Buy low trade deadline targets, need for speed, and appreciating Holmberg: Leaflets

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
5 months ago
Getting back in the win column does a lot to change perceptions around the Toronto Maple Leafs. An Auston Matthews hat trick might not completely eliminate people calling for the heads of Sheldon Keefe, Brad Treliving, and/or Brendan Shanahan, but it has at least dulled it temporarily and the Leafs are back to being a third in the Atlantic team with Matthews scoring at a historic rate and Nylander in the top ten in scoring rather than “their stars not showing up.”
With that modestly renewed optimism it seems like a good time to take a look at a modest trade deadline approach, something that fits the current state of the Leafs and the approach that Brad Treliving has historically taken. Here are some stray thoughts on that:

Buy low trade targets

The Leafs are in an interesting situation. Obviously they are not sellers despite the fact that they have a number of UFAs that would help restock the cupboards for the future. They won’t completely stand pat, the John Klingberg injury pretty much cancelled any chance of that happening and has forced Brad Treliving to have some sense of urgency. The thing is they are unlikely to be aggressive buyers either. The Leafs shouldn’t be eager to part with their first round pick, the organization seems legitimately excited about Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten, and honestly even Topi Niemela is someone the Leafs have to be seeing as a prospect they are better off holding onto have a shot at some upside for their blueline down the road. With limited assets, limited cap space, and limited will to make a move, Toronto should acquaint itself with the bargain bin of deadline rentals. Here are a few to keep an eye on.
Erik Johnson: Johnson is about as unexciting an option as you can float. He’s 36 and his numbers aren’t particularly great. His $3.25M cap hit looks like a deal breaker, but if it were halfed it starts looking like something the Leafs could explore. Johnson has Stanley Cup experience and that would be viewed as a plus. He’s also willing to hit and block shots and fits the role of the responsible defensive tether that can go on the right side next to Morgan Rielly although his usage is far more geared towards the bottom pairing at this point. It might be more of a matter of the Leafs wanting another right shot and if they see him as an upgrade over Mark Giordano. (Marco Scandella is a similar option to Johnson who is also likely available cheap.)
Tyler Myers: Don’t look now but Tyler Myers isn’t having as bad a season as usual. That’s largely because absolutely everyone in Vancouver seems to be having a good season. The thing is that Myers still carries a pretty big cap hit and if the Canucks are going to be as active as buyers as they have advertised themselves to be, Myers is a contract I’m sure they’d like to unload to make room.
While Myers comes with a lot of terrifying on-ice numbers, he does hit and he does have a heavy shot, two things the Leafs have been looking for. He might not be a great addition but he’s an option if the salary could be made to work and potentially the Leafs could pick up an asset for taking on the salary. (Or they could send David Kampf’s longer term cap hit the other way.)
Myers is a flawed player but one that wouldn’t cost Toronto assets. (If Vegas is looking to make a splash perhaps Alec Martinez is another option to consider as well.)
Jakob Silvferberg: Finding defencemen might be cost the Leafs significant assets, but a high cap hit defensive forward might come a bit cheaper. That’s where Silvferberg and his $5.25M cap hit come in. Silvferberg has been playing somewhat sheltered minutes which might be exaggerating his defensive acumen, but he brings a skill set that Sheldon Keefe has valued and he offers abilties the Leafs have missed since the departure of Pierre Engvall, Alex Kerfoot, and Ilya Mikheyev. If Anaheim eats half his contract, Silvferberg is an interesting option. (Jason Zucker in Arizona would be a slightly more high end option to also consider.)
Kevin Labanc/Mike Hoffman: Just from a last minute curiosity standpoint these two players from the Sharks are worth mentioning. If the Leafs have the cap space and San Jose will eat half the salary of one of these players, it doesn’t hurt to test drive a player who might produce in a sheltered scoring, bottom six role. (Jakub Vrana, Anthony Beauvillier, and Tanner Pearson could also be low cost curiosities.)
None of these names should excite you. If you find yourself enthusiastically agreeing with my suggestions, I’m a little worried.  What they do represent is a way for the Leafs to try something different with little risk to their current roster or little impact on the Leafs prospect pool. It’s buying something at a garage sale knowing full well that you could be donating it at Value Village the following week.

The need for speed on the blueline

It never hurts to have more speed in the lineup. That’s a fairly easy statement to make but with the changes made to the Leafs defensive approach with Mike Van Ryn taking over the lead on defensive responsibilities this season, there is a greater need for speed and one that certainly points to the increased struggles from players like TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano.
With Van Ryn the Leafs made a change from the zone coverage based defensive approach favoured by Dean Chynoweth to a man-to-man coverage approach. The decision has benefited Morgan Rielly who can now rely on his speed to apply pressure to opposition forwards but for older and slower defenders like Brodie and Giordano the shift has resulted in them being more frequently out of position or caught between assignments.
Using the NHL Edge data (available sorted via Puckalytics) you can see that the faster defenders seem to be enjoying more success this year than the slower ones. Benoit and Rielly have been standouts in the system while McCabe and Liljegren have been adequate. TJ Brodie in particular has seemed in over his head as he has been playing with Rielly against top competition and has had a greater chance to be exposed than Giordano, Liljegren, or McCabe.
GPTop Speed (mph)
Simon Benoit2722.56
Morgan Rielly4122.44
Jake McCabe3522.25
Timothy Liljegren2421.83
Mark Giordano2821.24
John Klingberg1421.16
TJ Brodie4020.39
William Lagesson2120.37
Conor Timmins1420.16
Max Lajoie418.9
While the NHL Edge data certainly lends itself to over simplifying the issue, the fact that TJ Brodie, a player that has played throughout the season, is in the bottom 50th percentile for speed bursts between 20-22 mph, and 18-20 mph shows that he has been consistently slower than the Leafs need him to be.
Heading into the trade deadline hunt for defenders that could help the Leafs and potentially thrive in the Leafs system, Sean Walker and Noah Hanifin are two of the players that stand out as potential solutions. Both have been faster than most of the Leafs defenders and could easily occupy roles in the top four, if not the top pairing on the Leafs. The challenge there is that Philadelphia is very much in a playoff spot and the Flames still want to re-sign Hanifin.
San Jose has options in Jacob MacDonald and Mario Ferraro that might be attainable fits for the Maple Leafs.
It’s not to say that speed is the entire issue with the Leafs blueline, but it seems like a talent that Toronto should be targeting given the requirements of their more aggressive defensive system.

A moment to appreciate Pontus Holmberg

Heading into the playoffs last year I was banging the drum for a potential return of Pontus Holmberg to the Leafs lineup. The former playoff MVP in the Swedish Hockey League seemed like a potentially useful addition to a group that could use some big game players, even if it was at the bottom of the roster.
This season didn’t start as hot as Holmberg would have liked and he was returned to the Marlies. Since his recall things have been radically different and instead of making his case as a potential bottom six role player along the lines of Bobby McMann, Holmberg has sky rocketed up to the top line finding chemistry with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and earning their praise. With 7 points in 7 games, Holmberg might be the most successful linemate they’ve had this year and that means we need to start considering what is the fallout of Holmberg’s success.
The first thing that needs to be appreciated is that Holmberg is unlikely to continue being a point per game player over the duration of this season. It would be great if he was and it would be great if he can stay in his current lineup spot, but at the very least he’s made a strong case for remaining a Leaf. That is going to have impacts on players like Bobby McMann, Noah Gregor, Nick Robertson, David Kampf, and maybe even Max Domi.
We’ll start with the potential Domi impact first and that could be Holmberg being the best fit for the Leafs as a 3rd line centre in the long term. That either frees Domi up to play on Tavares’ wing or Domi can stay at centre and Tavares could be on his wing. The Leafs running a line of Domi-Tavares-Nylander where all three are not quite what the Leafs need at centre could be interesting. As for Holmberg, if he was on the third line it could be interesting to see him with Tyler Bertuzzi and Calle Jarnkrok.
What Holmberg means for Knies is that at least temporarily he needs to find a fit in the Leafs lineup. Having him on the fourth line is a waste but Knies hasn’t looked stellar with Tavares and Nylander. Figuring out how to get the most of him with either Domi or Kampf seems like the short term solution.
With the rise of Holmberg that puts McMann, Gregor, and Robertson at risk of demotion or scratching. So far it has been Nick Robertson who has taken the hardest hit from Holmberg’s success but eventually Toronto will want to play him to know what they have with him too.
That brings us to Kampf, who in the long term has likely been made expendable by Holmberg’s success. The Leafs could certainly use that cap space but are also not in a position to toy with centre depth.
Holmberg having success has been one of the bright spots of 2024 for the Leafs and while Pontus is likely to regress at some point, having players step up and want to make an impact is something the Leafs need from the Marlies and it will be interesting to see if other players get a shot over the next few weeks leading up to the trade deadline.

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