The Toronto Maple Leafs are off to one of their best starts in recent memory, and you get the feeling that they’ll avoid the usual second-half unraveling that takes them right out of the playoff race. While this season has seen some ups and downs, it’s safe to say the Leafs are finally being taken seriously, and that they’re headed in the right direction.
Led by franchise superstar Auston Matthews and other talents in William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau, James van Riemsdyk and others, Toronto sits at second in the Atlantic Division and they look poised to go on a lengthy run during the 2018 playoffs.
However, the Maple Leafs don’t come without their flaws. They could use plenty of help on their blue line, and a little more depth on offence could go a long way. The Maple Leafs also have the youthful resources to make a big a trade, but they also need to clear out some salary cap space if GM Lou Lamoriello is to make a blockbuster deal. With young stars needing new contracts in the near future, the Leafs have a whole lot of treasure in their chest, but they definitely need to make some key personnel decisions if they’re going to become real contenders.
So who should stay and who should go? Here are eight players the Maple Leafs should pursue in a trade, and seven they should try dealing.
15. Pursue: Evander Kane
Offence isn’t the issue for a Maple Leafs team that consists of Auston Matthews, Patrick Marleau, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, among others. But this is a prime opportunity for them to go all-in, and adding a big sniper in Evander Kane could put them over the top in the playoffs.
Kane – who scored 28 goals last season – already has 12 tallies and 11 assists on a miserable Buffalo Sabres team. He’s set to become a free agent at the end of the season, and the rebuilding Sabres are unlikely to retain him. Toronto is built around speed, but not so much size. Adding the bulky 6-foot-2, 212-pound Kane would be an excellent addition to the Maple Leafs forward unit. He could probably be had for a first-round pick or pair of mid-level prospects, too.
14. Dump: Leo Komarov
Komarov’s 19 goals in 2015-16 turned out to be nothing more than a fluke. He had just 14 goals last season, and has just 7 points thus far in 2017-18. Komarov is slated to become a free agent next summer, and the Leafs are more than likely going to let him walk.
If Lou Lamoriello wants to make a big move, it would help if he could clear Komarov’s $2.95 million cap hit. He wouldn’t haul in much of a return, but plenty of teams would be happy to add the speedy centre to their bottom-six. Komarov just hasn’t been able to re-discover his old form from two seasons ago, and the Maple Leafs could dangle him in a “hockey trade.” He’s among the handful of trade chips the Maple Leafs should use in trying to improve their roster.
13. Pursue: Ian Cole
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is reportedly shopping rearguard Ian Cole, according to Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Cole, 28, has been a healthy scratch for the Penguins a ton this season, and could probably be had at a very affordable price. Cole doesn’t come with much offence – just three points so far this season – but carries solid puck possession stats (a Corsi of 52.7), and is extremely durable. He fought through multiple injuries during the 2017 playoffs, helping the Penguins defend their Stanley Cup championship.
The Maple Leafs need to bolster their defensive depth, and Cole could probably be had for mid-level prospects or a mid-round draft pick. With the Maple Leafs in position to go on a deep playoff run, they should take the chance on Cole while he’s available.
12. Dump: Roman Polak
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Polak has been a key staple on the Maple Leafs blue line, but 2017-18 has been a disappointment thus far. Polak isn’t dishing out the hits nor racking up the blocked shots as much, and he doesn’t have the fastest wheels. Toronto could use a fast puck-moving defenceman on their back end, especially if they face a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs.
In an ideal world, the Maple Leafs find a way to swap Polak for another defenceman. He’s in the final year of his contract, and is unlikely to return to Toronto next year. The Maple Leafs need to change up the look on their defence a bit, and moving out Polak makes plenty of sense for the front office.
11. Pursue: Kris Russell
Surprisingly, the Edmonton Oilers are among the very worst teams in the NHL thus far. After coming within a game of reaching the Western Conference Final last season, the Oilers have been all-around miserable in 2017-18. Connor McDavid isn’t getting much support, and both the goaltending and defence have been awful.
As the season progresses, Edmonton looks more and more likely to be a seller at the trade deadline. That’s where they can shop stay-at-home defenceman Kris Russell, who carries a $4 million cap hit through 2020-21. Russell is the ideal shutdown defenceman Toronto is looking for, and they could get him at a reasonable price if the Oilers are just looking to clear salary. He’s good for over 200 blocked shots a season, and could be the final piece in Toronto’s run at a Stanley Cup championship.
10. Dump: Matt Martin
Despite not scoring more than 19 points in a season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have no problem giving Matt Martin $2.5 million a year through 2019-20. For a team that eventually has to give Auston Matthews a fancy $100 million contract (not to mention Nylander and Marner), giving a fourth-liner this much money just doesn’t make sense.
Toronto could use the trade deadline to convince another general manager to take on the rest of Martin’s contract. He doesn’t score, but can provide plenty of muscle and toughness for an undersized playoff hopeful like the Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens or Nashville Predators. And if the Maple Leafs do want to make a big move at the trade deadline, they’ll have to clear out salary. Starting with Martin would be a very good idea.
9. Pursue: Chris Tanev
Tanev has been linked to the Maple Leafs for some time, but so far the Vancouver Canucks haven’t shown any willingness to move out their top defenceman. Tanev – 28 – owns one of the NHL’s biggest bargain contracts at $4.45 million a season through 2019-20. He’s the ideal shutdown defenceman Toronto could use if the Canucks do make him available at the trade deadline.
Could the Leafs be willing to dangle someone like Kasperi Kapanen, Timothy Liljegren or Mitch Marner for Tanev? No. 1-2 defencemen don’t come cheap, and Tanev is a complete difference maker on the ice. It would be a hefty price for Lou Lamoriello, but Tanev would absolutely be worth it. That is, if the Canucks finally decide to move out Tanev — though that remains to be seen.
8. Dump: James van Riemsdyk
It may sound silly for the Maple Leafs to ship out a reliable 20-goal and 50-point man in James van Riemsdyk, but they have to be logical here. He’s a pending UFA, will be 29 years old in March and is surely going to cost around $6-7 million a year on a seven or eight-year deal to retain.
That will be too much to pay for a player who’s almost 30, so the Maple Leafs should think about swapping him to a team that needs a forward. Other playoff hopefuls like the Washington Capitals, Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators could use a player of JVR’s caliber — and have the resources to give Toronto a solid defenceman in return. This would make lots of sense for Toronto in moving out van Riemsdyk, instead of moving out some of their top prospects.
7. Pursue: Joe Thornton
The Maple Leafs pried Patrick Marleau away from the San Jose Sharks, so why not do the same with Joe Thornton? The 38-year-old still has it with 15 points in 23 games on the season. He signed a one-year deal with the Sharks last offseason, meaning his long-term future on the west coast is in jeopardy.
If the Sharks aren’t in the playoff race by the deadline, they have no choice but to become a seller. They could get a nice return for Thornton, and the Leafs have the resources and opportunities to go all-in this season. Bringing aboard Thornton to slot in right behind Matthews could put them over the top in the east. Of course, the Sharks have no reason to make Thornton available as of now. We’ll have to see where they stand in three months time.
6. Dump: Kasperi Kapanen
If the Maple Leafs are to swing a major trade for an impact player, they’re going to have to deal away some of their better prospects. Perhaps none are better than Kasperi Kapanen, and rival GMs could demand him in a possible trade. The 21-year-old has appeared in just three games for Toronto thus far, and is unlikely going to land a full-time roster spot any time soon.
Kapanen could be a key part of the Leafs long-term future, but their championship window is just opening – so why wait around? Toronto could dangle Kapanen and acquire one of the players you see on this list. Making a major trade often requires a GM to give up his best prospect. Toronto was lucky to get a talent in Kapanen from Pittsburgh in the Phil Kessel trade, but it’s also smart to deal him in a trade that helps them win now.
5. Pursue: Shea Weber
Travis Yost of TSN.ca recently broke down how the Maple Leafs and rival Montreal Canadiens could make a deal for Shea Weber work. As unlikely and crazy as the trade sounds, it makes sense to a degree. Weber is locked in at just over $7.857 million a season through 2025-26, and the Habs would probably be happy to get his contract off their hands. Weber, 32, is still a top-tier defenceman. He’s scored double-digit goals and at least 40 points every year since 2008-09, with the exception of the 48-game 2012-13 season.
Taking on Weber’s contract is a major risk, but he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. He would provide Toronto with that legitimate No. 1 defenceman, and has proven to be a major impact player in the playoffs. Well worth the gamble if you ask me.
4. Dump: Jake Gardiner
Jake Gardiner showed some promise early in his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he’s been inconsistent under head coach Mike Babcock. He’s signed through 2018-19 with a cap hit of $4.05 million per season. The Maple Leafs have plenty of puck-movers on the team, so Gardiner is expendable. His awful play in his own zone makes Gardiner viable trade bait.
This is where the Maple Leafs could make a real hockey trade and swap Gardiner for a comparable defenceman, both in play and in salary. Toronto would also be clearing cap space out so they can re-up their rising young stars. Gardiner could still be a top-four defenceman for another team, but it’s not working out in Toronto. How about a trade with the Ottawa Senators – who need defenceman and have other blueliners and forwards to spare?
3. Pursue: John Tavares
Contrary to speculation about him joining his home province team, it’s very unlikely John Tavares gets a big contract from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018 – if he does hit free agency. The Maple Leafs simply cant’t afford to give both he and Matthews huge contracts, so don’t bet on it. However, the Maple Leafs could pull off a major coup and deal for the New York Islanders captain at the trade deadline. If they can’t get Tavares under contract by the 2018 trade deadline, then Isles GM Garth Snow could offer him up for the best suitor.
Toronto is loaded with good prospects. A package deal including Kasperi Kapanen, Timothy Liljegren and draft picks could possibly get something done. It’s unlikely the Islanders end up trading Tavares. But if they do, don’t think the Maple Leafs will avoid pursuing this star.
2. Dump: Tyler Bozak
If there’s one player the Toronto Maple Leafs need to trade at the deadline, it’s centre Tyler Bozak. He carries an expensive $4.2 million cap hit and is a pending UFA – and is a long shot to re-up in Toronto. The Maple Leafs could sell Bozak to a GM looking for a second or third line centre. Bozak is struggling this year with 11 points in 26 games, but is just a season removed from a career-high 55 points. Other general managers will not look past that.
Bozak could be used in a trade that brings Toronto back a defenceman. A team like the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild or Carolina Hurricanes could use another centre like Bozak, and they all have defencemen to offer up in a trade.
1. Pursue: Oliver Ekman-Larsson
This is the exact player the Maple Leafs need. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of the NHL’s elite offensive-minded defencemen. On a lowly Arizona Coyotes team, has six goals and 18 points in 27 games. He’s also scored 20-plus goals in two different seasons. Just imagine him playing on a team consisting of Matthews, Nylander and Morgan Rielly, among others.
Ekman-Larsson is a free agent in 2019, and the struggling Coyotes likely won’t be able to get him under contract beyond that. Toronto is a team that can A) afford him B) Pay a hefty price for him and C) give him a big extension. If he wants the chance to win (with hopes of also getting a big pay day), then Toronto is the place for Ekman-Larsson. He’d shore up most of their weaknesses on defence, and would be a major impact player for them in the postseason.
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