Realistically speaking, the Toronto Maple Leafs are not Stanley Cup favourites.
The Leafs’ defense lacks depth and is not talented enough one through six for a long playoff run. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most Leafs fans that have been following the team this season. Although most Leafs fans would welcome a big splash at the trade deadline to push them over the top, big trades for Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs) rarely make a difference for long playoff runs. Usually a large trade just covers up the team’s current deficiency and not enough time passes for the UFA to mesh in the unfamiliar coaching system. Top Stanley Cup contenders rarely make the largest splash at the trade deadline for UFAs, they don’t need to. Only minor tinkering is required with depth and character moves. The Tampa Bay Lightning this season, for example, will not need an impact player to propel them to be the favourites. With a stacked defense like Tampa’s, they are already the favourites.
As there is not a big name UFA defenseman available this trade deadline, caution should be exercised when making these types of trades. Only one deadline trade for the biggest UFA defenseman this millennia has produced a Stanley Cup; when the Colorado Avalanche traded for Rob Blake in 2000/01 from Los Angeles. In that instance, Colorado was already very talented and Blake was added to a defensive group which featured Ray Bourque and Adam Foote. Since then, the last two seasons have seen large and expensive trades for defensemen in Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh which ended in shorter than expected playoff runs for their respective teams.
Trade deadline moves are the most expensive time of year to acquire talent, and GMs have made their biggest mistakes in such trades (see 2018 trades for Ryan Hartman or Tomas Tatar). As mentioned, fortunately there are no large unrestricted free agent defensemen to make these mistakes for the Maple Leafs this season. Any Leafs trades for defensemen with additional term on their contract would be too expensive at this deadline, and should be completed in the offseason when the Leafs will have a better understanding of their salary cap structure. Keep in mind the Leafs will need to still sign Matthews, Marner, Kapanen and to make a decision whether to attempt to sign Gardiner.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the Leafs shouldn’t be looking to upgrade their defensive group for a possible playoff run without ruining the structure of their vaunted future. The front office owes it to the team and certainly to the fans. There are still useful UFA defensive pieces available, but demand might outweigh supply, which would elevate cost. Hopefully the Leafs can avoid the crazy trading frenzy and make cost efficient moves at the deadline.
Here are five UFA depth options the Leafs could consider:
Ben Lovejoy, New Jersey Devils, 34 years old
Lovejoy is a right handed defenseman, a position that the Leafs covet. He has a recently won Stanley cup on his resume in 2016 with Pittsburgh. Lovejoy is a low maintenance player and averages 17:13 of ice time. His playoff value to the Leafs would be in the penalty kill department. Also, while on a weak New Jersey team, Lovejoy’s ability to keep the puck out of his own end is reflected with a plus 5 rating. The final year on his contract is very team friendly ($2.67mil) and would not pose a problem to be absorbed by the Leafs.
Inflated trade deadline cost: 2nd round pick and a tier 2 prospect
Adam McQuaid, New York Rangers, 32 years old
Adam McQuaid is extremely similar to Lovejoy above, but can add a little toughness and sandpaper that the Leafs also need. McQuaid is also a right handed defenseman and has won a Stanley cup as a Boston Bruin in 2011. McQuaid averages 17:42 minutes of ice and specializes on the penalty kill. Although very useful, McQuaid spends a little more time on the IR that could be a deal breaker for the Leafs. The final year on his contract ($2.75mil) would not be an issue at the deadline.
Inflated trade deadline cost: 3rd round pick and a tier 2 prospect
Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings, 38 years old
Niklas Kronwall has a history with coach Mike Babcock, thus would not have a long learning curve to learn the Leafs’ system. An older Kronwall is very useful and can provide a lot more offense than McQuaid or Lovejoy. He still manages 19:57 in ice time and plays both power play and penalty kill minutes with Detroit. Kronwall has plenty of playoff experience and a Stanley Cup in 2008 with the Red Wings. In the final year of his 7 year contract, his salary is low at $1.75mil but carries a cap hit of $4.75mil, which could create minor issues should teams want to make additional moves at the deadline.
Inflated trade deadline cost: two 2nd round picks or tier 1 prospect
Roman Polak, Dallas Stars, 32 years old
The Dallas Stars are a playoff bubble team and have not been playing consistent hockey going into the All-Star break. Should Dallas fall out of contention, Roman Polak would become available as a depth move to the Leafs. Leafs fans, players and coaches alike are very familiar to what Roman Polak can provide; sandpaper, grit and a quick transition to Mike Babcock’s style would be a welcomed asset. Polak will not offer any offense, but an honest effort defensively every night is what can be expected. Polak averages 19:03 ice time on Dallas, likely to diminish once Marc Methot returns from injury, which would lower his asking price. The Leafs traded Polak three seasons ago at the deadline to San Jose for two 2nd round picks, but the cost this time around to obtain him should be more affordable. His $1.3mil salary can allow the Leafs to move him in and out of the lineup as needed.
Inflated trade deadline cost: 3rd round pick
Jordan Oesterle, Arizona Coyotes, 27 years old
Jordan Oesterle is really playing well this season in Arizona and his increased minutes are reflecting it. Oesterle went from averaging 17:30 minutes per game to 21:06 in the month of January, seeing additional playing time on the power play. He is a player that is hot right now, racking up 6 points (2g, 4a) in the last 9 games. A plus 1 rating in Arizona is almost unheard of this time of year, but Oesterle is playing with confidence, bringing stability to the bottom pairing with the defensively erratic Alex Goligoski. Oesterle might lack grit for his smallish frame (6’, 187lbs), but this Western Michigan product is getting the job done in Arizona. His miniscule $650k contract would be a welcome addition to any team, including Arizona to keep. If his contract extension discussions with the Coyotes have begun already and his asking price is too high, expect him to be moved at the deadline.
Inflated Trade deadline cost: 3rd round pick, possible even more if still hot at deadline time
Now, with the Leafs being the Leafs, they may have to deal with even higher inflated costs to get the players wanted than even I’ve projected. But are any of these five moves mentioned worth it? Should the Leafs go big and trade roster players or a top prospect (eg. Kapanen, Johnsson or Sandin) for a defenseman, regardless of their free agent status for a long playoff run? Or go into the playoffs with what they have and retool in the offseason? Any route they take now for the rest of the season likely won’t land them in the Stanley Cup finals. We die hard Leaf fans can always revert to our mantra: “there is always next year!”
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