Maple Leafs trades vs. the sum of their parts, shuffling lines, and the UFA market: Leaflets

Photo credit:Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
The trade deadline is now behind us and with that the opportunity to believe that the fix is as simple as bringing in some guy from a losing team and expecting him to be the fix the Leafs need to make everything work again. That being said, the Maple Leafs haven’t been short on needs this season and while Brad Treliving made moves that seemed to give a nod and a wink to those issues, it looks like the heavy lifting will still need to be accomplished with the personnel the Leafs already have.
Brad Treliving’s philosophy is that you don’t build teams at the trade deadline, respectfully, you should probably win something before committing to that bold a statement.
Before getting into the other stray thoughts I want to put a question I don’t have the answer to out there and that is whether this was a deadline that helps or hurts Brendan Shanahan’s job security in Toronto? From a Shanahan perspective I would have expected a push for the Leafs to go bigger but maybe showing restraint is something MLSE wanted from the Leafs and their President after going bigger in the past.
Anyways, here are some other stray thoughts:

Treliving’s trades weren’t bad but the targets were underwhelming

The Maple Leafs are a good but flawed team and with goaltending, defence, secondary scoring, questions to go along with inconsistent play and new GM still assessing the team in his first year, the question is a valid one of how big the Leafs should have gone despite wanting to maximize the Auston Matthews window. Sometimes the harder thing to do is step back and wait a minute before making a bold push. If that is what this trade deadline is, that changes the way I think about it and the Leafs are still capable of making some noise next month.
That being said, the Leafs knew they had defensive issues heading into the summer. The Klingberg situation (signing and injury) certainly didn’t help anything and magnified the problem which could have been dealt with all season.
While neither the Lyubushkin nor the Edmundson trades were bad, and the value the Leafs got back was fair, neither one of the defencemen moved the bar on the quality of the Leafs blueline. It just made the lineup card potentially different and now players like Brodie, Liljegren, Benoit, Timmins, and Giordano are going to fight for time in the lineup along with Edmundson and Lyubushkin and that accountability and flexibility around style of play is at least something.
That is giving Treliving a bit of a pass though and players like Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin, Sean Walker, and Nikita Zadorov all moved previously this season and better options were available. The Leafs issues didn’t need to fix the depth of the blueline as much as they needed someone who looks like not only a style fit for Rielly but a talent fit for the top pair. That didn’t happen nor was John Klingberg that to begin with either.
When it came to trading for Connor Dewar, again the deal looks perfectly fine from a value perspective. Not a bad price to pay for youthful depth and I don’t doubt Dewar will be a fan favourite. The problem is that TSN immediately started opining about the possibility of Dewar as a 3C, a role he is not presently ready to fill, and that emphasizes that again Treliving went the safe/affordable route of depth rather than considering potentially available 3C options like Mikael Granlund, Kevin Hayes, or Scott Laughton.
The sum of the parts for the Maple Leafs in their acquisitions is that they have two bottom pairing defencemen that should either take pay cuts for 2024-25 or walk to unrestricted free agency. Both are going to be asked to play above the roles they were struggling with on worse teams, and Sheldon Keefe is going to deal with trying to find the right fit for nine defencemen and getting them all enough ice time so they are playoff ready.
There will also the matter of figuring out where Connor Dewar fits and if his arrival can in anyway lead to one of John Tavares or Max Domi moving to the wing.
Quantity of quality was an interesting choice but the Leafs can take comfort in the fact that they didn’t spend a lot to wind up in this situation.

Doing the lineup shuffle

New players mean new lines and with Joel Edmundson and Connor Dewar not yet making their appearance on the Leafs, it seems like a great time to speculate on what comes next.
While it would be fun to come up with some kind of drastic new look for the Maple Leafs, I’d suspect that Sheldon Keefe is going to ease himself into the changes rather than go big right out the gate (I’m prepared to be wrong on this.)
Somethings have been working lately and others not so much. Until Toronto gets a full practice I would be shocked to see any shifts in the Matthews and Domi lines and immediate changes are more likely with the bottom six.
As fun as the Bobby McMann story has been, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Leafs wanted to put Dewar in a position to show what he can do with the best possible combination of linemates. Dewar and Jarnkrok can cover off a lot of Tavares’ defensive sins and this looks like a strong 3rd line that has the potential to produce secondary scoring. The Leafs could comfortably match this group against a lot of top six competition around the league and would enable the sheltering of the Domi line.
As much as I personally would take Kampf out of the lineup and give either Holmberg or Dewar the opportunity to helm the 4th line with Nick Robertson as a potential sheltered scoring outlet, the reality is Kampf is someone that Keefe trusts, Toronto wants on the penalty kill, and has the potential to be better with two strong linemates rather than Gregor or Reaves who he has struggled with. I don’t doubt we’ll still see Reaves guest appearances, but at this point Holmberg and McMann are the best the Leafs fourth line have to offer.
I also wouldn’t doubt that we see 11F/7D a lot in the next few games taking one of Holmberg or McMann out on occasion.
The blueline is where it starts getting interesting. The early success of Rielly-Lyubushkin probably keeps them intact and to say that this isn’t what mirrors what the Leafs have looked for in a Rielly pairing since the beginning of time is a lie. Lyubushkin gives Rielly someone that lets him be himself and with the added bonus of an outlet for a heavy point shot from time to time. This might not be the pairing the Leafs want against top lines, but I’m not sure you can really point to two Leafs defencemen that you can universally say you want on the ice in tough situations. That has been the problem all along and what hasn’t been fixed.
It seems like this pairing will get a chance to ride again despite coming apart at the seems last year in the playoffs. What hasn’t changed is that McCabe is the Leafs best option to go up against the best competition even if an honest assessment of his abilities is that of a second pairing defender.
What makes matters worse is that Brodie’s step back during the playoffs has only gotten worse through this season and while I’m sure the number one comment on this pairing will be “why not Benoit?” the fact is he’s struggled against tougher competition of late and probably falls behind Brodie and even Edmundson as the preferred options for McCabe at this point. I’d say put McCabe with Rielly and Lyubushkin with Brodie, but I think we need to see a Rielly-Lyubushkin rough patch first.
Edmundson-Liljegren (with Benoit rotating in)
I have no desire to see Benoit and Liljegren as a pairing but think that Edmundson as a strong bottom pairing option and putting Liljegren into a third pairing role that he’s best suited for at the moment make for something the Leafs can generally be happy with. I wouldn’t be surprised if we also see Benoit and Edmundson get a look together, especially if Liljegren is still getting over an injury and if the Leafs want to look at things situationally for when they need someone to move the puck or just another juggernaut to throw their body around. It also wouldn’t be a huge shock to see the Leafs dress seven defencemen and rotate Benoit in for Brodie and Liljegren depending on situations.
Odd men out: Giordano and Timmins
Both of the defencemen that are presently out of the Leafs lineup are going to have a hard time finding their path back to playing regularly. At this point I think the Leafs like the idea of Giordano as a presence around the team more than the idea of him in the lineup and Conor Timmins might get some 7D moments but in no way someone you could see the Leafs putting in a playoff lineup. Both Giordano and Timmins will get their reps in back-to-backs and allow for rest/healing of the top seven defencemen down the stretch but from a cap perspective the Leafs will also face some challenges and decisions when Timmins comes off LTIR which could put him on waivers.

The silver lining of not spending on defence

It might seem like the Leafs wasted an opportunity and they did whether by design or not, but if there is a silver lining it may come in the form of the UFA market for defencemen this summer. The Leafs are only committed to Rielly, McCabe, and Timmins and have Liljegren and Benoit as RFA options, neither which should cost them too much. With Samsonov, Bertuzzi, Domi, and Brodie departing the Leafs could use some of that cap space towards some of the worthwhile options listed below:
  • Brady Skjei
  • Brett Pesce
  • Chris Tanev
  • Noah Hanifin
  • Nikita Zadorov
  • Brandon Montour
  • Matt Roy
  • Sean Walker
  • Alexandre Carrier
  • Matt Grzelcyk
  • Brenden Dillon
That’s not a bad starting place for upgrading and while not every one of those players will make it to free agency, the Leafs at least have options better than John Klingberg or trading for David Savard.
If Brad Treliving looked at this list and decided it wasn’t worth giving up a 1st for a rental who might not be at their best due to the challenges of adjusting to a new team in a short period of time maybe the Leafs are better off. It still seems like even with this situation around defensive UFAs there was an opportunity to do more than add depth at the deadline though.
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