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Defencemen the Maple Leafs should want that aren’t on trade bait lists

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
We’re in the final stretch of “here’s a guy” season. The next couple of weeks will be filled with counting scouts in press boxes and looking for suspicious scratches of otherwise everyday players. The good news is we are absolutely in the window where trades are going to happen and whether they involve the Maple Leafs or not, it’s a great opportunity to say, “that’s all it took it get him?” and question everything about how front offices operate.
The trade market seems pretty underwhelming and as I mentioned in my rant on Saturday, sellers need to step up and deal some players that would actually improve a team and as a result get a better return back. For that reason, I’ve taken a bit of a look at what an expanded sellers’ market looks like and included some bubble teams in the seller list. I’ve also taken a bit more of an honest look at their rosters and landed on players who aren’t part of the core of the team, still have term, and fit some of the criteria that the Leafs should be looking for, essentially a right shot defenceman who plays more than 15 minutes a night.
Using that limited criteria, I have three “here’s a guy” players that I think the Leafs should look at, along with one (or two) alternative options for each of those teams.

Ryan Pulock- New York Islanders

As a Manitoban I admit having an affinity towards the Brandon Wheat Kings and that has given me a long-standing bias towards the idea of the Maple Leafs acquiring Ryan Pulock. The 29-year-old fits in age wise with the Maple Leafs core and the six-year commitment to him after this season is still more of an incentive than a burden. He’s a 22 minute a night player that hits, blocks shots, and is positionally responsible and could easily become the long-term partner for Morgan Rielly as his defence first approach is a nice balance to Rielly’s riverboat gambler style.
Pulock’s $6.15M AAV is a bit much at the moment and presents a challenge for next season as well but to bring in a legitimate top pairing defenceman, it would be worth it.
On the Islanders side of things, the future of the top pairing right side belongs to Noah Dobson, and Scott Mayfield is still a strong option to follow him up. The Islanders also have little cap space heading into next season, even less than the Leafs and parting with one or more of their more substantial contracts makes sense if they are going to overhaul the team.
If Pulock isn’t an option for Toronto, Scott Mayfield is someone to consider. His term is a little too long for a 31-year-old defenceman, but the $3.5M cap hit is more manageable in the short term and is tolerable/moveable if the salary cap continues to climb as well making him a less risky, but lower skill defensive defenceman option.

Will Borgen- Seattle Kraken

If and when Seattle falls out of the playoff race, I assume Leafs fans will be vultures circling the Seattle Kraken blueline. Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak certainly have their appeal as well but the one who might be the best long term fit for the Maple Leafs is Will Borgen. At 27 and with only a $2.7M cap hit he’s on the friendly side of the options, but the reality is he doesn’t have as extensive a CV as Larsson or Oleksiak and handing him a big role on the Leafs is a bit more of a gamble. Much like gambling on the Luke Schenn heater last season.
Borgen is playing around 17.5 minutes a night, which is a career best for him but means he’s not getting the toughest assignments at the moment. Also, even with that reduced level of competition his on-ice numbers aren’t blowing anyone away.
The main draw on Borgen is that he’s a 6’3 defender who had over 200 hits last season and is on his way to surpassing that number again this year. Borgen also helps address the Leafs blueline needs for next season as well without breaking the bank and for next season the Leafs will still need to be mindful of what they spend.
From the Seattle side of things, a return on Borgen or Larsson or Oleksiak for that matter, would surpass what they’d likely receive for their pending UFA offerings of Eberle, Wennberg, and Schultz. If they want to add to their talent pipeline, an under contract defenceman will need to hit the trade market.

Henri Jokiharju- Buffalo Sabres

Jokiharju has seen his icetime cut dramatically this season compared the last couple of years in Buffalo and with a young blueline centred around Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, and Ryan Johnson it isn’t absurd to think that Jokiharju is finding himself to be the odd man out going forward and a savvy GM might want to see if this well rounded 24 year old can be pried out of Buffalo, especially since he’s a pending RFA.
Jokiharju isn’t a heavy hitter or an offensive option. He’s a steady presence on the right side that gives you safe hockey at the safe price of $2.5M AAV. Henri is a puckmover, and that was something the Leafs could still use on their backend.
Jokiharju, like Borgen, doesn’t represent a top pairing talent, instead a fringe top four talent, but the feasible way of improving the Leafs blueline might be a better committee rather than one stand out individual. Jokiharju might be a lot of what the Leafs already have in Liljegren, but that isn’t a bad foundation to Toronto’s blueline moving forward.
Another option out of Buffalo is Connor Clifton, who might be a tad overpaid at $3.33M AAV for two more years after this one but brings a physical right-side presence that the Leafs have lacked. He might be interesting from a change of scenery perspective if the Leafs could acquire him cheap and potentially jettison Ryan Reaves or David Kampf to make it work.
Honorable Mention: Artem Zub- Ottawa Senators
Zub is a bit of a dream acquisition and that’s why I’m mentioning him outside the three main suggestions. I can’t imagine any situation where a GM is looking at their team, even one as troubled as the Senators and says, “I’m going to trade the guy that has been our best all-around defenceman.”
Chabot might be the offence guy, Sanderson is their future, and Chychrun might get talked about a lot more, but Zub is the Senators right side and the guy they can trust in any situation both now and likely in the future. No one better represents what Toronto could use on the right side, so I’d just say Treliving makes that call expecting it not to go anywhere. He can always check on Chychrun as well, righty/lefty be damned.
The Leafs are in an interesting situation where their recent play absolutely supports their need to add to the roster and give themselves a better shot at playoff success but their history with this roster and coaching staff also comes with the need for caution about being too confident in their chances. While the competitive window makes things about winning now for the Leafs, it is not so much a win now situation that they shouldn’t consider what they’ve given up and how they are potentially hurting themselves for the next season by making a move. Players under contract mitigate that risk, as does going after players that have to be pried away from sellers rather than the players they offer up readily.
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