Where there is some there is often fire. What a wonderful cliche that allows us to work ourselves up into a frenzy over the Leafs, even more than usual.
For whatever reason, while Toronto’s defense is struggling, the Leafs are viewing themselves as having too many NHL defensemen, and not only are willing to shop one, but are willing to shop one that plays on the right side, you know, that side that seems to be most coveted in the NHL.
The players being offered up as sacrificial lambs are @Justin Holl, who has most notably been a healthy scratch of late, and @Travis Dermott, the 24 year old that has found himself promoted to the top pairing, and then injured, which really should be what underlines the need for carrying seven capable NHL defensemen, if not more. If you look at the injuries to the blueline over the past couple of seasons, there is certainly a need to question the likelihood of Rielly, Muzzin, Dermott, Sandin, and Liljegren’s ability to stay in the lineup.
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That’s plenty of reason to want to keep this group intact, but as James Mirtle reported in addition to the claims of Elliotte Friedman and Nick Kypreos:
I can confirm: There’s substance there.
According to multiple sources this week, the Leafs have talked to other teams about some of their defencemen. This could be simply gauging the market as to their value, but I think there’s more to it than that.
The reason for getting Dermott or Holl out of Toronto is that despite their relatively low cap hits of $1.5M and $2M respectively, both contracts represent some of the higher cap hits of the Leafs supposed depth. @Alexander Kerfoot’s $3.5M contract isn’t particularly moveable until he’s had a chance to do some numbers on the Leafs second line, and Holl’s $2M is the next biggest hit, if you assume Toronto isn’t quite ready to give up on @Nick Ritchie and his $2.5M/yr deal. Dermott’s $1.5M isn’t far off of @Ilya Mikheyev or @Pierre Engvall’s cap hit either, and of all the players mentioned, Dermott and Holl probably have the most significant value in trade and wouldn’t require the Leafs taking any salary back in return.
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It’s also possible that the Leafs, who already seem to have faith in Sandin and Liljegren, have more faith than the rest of us in the ability of players like Rubins, Biega, and Menell to step up and fill the void on the blueline. Risky seems to be an understatement when assessing that decision, but here we are.
I’d argue that if the Leafs were truly interested in moving a defenseman in order to create opportunities in the top six, and free up cap space, @Jake Muzzin is a name that needs to factor in as well, but that comes with the risk of not having Muzzin as a safety net for one of the youngsters that could potentially see their icetime increase, and not give Muzzin a chance to snap out of his funk. A fully operational Muzzin, even at 32-33 is still worth holding out for though, and the Leafs will give him his opportunity to find his game, even if moving him represents a chance for a more meaningful move somewhere down the line.
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That brings us around to the two main questions we should have at this point about the Leafs defensive rumour, and those are…
  1. Who is the better trade chip and/or who is most likely to be moved?
  2. Who is interested in acquiring defense and what could the Leafs possibly get as a return?
The first question seems pretty easy to answer. Dermott is younger (25 in December vs. Holl turning 30 in January). Dermott is capable of playing on either the left or right side of the blueline, and he’s cheaper with a $1.5M cap hit vs. a $2M hit. On the surface Dermott is the better trade chip, but also the one the Leafs should be fighting harder to keep.
Numbers wise, there is a different story. Holl averages almost 4 more minutes of 5v5 play per night over Dermott, and it needs to be considered that until recently he was being placed in situations with tougher competition and more frequent defensive zone play. As a result this season Dermott’s numbers are significantly better than Holl’s, but that is contrasting Dermott’s sheltered third pairing situation with Holl’s shutdown pairing situation.
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Player
GP
TOI/GP
CA/60
CF%
GA/60
GF%
xGA/60
xGF%
PDO
OZ FO %
Travis Dermott
9
13.51
53.30
56.28
1.97
55.56
2.16
60.87
1.00
58.97
Justin Holl
7
17.10
60.13
50.21
5.01
23.08
2.97
49.05
0.92
45.90
Going to throw this out there, but as much as Muzzin and Holl have struggled this year, that GA/60 isn’t going to be sustainable, and the PDO reflects that.
By the eye test, you’ll probably give the advantage to Dermott, and you’d be right to do so as well, and all things considered based on this year he’s the better option although last year paints a different picture…
Player
GP
TOI/GP
CA/60
CF%
GA/60
GF%
xGA/60
xGF%
PDO
OZ FO%
Travis Dermott
51
12.48
49.19
51.08
1.98
47.50
1.80
55.71
0.99
56.27
Justin Holl
55
17.62
53.07
49.85
2.54
53.93
2.01
54.65
1.01
50.84
While the numbers still slightly favour Dermott, utilization and competition certainly gives the advantage to Holl, even if he is getting the stronger teammates as well. The other thing that does need to factor in as well though is the shot. Dermott shoots left, and Holl shoots right, the right shot is coveted around the NHL on the blueline, and that could be enough to generate some additional interest in Holl. In summary, numbers, age, salary, and eye test all seem to slightly favour Dermott, but Holl could be the hockeyman favourite when you factor in his right shot and the NHL’s preference for 6’4 over 6’0 any day of the week.
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That brings us to the final question of who’s interested and what can the Leafs get for them?
From Luke Fox of Sportsnet:
In our estimation, that price for one of these expendable right-side defenders would be an upper-mid-round draft pick.
That is because the cap-tight Leafs have little to no flexibility to take on a salaried player in return, they are short on picks as is (just three in 2022), and Dubas must clear money for both the short- and long-term future.
First of all, both of these players would still be worth that upper mid round draft pick (read: 3rd or 4th round pick) after the season closes. There isn’t a whole lot of incentive to move one out for what really only equates to about $600k-750k of cap flexibility in Dermott’s case, but maybe the $1.25M of cap space that could be created by trading Holl and replacing him with a league minimum alternative holds a bit more appeal. The Leafs could certainly use the picks, but the picks will be there at the deadline and summer as well. Having Mikheyev on the LTIR really eliminates any potential opportunity for the Leafs to bank some cap space for the deadline, so I’m not entirely grasping the acquire futures idea. At least not yet.
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As for who should be interested, well, 20 teams are either capped out or within $2M of the salary cap, cheap defensemen that can play in the top four are going to have a market, and even with Holl having a ten team no trade list, there will be plenty of options of landing spots for him. I’d be curious if hot starts for teams like Edmonton and St. Louis have them thinking about what upgrades they can make, and you can never count out the Avalanche either.
While there are plenty of options, and this seems like it is going to happen whether we want it to or not, I still can’t help but think the Leafs are better off standing pat with their defense and taking a more aggressive approach to clearing some salary from their forward depth, even if the return is less exciting. The challenge there is just because we want there to be a market for Alex Kerfoot or Nick Ritchie doesn’t mean there will be one. The appeal of Dermott and Holl seems a little more obvious.
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