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Who are the Maple Leafs’ top free-agent targets on defense?

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Shane Seney
28 days ago
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Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving has some money to spend this summer.
Toronto enters the 2024 offseason with roughly $20 million in cap space, and the best part of it all, may be the fact Treliving has a long list of players who would fit perfectly with the Maple Leafs.
Timing is everything as the 2024 free agent class is filled with defensemen who could immediately bolster the team’s blue line. Here are the Maple Leafs’ top free-agent targets on defense this summer:

Best of the Blueline

Brandon Montour

Out of all of the free agents available this offseason, nobody averaged more ice time than Montour. The 30-year-old blueliner finished the regular season with 33 points in 66 games and has added another 11 points through 23 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s a workhorse, he’s talented on both sides of the puck and there’s zero doubt he’d be a great fit in Toronto.
The Maple Leafs are preparing to pounce. According to multiple reports, Montour is someone Toronto’s very interested in. Montour would immediately be inserted onto the top-pair with Morgan Rielly and he’d take over quarterbacking the first power-play unit. Toronto’s biggest fault was the fact its offense dried up when it was needed most, and having Montour in blue-and- white limits the risk of this happening again next season and beyond.
Montour has not only shown that  he’s capable of a 70-point regular season, he’s been producing the past couple of postseasons as well, collecting 24 points throughout the two deep playoff runs. While the point production is something to rely on, he also has a history of killing penalties and playing more of a shut-down role, so he could be someone Craig Berube leans on in all situations.
Montour made $3.5-million annually on his last contract and is in for a hefty raise. AFP Analytics projects the versatile defenseman to earn $7.7 million average annual value on his next contract. The Panthers enter the offseason with $20 million to work with, but they have to try to sign or replace Sam Reinhart, with 11 other pending free agents on their current roster. Or just take it from Montour himself:
“Things are going to change quick here (in) two-and-a-half weeks, three weeks,” Montour told The Athletic’s Michael Russo and Shayna Goldman. “I’ve played this out all year. Two to three weeks isn’t going to hurt anything. My whole goal right now is to play the best I can for this team, and the rest will take care of itself afterward.”

Chris Tanev

Treliving had interest in trading for Tanev last season and now may have a chance to sign him to a multi-year contract — a task he completed during their shared tenure with the Calgary Flames in 2020.
Tanev doesn’t have Montour’s offensive flair, but he’s tough as nails, he’s a legitimate top-four defenseman, a defensive guru and he’s been beloved by all of his teamates. The 34-year-old leaves it all on the table every single shift and his shutdown game is something the Maple Leafs could use much more of next season. Having Tanev play for Berube makes perfect sense.
Familiarity plays a major role in the NHL and Treliving knowing exactly the kind of person and player Tanev is will go a long way this summer. It will of course come down to if Tanev wants to change teams once again, after being traded to the Dallas Stars ahead of the deadline. Dallas are going to try its best to keep him in-house, the Vancouver Canucks are likely going to circle back, and there’s certainly going to be other Stanley Cup contending teams who make strong offers. Leafs fans should be hopeful Tanev wants to circle back to his roots and play for his hometown team.
The defensive specialist would immediately boost the Maple Leafs penalty kill, he’d be a massive upgrade over Ilya Lyubushkin last season and he’d certainly be another uptick to the intensity in the Leafs dressing room, which they’re bound to feel once Berube gives his first speech. Tanev’s projected to make around $4.5 million likely on a two-year deal. It’s not often a 34-year-old with just 19 points in the regular season is a prized jewel on the free-agent market.

Brett Pesce

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce is set to hit free agency and will likely be on the Maple Leafs’ radar. The Hurricanes have a number of changes coming to their roster which could open up an avenue for Pesce to land in Toronto.
Like Tanev, Pesce’s game is all about being on the right side of the puck, using smarts over skill and being absolutely tough as nails. Both would be great compliments to Rielly, as it would give the smooth-skating blueliner a security blanket to rely on and freedom to get more involved offensively.
Pesce also eats up a ton of minutes short handed, and while his game is certainly tailored to a shut-down role, he’s shown in the past he’s capable of hitting the 30-point mark. At 30 years old, he’ll be looking to cash in on a long-term contract and is projected to earn $6.3 million per season, likely around the five-year mark.
Another player who fits the mold of a Berube-run hockey team, Pesce is known to be a great defender against the rush, and also has the ability to limit high-danger scoring chances with a quick stick and smart positioning. There’s some risk about overpaying on the shut-down market as the interest is going to be high, but regardless, Treliving and the Maple Leafs need to be involved.

Brady Skjei

Our very own Jon Steitzer recently published an article on how the Maple Leafs should be considering pulling off a rare feat and poaching a d-pairing from another team, with adding Pesce along with his partner Brady Skjei. The two have led the Hurricanes for a couple of seasons now and have played a ton together.
Adding both players would give Berube a duo he could rely on for his top pair and give Rielly a chance to slide down to the second pair which are some matchups he could likely dominant throughout the regular season. Skjei brings a ton of offensive flair, collecting 47 points in 80 games last season for the ‘Canes and while he doesn’t get the attention of some of the game’s elite defensemen, he’s shown the past three seasons in Carolina that he should be in the conversation with some of the league’s best all-around blueliners.
Skjei’s going to have a crowded market trying to get a deal done this summer and is projected to make $7.5 million per season on his next contract. Adding the 29-year-old d-man would take a huge chunk of the Leafs cap space from under Treliving’s wallet, however considering the impact and the need to shore up Toronto’s blue line, it could very well be worth it.

Second-Tier Targets

Sean Walker

Walker is the type of all-around defenseman who could help the Maple Leafs moving forward. He’s one of the smoothest skaters of any NHL d-men and while Montour, Pesce, Skjei and Tanev should be at the top Treliving’s wish list, Walker is the right plan B.
The 29-year-old finished last season with the Colorado Avalanche and posted 29 points in 81 games, split between the Avalanche and Philadelphia Flyers. Adding Walker to the mix could give the Maple Leafs a chance to play him on the second pair with Jake McCabe. This would give McCabe a chance to move to his strong side and push Simon Benoit down to the third pair, which is where he’d be better suited long-term.
Walker can play in all situations, although if he’s the only right-handed blueliner added to the Leafs this summer, it may be too much to ask for him to play top-pair minutes alongside Rielly. Walker’s best suited on a second pair while also jumping over the boards to kill penalties.
There’s risk involved with any signing as GM’s make their most mistakes on July 1, and the one risk here would be the fact Walker hasn’t produced much in the playoffs. Can he not handle the pressure once the intensity ramps up? In 13 career Stanley Cup Playoff games he’s yet to register a point and is a minus -6 rating.

Matt Dumba

Matt Dumba once again hits the free-agent market and could be a secondary option for the Maple Leafs. Treliving tried to sign last offseason shortly after taking the Leafs’ job. Dumba finished the season in Tampa Bay after an in-season trade and unfortunately for him, didn’t boost his stock this summer.
Dumba finished up his tenure in Tampa with just two assists in 18 games, but he landed 52 hits and was somewhat effective on the penalty kill. After once being an offensive weapon, Dumba’s game is now built on defending, blocking shots, and laying out bone-crushing hits. He’ll likely cost around the $3 million mark per season and while he’s not what the Leafs need on their top pair, adding him for more of a depth role could bolster the blueline in Toronto. Think of Timothy Liljegren but with a mean streak.

Matt Roy

The Los Angeles Kings are loaded with young talent on the right side of their blue line so Roy is likely hitting the market on July 1. He’d add some depth to Toronto’s ride side, some physical prowess and could eat up minutes shorthanded.
Roy finished last season landing 152 hits, which would have ranked him third among Leafs’ d-men and he blocked an impressive 197 shots, which would have ranked No. 1 in Toronto by a landslide. Roy was a major component of the Kings’ penalty kill which ranked 2nd in the entire NHL. An area the Maple Leafs need to improve on, especially come playoff time. As we’ve seen out of the Edmonton Oilers, a strong penalty kill can carry a team to the promised land.
Roy is a six-year veteran, he’s a predictable defender who can be relied on to thrive in certain areas of the game and if he’s not asked to do too much, could be a wonderful fit for the Maple Leafs.

Alexandre Carrier

Carrier is someone who has been linked to the Maple Leafs in the past. If he ends up hitting the open market, he’d be an interesting addition in Toronto as he’s a smooth-skater who isn’t afraid to get involved in the rush and he’s also someone who could eat up a ton of minutes shorthanded.
Carrier is coming off making $2.5 million on his last deal and is projected to hover around $4 million per season on a new contract. At 27 years old he’s one of the youngest options among all the unrestricted free agents, and with just 217 NHL games under his belt, there’s some untapped potential to consider in Carrier’s game.
The Quebec City, QC native is someone well suited for the Maple Leafs’ second pair, he’d provide some stability on the PK, and has a history of chipping in with some points at even strength. Carrier has also stepped up during the Predators recent playoff action, adding six points in his last 10 postseason games. While there’s always a chance someone swoops in and overpays, Treliving and the Maple Leafs should be very interested in adding Carrier to their blue line as he does a lot of the little things very well and has potential to take his game to new heights in Toronto.

Third-tier targets

Brenden Dillon

Dillon is as physical as they come, and his playing style would align perfectly for what Berube and company are looking to achieve next season in Toronto. Dillon landed 241 hits last season with the Jets and also chipped in with 20 points in 77 games.
The 33-year-old veteran has played the past three seasons in Winnipeg, providing a very predictable game — he hits roughly 20 points, logs minutes shorthanded and is a pain to play against. Dillon is projected to make just under $3 million per season on his next contract and if Treliving can get him in the $2 million range, then the Maple Leafs should consider it. If Joel Edmundson gets re-signed, then perhaps they walk away from any talks with Dillon as the two play a very similar style game and already having Benoit in the mix, seems like a bit overkill and one of the three will be playing too high up the depth chart.
Dillon’s nastiness and willingness to drop the gloves will certainly appeal the Leafs’ brass this summer but the money must be right here. A one-year deal as a fall back option is the best route.

Vincent Desharnais

When Treliving traded Sam Lafferty before the season started, initially he asked the Edmonton Oilers for Vincent Desharnais in a deal. The Oilers didn’t budge and Lafferty wound up in Vancouver. Once free agency opens, Treliving could get his chance to land the towering righty.
Desharnais is a former seventh-round project who has managed to carve out a bigger role for himself in his second season with the Oilers. After posting 11 points, 135 hits and 122 blocks in 78 regular season games, he’s been in and out of the lineup throughout the Oilers run to the Stanley Cup Final. When Desharnais at his best, he’s keeping the game simple, boxing people out in front and closing out time-and-space on the rush.
If the Leafs added Desharnais this summer, it wouldn’t come at a massive cost and in the right situation, playing the proper amount of minutes, the 6-foot-6 d-man could make an impact from Toronto’s bottom pair next season.

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