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The Leafs should still be trade deadline buyers regardless of inconsistent season
By Alex Hobson1 month ago
If you listened to Elliotte Friedman on the 32 Thoughts Podcast yesterday, you know that he was speculating out loud about whether or not the Leafs should be buyers at the upcoming trade deadline. If you missed it, here’s the exact quote.
“Should this team really be buying? Is this the year to buy? They have to be asking themselves, with the limited amount of stuff that we have to trade, is this really the year to buy? And I would be asking myself that again this weekend.”
I’m here to give a short and blunt answer to that question: Yes.
Look – I know that at this point, the Leafs have rid themselves of any benefit of the doubt. Fans are tired, and with each year that passes without notable playoff success, they grow more and more impatient and less and less willing to hear about how “they’ll figure it out”. Less talking, more doing.
But here’s the reality of the situation. If you’re going to sign the face of your franchise, who’s arguably the best goal scorer in the NHL, to a four-year extension worth upwards of $13 million before the season starts, and then proceed to sign your other star player to an eight-year extension worth over $11 million, you can’t just sit back and say “nah, we’ll take this year off”.
This discussion wouldn’t be happening right now if the Leafs were sitting comfortably in first or second place in the Atlantic Division. But, they’re not. They’re in third place with only one point on the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings, who are tied for fourth. Their defence has been an issue all year, and they’re essentially relying on Joseph Woll to come back and pick up where he left off in order to fix the goaltending situation, which is currently being held together by a number of bandaids. They’ve also gotten next to nothing from their fourth line, from both an eye test and an analytics standpoint.
The Leafs’ season to date is reminiscent of the 2019-20 Leafs, who technically didn’t even make the playoffs that year given the circumstances around the play-in round when teams were in the bubble due to the pandemic. Their biggest trade deadline acquisition was Jack Campbell, which slapped a bandaid on the gaping hole in the backup position at the time, but ended up being a totally lopsided deal in favour of the L.A. Kings (don’t go look at Trevor Moore’s stats this season).
They did next to nothing to upgrade the team, and they honestly didn’t deserve it at the time. Only days before the trade deadline, they lost the infamous “Zamboni driver” game to the Carolina Hurricanes, and that was in mid-February. How are you going to look at that team seriously and say “We believe this group is one or two pieces away from a Stanley Cup”?
Despite all of this, the Leafs should still be buyers at the deadline.
I’ve been very pessimistic to this point in the article, so let’s look at things through rose-coloured glasses now. Despite the Leafs’ inability to close games out in regulation this year, they’ve also lost the fourth-fewest games in regulation with 12. Despite only having a one-point lead on the two teams behind them in the standings, they’re only seven points back of the second-place Florida Panthers with two games in hand, which is easily mountable at this stage of the season. And, for the steps back that players like Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie have taken, players like Timothy Liljegren and Simon Benoit have taken a step forward.
It feels like last season’s trade deadline cast some unfair expectations on the Leafs every year. By bringing in a player like Ryan O’Reilly, a former Conn Smythe winner, and a pair of rock-solid defencemen in Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn, the roster almost went through a complete turnover. They acquired six new players in total, three on defence and three up front, which is absurd compared to what most teams do at the deadline. When I say “the Leafs should be buyers”, I don’t mean they need to do this again. In fact, I’d advise against it. But when you look at the roster as it stands, there’s no reason that the team can’t at minimum make an effort to plug some of the holes they do have. There’s a surplus of defensive defencemen on the trade market, and while they probably won’t be going after an O’Reilly-calibre third-line centre, there are upgrades to the bottom six that are available too.
If I’m Brad Treliving, I’m probably not spending a first-round pick on any rentals, but to decide in the middle of January to either stand pat or sell would be foolish. If you’re going to commit to having an offence led by a bunch of high-octane point producers, you have to commit to being a playoff team. And just because the Leafs have had their own issues to deal with, doesn’t mean it’s time to mail it in and call it a year. Simultaneously, they shouldn’t be looking to drop a bomb on the hockey world the way they did last year. But, just because they did that in 2022-23, doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be every year.
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