Beyond the blueline: The Maple Leafs deadline priorities

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
20 days ago
With less than five weeks until the trade deadline it seems important to highlight what the biggest needs are for the Maple Leafs heading into what will be the busiest transaction month. Brad Treliving’s history shows that he isn’t going to rework the entire team so while there is more than one area that could benefit from an upgrade, it seems likely that the Leafs will be zeroing in on their top priority (SPOILER: it’s defence).

Defence is the priority

The Maple Leafs blueline doesn’t seem particularly bad if TJ Brodie’s role is right sized to the second pairing and the breakout of Simon Benoit has likely eliminated the need for a second defenceman being added. The Leafs also still have solid depth with Mark Giordano, William Lagesson, and Conor Timmins all still vying for icetime as well.
The current version of the blueline with Brodie playing with Rielly and Giordano with Liljegren results in the Leafs taking two big drop offs in key areas but it really only needs to be one defenceman to address it.
When looking at rental options all signs still point to Chris Tanev being the best path forward. He brings in the defensive responsibility, positional smarts, and willingness to do anything while being a competent top four defender makes him a strong option as a partner for Morgan Rielly. The concerns with Tanev are the cost to acquire him as a rental, concerns about whether or not he can stay healthy, and the fact that there is only one of him to go around and the Leafs aren’t the only team looking at him.
Given that the cost might be high to bring in Tanev as a rental it is probably in the Leafs best interest to pay a little more and bring in someone who can be a solution for the team for more than a few months. The options become even more limited when looking to do that and the most enticing name out there is Jakob Chychrun. He’s far from a perfect option and would be another left side option rather than the primary area of need on the right side.
While the options might seem somewhat limited at the moment the Leafs do have the benefit of another month to see if the market expands as teams fall further out of the playoff race. Teams like the Seattle Kraken are potential strong fits if they are willing to move blueliners like Adam Larsson or Will Borgen and the Flyers remain an interesting team to keep an eye on as they’ve shown signs of selling despite presently being in the playoff picture and they could have two of the best rental options in Sean Walker or Nick Seeler, as well as a great “go big” target in Travis Sanheim.
The main thing with the Leafs is that they need to avoid half measures and whomever they bring in needs to be defensive minded first and foremost and capable of lining up against top line competition, not just excelling in a sheltered role. Ideally the Leafs get a right shot and someone with term but it will come down to how much the Leafs are willing to spend and how concerned they are about solving the problem beyond the immediate future.

Centre is the secondary need

If there is one other glaring hole in the Leafs lineup it is probably at centre. It’s not that Max Domi has been bad on faceoffs, it’s just that he’s struggled in his own end. The same can be said of John Tavares although on a lesser scale than the Leafs have seen from Domi.
In a perfect world the Leafs would like to get Tavares out in more favourable offensive zone situations but with Domi in the middle the Leafs are even more limited when it comes to using him. Matthews has fallen into being the only all purpose centre and while David Kampf is supposed to be the defensive guy, at 5v5 the Leafs might as take their chances with Domi, as Kampf has been coming up flat all year.
Pontus Holmberg might be capable of stepping in for Kampf or Domi but it is doubtful the Leafs want to use Holmberg as anything other than a 4C and he’s been a better asset higher up in the lineup on the wing.
So while the Leafs might have decent centre depth, there likely needs to be an addition to move Domi to the wing, allow Tavares to be deployed more strategically, and honestly hope for the best when it comes to Kampf and that pushing everyone down the lineup results in him getting linemates that work better with him.
When it comes to options at centre the league is running out of trade targets quick. Elias Lindholm was at best a pipedream for the Leafs but he’s the blueprint of the player they need. Sean Monahan was never going to happen and Leafs fans should be quite comfortable with that. It’s not that Toronto’s second powerplay unit couldn’t use a boost, but at 5v5 there has been little difference between Monahan and Domi this season.
That leaves a market that seems to consist of Adam Henrique, Jack Roslovic, Scott Laughton, and Morgan Frost. Of course, this will likely expand before the deadline but for now it seems like Henrique is the favourable but too expensive target while the rest are gambles rather than true upgrades.
Alternatively, the Leafs are probably best to recognize that centres are hard to come by and they could offer support to Tavares, Domi, and Kampf by bringing in an additional defensively minded top nine forward. It isn’t likely to be as costly an addition nor will it be that hard to find someone.
When it comes to centre options, I’d say Kevin Hayes is as close to an ideal target as you’ll find if the Blues are completely out of the playoff race. And when it comes to wingers that could make a difference, Alexander Texier on the Blue Jackets is an interesting option, though he might be better suited in the category below.

A fourth line that works

The Leafs have been very open about their need for adding some toughness to their lineup, it’s just they’ve struggled with having that toughness achieve results. When it comes to the Leafs bottom line the Leafs have had a couple of short glimpses of what they’ve wanted Ryan Reaves to be, but come playoff time it is hard to envision him as an every night player. Bobby McMann’s enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate to being a player you want on the ice more than 8 minutes a night either.  Nick Robertson needs an offensive situation and Noah Gregor’s speed has been useful on the penalty kill but ineffective at 5v5. Both Gregor and Robertson seem like worthwhile reserve depth players down the stretch and adding to the Leafs playoff roster flexibility.
Toronto needs to find one of the three options for their fourth line. The priority is likely toughness, and that’s a valid thing to look for when it comes to the fourth line, but much like the section above, the should be some consideration given to shot suppressors who can clog up the neutral zone as well. Lastly, the Leafs might also want to look for someone who can jump start David Kampf and conveniently that has traditionally been speedy shot suppressors.
Alexander Texier might better fit into this category than the one above but in addition to him as a target revisiting Colin Blackwell is an option, or going with someone familiar to Auston Matthews and bringing in Christian Fischer.
The thing about bottom of the roster options is that the Leafs can still explore some internal ideas from the Marlies as well that might represent true upgrades. Alex Steeves is certainly a name to watch at the deadline as the AHL All-Star might find himself as a fit on the Leafs or somewhere else around the NHL.

The reality of Leafs addressing all three

Pretty much however you slice it the Leafs have the minimum of around $3.25M to make their moves. Considering that could entirely be spent on a defenceman, that limits what the Leafs could do with the other spots. They have the opportunity to explore additional spending by waiving some players like Gregor that haven’t previously been waived or they could move salary out with players like Timmins, Reaves, or even Kampf relocating. And with salary retention, all things are possible, but the Leafs are already operating with limited resources and paying for salary retention might no longer be the best course of action.
Coming full circle on this, there isn’t anything in Treliving’s history that says he’ll try to do it all at the deadline. Some of that can come from bosses and it is very likely that Brendan Shanahan and MLSE are giving him very different instructions than he had with the Flames. At this point if the Leafs wake up on March 9th without a new defenceman on the roster there are going to be a lot of angry people in Toronto. That has been an expected move since day one of the season and there seems to be no patience for wasting a year of Auston Matthews’ prime because the trade market didn’t line up with fan expectations.
Salary data from CapFriendly.
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