Seravalli: The Leafs nearly traded for Mikael Granlund last year

Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
10 months ago
The rumour mill season is always the best time of the year for being a hockey fan. Whether it’s in the lead-up to the trade deadline, on draft day, or amid free agent frenzy, there are fewer aspects of hockey more exciting than conjecturing on which player a team may be making their way to a different team.
Sometimes it results in actual transactions, other times it fizzles out into nothing while the general populous moves on to the next hot-button topic. One such case that resulted in the latter was the rumours of the Leafs going after Mikael Granlund.
The team’s interest in Granlund dates back to the 2020 offseason when he hit the open market after informing the Predators he did not wish to stay. Toronto ultimately did not have enough cap space to sign him and he thus begrudgingly went back to Nashville on a one-year deal. As the 2021 trade deadline approached a few months later, Frank Seravalli reported that Granlund was among the Leafs’ top trade targets in an attempt to upgrade their forward core. A move never materialized when Nashville got back in the playoff picture and he would end up signing a four-year extension that offseason. He would stay on for a season and a half before getting traded to the Penguins at this past deadline in exchange for a 2023 second-round pick.
That last part almost did not happen because as Seravalli mentioned in his latest Trade Targets list, Granlund was nearly traded to Toronto last year.
As we now know, the Leafs would end up acquiring Mark Giordano, Ilya Lyubushkin, and Colin Blackwell at the 2022 trade deadline. Giordano was the only one of the three players listed that had to have his salary retained because he had a $6.75 million cap hit at that time and it was the only way to make the trade possible.
Given that Granlund has a $5 million cap hit, it’s hard to envision the Leafs being able to have added him without shipping off someone else from the roster. Alex Kerfoot would have been the only player that could have feasibly been traded to make the salary work, but Toronto probably preferred to keep him given that he was in the middle of a career campaign.
Let’s say that the Leafs somehow were able to make this trade a reality: where would Granlund have fit in the lineup?
I would imagine that he would have been used as a versatile two-way forward who could seamlessly move up and down the top nine either as a winger or a centreman. Around the time he was initially being linked to the Leafs, he was slowly learning how to comfortably play on the wings while also being heavily relied on for taking draws. This is reflected in his zone starts where his offensive zone starts were slightly higher that year, while also finishing the 2021 campaign at 51.8% efficiency in the dots.
Intriguingly enough, the 2021 shortened season was the last time Granlund’s faceoff effectiveness was above 50% and his zone starts were close as those have drastically over the past two years. The 2021-22 season saw the majority of his shifts start in the offensive end, which saw him post a 64-point campaign at a rate of 0.8 points per game. That trend continued even as his offensive numbers regressed until he was traded to Pittsburgh, where they did a 180 as he was utilized more as a shutdown forward. Having 36 points prior to the trade, he went on to score just one goal and five points that contributed to the Penguins’ 16-year playoff streak coming to an end.
Granlund likely would have been an upgrade over Kerfoot but probably would not have made as much of an impact on the team as Ryan O’Reilly did this past year. Perhaps he could have helped out a bit during the 2022 playoffs as he finished with more points than Kerfoot, but I doubt that he would be a difference-maker in the same way that O’Reilly changed Toronto’s playstyle after arriving.
All of which is to say that it was likely for the best that the Leafs ultimately did not acquire Granlund. The interest was definitely there for quite some time, but it’s hard to say he would have significantly moved the needle to give the team a better fate in the playoffs. The Leafs would have also needed to give up far more assets than the Penguins did, which would have aged the hypothetical trade badly if he went on to have the same subpar season he ended up having in real life.
Kyle Dubas likely was leading the charge in wanting to get Granlund on the Leafs, but circumstances prevented him from acquiring the Finnish forward. Dubas now joins the same organization as Granlund by becoming team president, so now he can decide whether to try and salvage the trade or cut bait and ship him elsewhere.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com and Natural Stat Trick.
Salary information from CapFriendly.

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