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Photo Credit: © Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

What if the Leafs had let Justin Holl be taken by the Kraken?

Many fans, including myself, are remorseful about the apparent loss of newly acquired Jared McCann to the Seattle Kraken in their expansion draft. The draft will be finalized tonight, but Nation Network’s own Frank Seravalli has all but cemented the loss:

As frustrating as it is to see a talented player who fits the Leafs’ needs be stolen away in the night, the alternative would have been to partially de-construct a carefully-built top-4 defense corps by losing Justin Holl. While Holl is on the fringes of what we’d normally call a top-4 defender in the NHL, getting someone capable of playing that role, especially for such a reasonable contract, would be a difficult exercise in player management.

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It’s exactly that exercise that I’m going to task myself with today. This is under the assumption that in this alternate universe, the Leafs left Justin Holl exposed in the expansion draft and he was selected by the Kraken. No side deals, no “what if they like Dermott better?”; we’re assuming Holl is gone here.

Internal Replacements

The first area to explore is the easiest one for me in my fake GM position: players who we already have. With Justin Holl gone, and with Zach Bogosian likely not returning, that defensive depth chart gets quite thin.

Travis Dermott

While moving a left-handed defender to the right side is not usually preferred, it happens all the time at the NHL level and there’s generally no reason not to put someone in that role if they deserve it because of handedness. The question, though, is whether Dermott is capable of such a role.

While Dermott has excelled in a bottom-pairing role so far in his NHL career, he has never seen significant minutes in a top-4 role. Perhaps now is the time to try?

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This is a pretty risky option, but one that has merit, so I won’t discount it at this stage.

Rasmus Sandin

Even though Sandin isn’t a rookie anymore, having played 37 regular season NHL games, his foundation of experience is still certainly lacking. However, the results in that time certainly have not lacked.

Sandin actually leads the Leafs in all defenders for controlling shot attempts (Corsi For %, or CF%) when accounting for Score and Venue effects, with 55% CF% (per Natural Stat Trick). This is in just under 500 minutes of time-on-ice over the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, which is a mediocre sample size, but not an infinitesimal one.

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In the latter parts of this season, it seemed clear that of Dermott and Sandin, the latter defender had more quality to give. And as above with Dermott, I don’t consider it that much of a change to make a professional left-handed defender play on the right side of the ice, so this is also worth considering.

Timothy Liljegren

Of the internal options that are in any way realistic, Liljegren is the only one that is right-handed, but he also comes with the least amount of NHL experience. He hasn’t performed to a high degree in sporadic NHL stints, but a role with consistency like alongside Jake Muzzin could be one that fosters his growth in an accelerated fashion.

However, entering the season with Timothy Liljegren slotted for a second pairing role would take serious gusto, to the point that it feels entirely unnecessary. I don’t think that any reasonable GM would do this, so it won’t be part of the ongoing considerations. As much as I love Liljegren and think he can achieve this and more in time, he should start on the bottom pairing.

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External Replacements

There are about one hundred defenders that the Leafs could trade for or sign as free agents, so this discussion will certainly not be comprehensive. The aim, instead, is to pick out some of the most interesting and/or realistic options to fill this spot.

Dougie Hamilton

This will be the most fun and least realistic option here, certainly. Rumours of the return of Dougie Hamilton to his home of Toronto (notably the site of the ROM, AGO, and HHOF Museums) would be an amazing get for Toronto, there’s no denying it. However, there should be 31 other NHL teams vying for his attention as well when free agency opens, so who can tell if the Leafs will win this prize.

Since John Tavares returned home to Toronto, there’s a realistic belief that Toronto-born stars are willing to take a small discount to be a part of what has been building in Toronto since 2016.

There hasn’t been any substantial talk about what Hamilton is seeking to my knowledge, but I would imagine the Leafs would have to move some salary in order to fit him in.

Josh Manson

It has been rumoured for a while that the Ducks would be willing to move Josh Manson while they are attempting to re-build their roster. And yet, as the Ducks inch closer to being competitive again, Manson remains a core part of their roster. Is it then to be assumed that they’re not willing to move him after all? Possibly.

Manson was on TSN’s Trade Bait list for this year’s trade deadline, at the #10 slot, which means there was a fair amount of chatter around him leading up to that. To me, that means the Ducks probably were asking for more than teams were willing to give up at the time. Perhaps now that teams have more cap space to work with, they can more easily fit Manson into their folds.

Toronto should be interested, but with just 1 year left in his contract and his underlying performance metrics falling over the last few seasons, they must be careful how much they give up in such a deal for him. Going into a trade treading carefully is generally not a good sign that a trade will actually get done, so I rate this as almost as likely as Hamilton signing.

Ryan Suter

The recently bought out Suter is not the player he once was, that’s for sure. But he is still a very serviceable defender and could excel in a smaller role. Once again, the fact that Suter is a lefty shouldn’t deter the Leafs from fitting him into their defense.

Suter is not as flashy a target as Hamilton, but he might perform better than Manson, and will at just the cost of his contract, since he is an unrestricted free agent. Bringing his steady defensive play in to complement Muzzin would be an interesting development for Toronto. Dubas and company could be interested in such a grizzled veteran to help to shelter the younger internal assets mentioned above.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, while the job of replacing Justin Holl would have been challenging, there are 5 reasonable paths forward above that could have been pursued if we did lose Holl to the Kraken.

There is a large contingent of Leafs fans, including myself, that feel like choosing the option to protect 7 forwards instead of 4, allowing the Leafs to keep McCann and Kerfoot safe, was the right path to go, despite it probably leading to the loss of Dermott or, more likely, Holl.

Unfortunately, it’s now time to close this dream world down and come back to reality, since the Leafs are now without McCann and still have Justin Holl. It’s up to Dubas now to figure out another way to bolster the forward depth, and I for one am excited to see what he comes up with.