Ilya Lyubushkin is a low cost addition that the Leafs know what to expect from

Photo credit:Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
The first brief run for Ilya Lyubushkin in Toronto went fairly well, so why rock the boat with an unknown player, right? Right?
To kick off his first trade deadline in Toronto, Brad Treliving has opted for going the low risk route rather than making a significant splash. This might be a bit of a move made out of a sense of urgency as the Leafs lost Mark Giordano earlier in the night, Timothy Liljegren has been on the shelf for a couple of games, and Toronto has been running an all lefty lineup shortly after realizing that one of the things that has been holding TJ Brodie back this season has been playing him on the right side. Ilya Lyubushkin can come in and be the Luke Schenn style stay at home safety net partner for Morgan Rielly that the Leafs crave. That also puts a heavy hitter on the ice for the Leafs in key 5v5 on minutes and adds another penalty killing resource.
This was not the Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin, Jakob Chychrun, etc. high end target that might have been best suited for the Leafs current and longer term needs, but Lyubushkin represents a safe pickup largely at the cost of 2025 3rd round pick, that Brad Treliving is giving himself 16 months to recoup a pick in the top 100 selections of that draft. And with all the salary retention the Leafs are down to a $687,500 cap hit on Lyubushkin. That level of flexibility is certainly worth giving up the 6th round pick this season for.
So let’s take a look at the player Ilya Lyubushkin is today and try to determine if we’re excited about Brad Treliving going with an Anaheim defenceman for the third time in his short stint as Leafs GM.
The three main things we are probably going to look at when it comes to Lyubushkin are TOI, Blocked Shots, and Hits. When it comes to hits, we already know that Lyubushkin can deliver highlight reel level collisions but this year he is presently at 112, a total that would put him 5th on the Leafs and behind Simon Benoit and Jake McCabe as third amongst the Leafs blueliners. Lyubushkin’s 138 blocked shots would be good enough to lead the Leafs this season and actually places him 12th in the NHL, so the Leafs now have two of the top 20 shot blockers in the league in their lineup (Brodie being the other.)
Where Lyubushkin is a bit more of a drawback is that his time of ice isn’t exactly what the Leafs need. He’s only playing around 17 minutes a night for the Ducks, and about 14 minutes of that has been at even strength. According to PuckIQ.com, Lyubushkin has only played 27.7% of his ice time against elite top line talent this season, with the largest segment 38.6% against second line calibre players, and the rest against bottom sixers. If the intention is to put Lyubushkin with Rielly, it could mean a couple of things, the first is that it is still necessary to play Rielly with someone like Brodie for a portion of the game, likely on offensive zone starts or it could mean that with Rielly’s limited defensive skill set and Lyubushkin being more of a secondary matchup player, the Leafs could rely on Benoit and McCabe for the tougher matchups.
Looking at Lyubushkin’s on-ice numbers with the Ducks is pretty unfair to him. We’ve already learned to not judge that book by its cover when it came to Simon Benoit, and Lyubushkin is really another example in that story. Still, there is something to be said for understanding what situation he is coming from and here it is:
None of those numbers look good but that Corsi against/60 isn’t completely out of place on the high event Leafs. With better goaltending and quality of teammates those goals for numbers will certainly improve.
By a long shot, Lyubushkin’s most frequent defensive partner this season has been Pavel Mintyukov playing 540 minutes together (his next most frequent partner is Cam Fowler at 102 minutes.) Mintyukov is a 20 year old rookie and that is certainly a lot of heavy lifting for Lyubushkin but offers a lot of encouragement to disregard the numbers above. His results were better in Arizona in a more sheltered role and they were solid during his brief time with the Leafs as well.
From a skills perspective, NHL Edge supports what we already knew and that is speed is not Lyubushkin’s game. He’s on the slower side, falling below the 50th percentile for top speed and he has only had 14 speed bursts over 20 mph this season when the league median is 22. The upside is that Lyubushkin brings a heavy shot with him and his 98.6 mph hardest shot is the best on the Leafs. Having Rielly readily available to tee him up sounds like something that can benefit the Leafs net front players like Knies, Bertuzzi, McMann, and Tavares, so while Lyubushkin should not be thought of too much as an offensive weapon, he does bring one thing the offence has been missing.

Short Term/Long Term

In the short term it seems like Lyubushkin will at least get a look with Morgan Rielly as Ilya brings what worked for Toronto last season in the playoffs. It gives Toronto the opportunity to see if the Brodie/Liljegren pairing is something as well, and the Benoit/McCabe pairing doesn’t seem like something Toronto wants to tamper with, just potentially see if they can put them against a more reasonable level of competition.
If the Rielly/Lyubushkin experiment doesn’t work, Lyubushkin is still a great 3rd pairing option and one that would potentially fit with either Brodie or Benoit, depending on how Keefe draws up the assignments. In that situation presumably the Leafs aren’t quite done yet and are still looking for another defenceman before the trade deadline. The addition of Lyubushkin and the subtraction of any other player from the Leafs roster still puts Toronto in a better cap situation than they were in before the trade so there is no reason to believe the Leafs are done.
In the long term, Lyubushkin is a free agent but if he has a successful run in the next couple of months, that will be two times Toronto has worked out well for him and possibly there is a fit for him with the Maple Leafs beyond this season. Ilya is not someone the Leafs should consider at his current $2.75M cap hit (before all the salary retention) but in the $2M neighbourhood he helps with the tougher to play against blueline the Leafs have been going for.
Understandably bringing in someone who is a bottom pairing defenceman based on both utilization and performance isn’t a flashy move and if this is the extent of Brad Treliving’s trade deadline ambitions, it is underwhelming. If the belief is the Leafs needed to make two moves on the blueline, this is certainly one that doesn’t hurt them. And with the lack of right handed shots on the blueline, this was starting to look like a necessity.
Data from PuckIQ, Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Capfriendly, and NHL.com

Check out these posts...