to make such a monumental move at this time, but Ekblad would be the ideal solution on Toronto’s blue line both now and in the future.
Dougie Hamilton – 26 years old – RHD – 6’6″, 229lbs
For whatever reason, Hamilton’s name continues to pop up in trade rumors and he was recently included in the latest edition of TSN’s trade bait list. He was in the midst of a huge season that was likely to garner Norris Trophy consideration before suffering a broken leg in January, but Carolina has lots of money and term committed to their blue line and Hamilton is signed for just 1 more season at a cap hit of $5.75 million. Given the current economic climate, the Hurricanes may explore Hamilton’s trade value as they decide whether or not they should commit to him long term. The Leafs would likely want to be able to discuss a contract extension as part of any potential trade, especially with the acquisition price Carolina is sure to seek for a player of his caliber. Carolina has reportedly shown interest in Frederik Andersen but the Leafs would have to add significant assets on top of that in order to pry Hamilton away from the Hurricanes. I’m not sure there’s a trade that works for both sides, but Hamilton would solve a lot of problems for the Leafs.
Colton Parayko – 27 years old – RHD – 6’6″, 230lbs
Parayko is coming off a bit of a down year in which his defensive numbers were much less impressive than the results he has put up in previous seasons but he is still a player the Leafs would love to insert into their lineup. He’s a very large man who skates quite well for his size, but doesn’t play with as much physicality as you’d expect from someone of his stature. Instead, he uses his long reach and giant wingspan to defend the rush and clog up passing lanes while still being strong enough to win battles down low. Parayko is capable of chipping in some offense as well, registering 10 goals in each of the last two seasons. His slap shot is nightmare fuel for opposing goaltenders and anyone else who happens to get in the way of it:
Much like the first two names on this list, Parayko isn’t a player his team is going to be excited about moving but everyone knows that St. Louis is scrambling to clear cap space in order to retain Alex Pietrangelo and Parayko is a piece that could bring valuable assets in return. With just 2 years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $5.5 million, he might not be a long term solution but the Leafs will surely kick the tires on Parayko’s availability.
Josh Manson – 28 years old – RHD – 6’3″, 224lbs
Manson is a player the Leafs have reportedly had interest in for some time now, and while he’s not on the same level as players like Parayko and Hamilton, he checks a lot of boxes for the Leafs. He’s a steady defender capable of playing tough minutes against the opposition’s best players and he’s also a better transition player than he’s given credit for. Manson would add some much needed bite and ferocity to the Leafs lineup as well:
Tyler Myers scrumming it up with Jakob Silfverberg and then gets jumped by Josh Manson pic.twitter.com/bZQ3fUmatT— Harman Dayal (@harmandayal2) February 16, 2020
Manson has 2 years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $4.1 million and the rebuilding Ducks could look to cash in on him before he’s a pure rental. Outside of the flashier names, Manson should be one of the Leafs primary targets this offseason.
Damon Severson – 26 years old – RHD – 6’2″, 205lbs
Severson is another player who won’t provide much offense but could be a good fit for the Leafs as a stabilizing defensive presence alongside Morgan Rielly. He led the Devils this past season playing almost 23 minutes per game and put up respectable defensive numbers on a poor team.
Severson will count $4.166 million against the cap for 3 more seasons and could be a cost effective option for the Leafs. The Devils are a rebuilding team looking for offensive help and Toronto might be able to put together a package that would be enticing for New Jersey’s front office.
Brett Pesce – 25 years old – RHD – 6’3″, 206lbs
Like Parayko, Brett Pesce is coming off of a season in which his defensive numbers fell short of what we’ve come to expect of him. He’s a player that has been talked about in Leafs Nation going back to the Nylander contract stand-off and Dubas will surely inquire as to his availability this offseason, if he hasn’t already. Pesce has been a stout defender in the past and the Leafs would be banking on him fitting in and returning to form if they were to acquire him. He’s signed for 4 more seasons at a manageable cap hit of $4.025 million and his availability will likely be determined by what Carolina decides to do with Dougie Hamilton. A deal built around Freddie Andersen and Brett Pesce makes a lot more sense than one for Hamilton, but the Leafs would still have to add to that package.
Connor Murphy – 27 years old – RHD – 6’4″, 212lbs
Murphy is a former first round pick who has hit his stride in Chicago the last few years after beginning his career in Arizona. Based on Micah Blake McCurdy’s isolated impact metric, Murphy has put up above average defensive results for 4 consecutive seasons and was actually slightly above average offensively last season as well.
Murphy is another big, right handed defenceman who has a bit of edge to his game and provides good value with a cap hit of just $3.85 million. Chicago might not be interested in subtracting from their roster as they look to keep their window from closing completely, but Brent Seabrook’s status moving forward could force them to shed salary.
Niklas Hjalmarsson – 33 years old – LHD – 6’3″, 197lbs
Hjalmarrson is something of a throwback, having earned a reputation as a traditional stay-at-home defenceman over his 13 year NHL career. He’s never registered more than 26 points in a season so don’t expect much of an offensive contribution from him, but he’s about as steady a defender as you’ll find in the league today. At 33 years old he might not have much left in the tank, and he’s not a perfect fit as a left handed shot but has played on the right side in the past. All of that, combined with his $5 million cap hit for next season, would likely make him a last resort for Kyle Dubas at best.
Adam Larsson – 27 years old – RHD – 6’3″, 208lbs
The Leafs and Oilers have been linked as potential trade partners in recent seasons and Adam Larsson’s name has been prevalent in those rumors. Larsson is another defense first blue liner that would help add some balance to the Leafs unit. He’s had above average defensive impacts almost every season he’s been in the league and he’s adept at preventing controlled zone entries. He’s not much of a puck mover, but he will play the body and he’s a fearless shot blocker who would be a welcomed addition on the Leafs penalty killing unit. With just a year remaining on his contract, and a cap hit of $4.166 million, he’s likely not a primary target for Toronto but could be a decent fall back option to shore up the blue line if they strike out on their main targets.
MacKenzie Weegar – 26 years old – RHD – 6’0″, 200lbs
Weegar is a restricted free agent in line for a substantial raise on the $1.6 million he made in 2019-20. He’s a bit of an odd case as a right handed defenceman who played lots of minutes on the left side, but he put up great underlying numbers for the Panthers this past season.
Florida’s roster will be in a state of flux with a new GM at the helm and a mandate to cut spending. Dubas would be smart to try and pounce on a player like Weegar whose value has potential to outweigh the acquisition price.
Matt Roy – 25 years old – RHD – 6’1″, 200lbs
The Leafs and LA Kings have hooked up for a couple of deals in the last two seasons and Dubas could once again look to Rob Blake for help filling the holes in his lineup. Roy is a bit of an under the radar target, having played fewer than 100 NHL games at the age of 25 but he put up outstanding underlying numbers on a poor Los Angeles squad. He’s got 1 year remaining on his deal at just $700k and would represent a low risk/high reward addition depending on the acquisition price. Given the value he’s providing, the Kings will be hesitant to move on from him but they could be interested in adding some offensive upside as they rebuild their roster.
Matt Benning – 26 years old – RHD – 6’1″, 203lbs
Like his teammate Larsson, Benning has been linked to the Leafs in the past and they were reportedly close to acquiring him at the trade deadline a couple seasons ago. He isn’t likely to solve the problems in Toronto’s top four but he has put up respectable defensive numbers and could be a good fit on the third pair, depending how the rest of the lineup shakes out as the offseason progresses. Benning is a restricted free agent and could be another buy low target for the Leafs.
These are just a few of the many names that Kyle Dubas and his management team could look to pursue as they explore all avenues to improving Toronto’s defensive unit. Last summer’s acquisitions of Cody Ceci and, more specifically, Tyson Barrie should serve as a reminder that having the proper fit or mix on the back end is almost as important as the overall level of talent among the group. Finding a player who will further stabilize the blue line in a similar fashion to what Jake Muzzin has done will be of utmost importance if the Leafs are going to successfully rebound from a disappointing 2019-20 season.
Contract information from puckpedia.com,
Isolated Impact Charts from hockeyviz.com,
RAPM Charts from evolving-hockey.com)