Toronto Maple Leafs: Thoughts Before the Trade Deadline

Honestly, did you expect anything less? It was just under two weeks ago that this team solidified the trust of this fan base after absolutely dominating a three-game series with the red-hot Edmonton Oilers who were coming off an 11-2 record in their last 13 games. The Leafs shut down the best duo in the NHL to one lonely assist from Leon Draisaitl over those 3 games and outscored the Oilers by a score of 13-1. They were something like TEN points up on the then second place Winnipeg Jets for the division title after that Edmonton series finished up on March 3rd. Fast forward to today and the Leafs have only picked up two of a possible twelve points in their last six games, are only FOUR points up on the Jets while the Jets have three games in hand, and to make matters more dramatic because that is what we do here in Toronto… the Leafs could be in second place by the time they play their next game vs Calgary.

I am reading on my timeline that Kyle Dubas has built a flawed team, Sheldon Keefe has lost the room, and countless other asinine things. The question that Kyle Dubas and his staff need to answer is “Is this team good enough to win the Silver thing and this is just a slump OR was this team just insanely lucky during the first half of the season and we aren’t as good as we thought we were?”. It comes with the territory in Toronto and like it or not, the answer to this question is a hybrid of both trains of thought.

From the beginning of the season until their March 3rd victory over the Oilers, the Leafs led the league in a stat called “PDO”. For those who haven’t heard of this stat, it is simply an addition formula that adds a team’s shooting percentage and their save percentage (via Natural Statrick). In theory, this stat will always regress to the number 100, and just less than two-weeks ago, the Leafs had a PDO of 1.040 (Shooting % = 10.25 & Save % = 93.72) according to Natural Statrick. Since then, the Leafs are third-last in PDO with a 0.949 (Shooting % = 5.45 & Save % = 89.44).

Although, this is important to keep in mind, I think the lesson learned from these last two weeks is that every team goes through slumps like this. When I say every team goes through slumps like the Leafs are going through right now, I mean EVERY team, even the last four STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS.

The first 24 games didn’t guarantee Toronto a Stanley Cup victory and these last 6 games doesn’t prove that this team is flawed. However, I do believe that this length break of playing every other night provides a window for this organization to reset both on off the ice. The Leafs have just four games over the next 14 days (or seven games in the next 20 days if you’d like to give Kyle a buffer) and that provides a bit of a trade window for Kyle Dubas as this window seems ideal to fit in what would be a mandatory two-week quarantine period for any player that he trades for. He must also not forget to keep in mind the Seattle Expansion Draft that is looming this offseason so ideally pending UFA’s should be the targets.

So, let’s take a look at my top two REALISTIC trade targets for the Leafs (All Stats provided by Natural Stattrick):

Mikael Granlund

If I am Dubas, this is my guy… he is EVERYTHING this team needs for a deep run for the Cup. He is the perfect mix of skill, tenacity and versatility that this forward lineup needs right now. Quite frankly, there might be no better coach for Granlund than someone like Sheldon Keefe who would feel like a kid in the candy store coming up with all the different line combinations you can throw out there.

Granlund who is carrying a $3.75M cap hit is going to be a UFA again this summer and has just five goals and ten points in his 25 games this season. That might cause a red flag for some but when you dig into his underlying numbers… he is sporting a 54.03% Corsi-For (CF%) and a 51.00% Expected Goals-For (xGF%). He is controlling the play more often than not going up against some tough teams in that Central division and he is doing so on a not-so-great team in Nashville.

There are a lot of things that will come into play when trying to acquire Granlund… the Leafs likely will need Nashville to retain the max salary of 50% on his $3.75M cap hit, which should increase the price over some comparable deals that have been done in the past for players in a similar ilk of Granlund. Each of Gustav Nyquist and Mats Zuccarello went for a package of a second and third round pick with some minor conditions thrown in there to get the deal done. One would have to imagine that a similar package could get it done, especially if you include one or two of the Leafs’ many B-Level prospects to compensate for Nashville retaining salary in this cash-strapped pandemic era and also for the fact that Granlund has a slightly better track record than Nyquist and Zuccarrello.

Overall, I think a player like Granlund fits right into this forward group and would be a great fit on any of the Leafs’ top three lines. It also allows the team to not be so reliant on Pierre Engvall continuing his success as a defensively reliable third-line centre. I envision something like this being thrown out there come Game 1 of the playoffs.

Hyman-Matthews-Marner

Thornton-Tavares-Nylander

Kerfoot-Granlund-Mikheyev

Engvall/Spezza/Boyd/Simmonds/Vesey

Granlund gives the Leafs not only the best 1, 2, 3 punch down the middle in the North division, but quite possibly the entire league. It also gives them that option to throw one of Kerfoot or Granlund on Tavares’ wing in crunch time if they need a goal, but otherwise Sheldon gets to keep together a tenacious third line that can go up against one of the other teams’ top lines and allow the Tavares line to feast in a bottom-six matchup.

Jamie Oleksiak

This one might be a little off the board but trust me there is a method to my madness on this one. I’ll start by bringing back some sad memories from the playoff bubble this past summer… Jake Muzzin has a very scary injury at the end of the Leafs’ convincing Game 2 win over Columbus. Without knowing what we know now, everyone’s first thought should have been the concern for the quality of life for Muzzin, especially after seeing someone being put in a neck brace and getting rolled out on a stretcher and straight in an ambulance. However, when looking back on that… knowing Jake made a full recovery, it is clearly evident how much his presence was missed in those final 3 games without him. Justin Holl looked like a lost puppy, Martin Marincin made his all-too-familiar appearance into the lineup, and quite frankly the other four defencemen (Rielly, Ceci, Dermott and Barrie) just weren’t good enough to carry the load against a heavy Columbus forecheck. Fast forward to present-day… the Leafs look to me like they have the best top-four in the country, and other than their recent spell of games… Dermott and Bogosian have formed one of the most reliable third pairs the Leafs have ever had.

So why Jamie Oleksiak??

Well, the easy answer is to point you back to that series in the bubble and translate it into this season and pose the hypothetical scenario of losing one of Rielly, Brodie or Muzzin for an extended period of time in the playoffs. Is Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren (who by the way are the next two best options on defence outside of the current top-six) ready for NHL minutes? Can Dermott or Bogosian go in and play against the other team’s best players on a night-in-night-out basis? Don’t forget they just traded away one of their NHL quality defencemen in Mikko Lehtonen to fulfill his wish of playing more consistent NHL minutes.

I am not saying the Leafs don’t have guys who can step up in short stints, but you can never have too many NHL-quality defencemen when you are trying to win the Stanley Cup. Sandin and Liljegren have played a combined ELEVEN games (not counting Rasmus’ lone Marlies game since he broke his foot during it) since the 2019/2020 regular season ended last March. Other than MARTIN FREAKIN MARINCIN and a currently injured Sandin, there isn’t a defenceman in the organization outside of the top-six that has played a minute in the NHL in over ONE WHOLE YEAR. The Tampa Bay Lightning used NINE defencemen on their successful quest for the Cup in last years’ playoffs… the chances of using the same six defencemen for every game of the playoffs is a next to zero percent chance.

But aside for the obvious need for more depth, what makes Oleksiak the best option to go after? Well, he only carries a cap hit of $2.14M and is a UFA at the end of this season. Again, he has underwhelmed with his surface stats this year but has an impressive 51.75 CF% and a 52.87 xGF% but that isn’t the reason why I think he is a good fit.

Oleksiak has been paired with one of the best young defencemen in the game going back to the playoff bubble and now into this season. During last year’s impressive run for the Stars, Miro Heiskanen and Oleksiak played 16:02 minutes per game together at 5v5 and although they had a poor 46.68 CF%, they also had a 52.53 xGF% going up against some of the best lines in the league. This season, they are down to about 14:14 together at 5v5 while sporting a 50.95 CF% and a 52.52 xGF%. Yet, the most impressive part is Oleksiak’s individual numbers are actually better… with 17:00 minutes per game at 5v5, 51.75 CF% and 52.87 xGF% … it shows that he isn’t just being carried by a very good young defenceman. He also has been used on the second penalty-kill unit in Dallas for a lengthy period of time. Finally, if all this isn’t enough to convince you… he is 6’7, and 255 pounds who likes to impose his will on opponents, especially in front his own net, something the Leafs DESPERATELY NEED (see Statsny’s tying goal to make it 2-2 this past Saturday night).

Overall, I think Oleksiak at the very least can be your 7th defenceman who can step in on a third pair when likely called upon. But it is an added bonus that he has succeeded in a top-four role for a significant period of time so he could play with one of Rielly or Brodie as well.

Final Thoughts

I think it is clear that this team has the ability to be something special. It sounds cliche, but the majority of the answer is in the room already. Almost every Stanley Cup contender needs a move to shake things up a little bit when things start to get too complacent from all the team’s success. This team has shown resilience and are finding ways to win when they have every excuse in the book to fold, whether it be injuries or the mental grind of playing a sport with no fans in the middle of a pandemic… this team hasn’t once publicly given an excuse for a performance. It is time for Kyle Dubas to reward this group with a couple additions to solidify this team on their quest for that Silver thing.

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