Jonas Siegel has an excellent post in The Athletic today, outlining some possible trade acquisitions for the Leafs as we approach the NHL trade deadline of Feb. 25th. It was particularly gratifying to see an old favourite, Chris Kreider, listed as a possible target. I’ve long thought that he would represent a superb upgrade for a team still lacking some toughness PLUS skill (and his 77 games of playoff experience would be invaluable for a team which is conspicuously lacking in that area).
My initial enthusiasm for Kreider was expressed in the context of William Nylander’s holdout, when the latter was being dangled as possible trade bait in the midst of a lengthy holdout. Now that Willie is back in the fold, (and seemingly rounding into last season’s excellent form), the need for someone like Kreider is more of a luxury than a pressing need for the Maple Leafs. Given Nylander’s contract, the Rangers’ left winger would undoubtedly cost too much, and Toronto still looks deficient on the back end, especially on the right hand side.
Furthermore, the salary cap will be VERY tight next year, so even though Kreider is on a very team-friendly contract of $4.625m for the next 18 months, it’s still hard to see how the numbers could have worked now that Nylander has been signed, unless Toronto was able to get rid of someone like Zaitsev (and there is ZERO reason for Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton to absorb that contract). Part of the attraction of Kreider for 2 yrs at almost $3m less than Willie’s now getting paid before extending him was that he made those cap problems next year less acute. And Kreider would have made the Leafs a better team today; Willie is all about tomorrow.
Toronto still really needs another right-handed defenceman. I had high hopes that, even though he was a LH shot, the Jake Muzzin acquisition would resolve the Leafs’ overall defence issues sufficiently for this season. No question, Muzzin has added to the team’s back end depth considerably and in spite of Mike Babcock’s hesitation in putting Rielly on his “wrong” side, I thought the Muzzin/Rielly pairing represented an excellent upgrade for the team. For the first time in ages, it looked like Toronto finally had an elite shutdown first pairing.
The Leafs’ coach obviously didn’t agree (and he is the one who gets paid to make those decisions, not me). Unfortunately, a byproduct of his decision to move Rielly back to the left-hand side is the return of Ron Hainsey to the first pairing. This recreates the principle weakness that Boston exploited so ruthlessly in the playoffs last year.
True, Morgan Rielly has been, and remains, the team’s best D-man. As Rielly himself has conceded, he is certainly more comfortable playing on the left side. It was hard not to sympathise with Babcock’s reasoning when he invoked Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom to make the case for placing an elite D-man like Rielly on his natural side, where he is more able to maximise his skills. And the numbers do suggest that Rielly’s offensive output was somewhat affected adversely when he was playing on his off side. But the question is: was that a reasonable trade-off to make?
Without a doubt, Muzzin’s presence on the Leafs gives them more depth and more balance amongst their 3 defence pairings. But in restoring Rielly to the left side, Babcock has recreated the problem the team had prior to the Muzzin acquisition: Ron Hainsey is NOT a top pairing D-man and shouldn’t be at this stage of his career.
And if Toronto ends up playing Boston in the first round (as increasingly looks likely), Bruins’ coach Bruce Cassidy will likely repeat what worked so effectively for him in last year’s playoff series: he’ll instruct his players to shoot the puck toward the right side of the ice and force the weak side of the Leafs’ pairings to clear it and handle the puck. This strategy effectively neutralized Toronto’s strength on the LH side and exposed their weaknesses, which are still left unaddressed, so long as the pairings stay as they are.
So, to paraphrase Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Or will Kyle Dubas try to make a move for another RH D-man before the end of this month? In his article, Siegel outlines many of the obvious targets: Jared Spurgeon, Josh Manson, Tyson Barrie, Brandon Montour, Brett Pesce, or Radko Gudas. To that, I would also add someone like Adam McQuaid, who certainly would recognize the Bruins’ tendencies in a playoff series, and supply much needed grit (and being a rental, likely wouldn’t cost as much).
Of course, the problem is that the more elite the target, the more prohibitive will be the cost to Toronto. It will invariably mean subtracting a vital piece from this year’s team (Kapanen and Johnsson would be obvious asks for an opposing GM ). If newspaper accounts are to be believed, Dubas has already ruled those players out as trade targets (along with Sandin, Liljegren, or another 1st round pick).
What complicates the picture further is that Toronto still doesn’t really know what it has in terms of its team as far as the playoffs go. Playoff hockey is different, and the experience gained via a number of painful series, is something that cannot be coached. It has to be experienced directly. Sometimes many times over, as players like Alexander Ovechkin can attest.
With the 5 year deal recently signed by Matthews, Nylander’s 6 year deal, and the likely signing of Marner, the Leafs’ Cup window is likely to be the next 3-5 years . No doubt Kyle Dubas is acutely aware of the window, and therefore is unlikely to make another major deal before the deadline. Clearly, that means a huge increase in pressure in the event that Toronto fails to escape from the 1st round, but that’s the nature of the beast, and Kyle knew that when he took on the job.
Beyond this year, there are the pressures of the salary cap. The cap creates windows because you can’t keep everyone together even through arbitration raises. So everything becomes a value judgement. You need to lock up the core transcendent talent and the rest of the roster is a puzzle with many pieces. Youth and cheap contracts are the league’s currency. How you save and spend it determines how well you do. That’s Dubas’s real challenge – making the roster more playoff ready is just part of it and he has to bear that in mind as we approach February 25th.