As we creep up on the NHL’s trade deadline on March 3rd, everyone continues to wonder what the league’s biggest team will do to bolster their squad. The Toronto Maple Leafs have unsurprisingly been linked with nearly every player imaginable on trade bait boards. The questions for General Manager Kyle Dubas are how does he want to improve the squad, and how much is he willing to give up? There has been a lot of interest from Leaf fans in adding a defenceman like Jake McCabe, who might make the team a little harder to play against in the playoffs. However, I think the Leafs are better off spending more assets to go after a premier forward and a depth-scoring forward that would make the team deeper and more dangerous throughout the lineup. Here’s why…
Goals, Goals, Goals
The Leafs have been a premier team in the NHL this season thanks to good-enough goaltending, solid team defence, and their top four forwards producing at an elite level. There is an obvious weakness in the team’s top two lines. That is the position of who plays left wing beside John Tavares. Whether Mitch Marner or William Nylander is playing with Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting, the second line with Tavares always seems to be a step behind. The lack of a third forward that can keep up both skill and speed-wise with Tavares and whoever is playing right wing has been apparent all year. Toronto has rotated between Calle Jarnkrok, Alex Kerfoot, and Nick Robertson, with none being particularly impressive.
Toronto’s best line this season has been Bunting, Matthews and Nylander. When those three have played together at five on five, they have scored 23 goals and given up just 8, which is good for 7th in the NHL by Goals%. The Leafs’ next-best line in this category is Jarnkrok, Tavares and Marner, with a Goals% of 53%, ranking 47th. The Lightning, Bruins, Devils and Hurricanes all have three forward lines that rank ahead of the Leafs in this category. Those teams do not have the high-end talent the Leafs have, but they have much better depth. With the options available at the deadline, Toronto could improve its top six and their depth without pillaging its farm system.
Goals are extremely hard to come by in the playoffs, and Toronto knows this better than anybody. They have scored one goal or less in their last four do-or-die elimination games dating back to 2019. The team’s power play has not scored a goal in eight potential series-clinching games since 2019.
No offence to Calle Jarnkrok, but he is just not that guy, pal. Now a player like Timo Meier? He might be the one that pushes you over the edge. Getting someone like Meier also pushes Jarnkrok down your lineup, which gives your bottom six even more juice. Jarnkrok is your prototypical middle-six guy, and having the option to move him up and down the lineup makes him much more valuable than being forced to shoehorn him into the top six. Trade for a top-six forward, make your bottom six better in the process.
Does Toronto need a defenseman?
If the Leafs give away assets for a defenceman like Jake McCabe and do not do anything to improve their forward unit, it will be the reason they do not make significant noise in the playoffs. I need help to see not only where Jake McCabe fits into the Leafs’ lineup but also how he makes them any more than marginally better. Jake McCabe is going to represent every defenceman the Leafs might add. My opinion is the same for Vladislav Gavrikov, Jakob Chychrun, or anyone else. The days of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev turning the puck over multiple times in game seven are over. This Leafs’ team knows how important defence is, and that won’t be their downfall in the playoffs.
Referring back to that solid team defence I mentioned before, at five on-five, Toronto is 6th in the NHL in expected goals against per 60 and 4th in goals against per 60. Their third pair on the depth chart, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, has an expected goals% of 60.9 at five on five, which puts them 2nd in the league. I think Jake McCabe is a great player, and if you want a fuller breakdown of his game, here’s a great one.
But again, the Leafs only have so many assets to trade, and their defence has shown they deserve to be trusted. The entire Leafs’ defence core has playoff experience at this point, and they all are comfortable with their partners. Trading for McCabe clogs up the depth chart even more than it already is. I see McCabe making sense only if you’re sending Justin Holl out in the process, and I don’t see that happening.
Dubas has traded for defensive help at the deadline twice before in his tenure. The Jake Muzzin trade in 2019 and Mark Giordano last year. While both were good trades, niether got the Leafs to win four playoff games. He has never given up anything for an impact forward. He choose Nick Foligno over Taylor Hall in 2021 and avoided going after Claude Giroux, Brandon Hagel or Rickard Rakell last year. This is the year to do it.
Who should the Leafs get?
Timo Meier is by far the best player available, and it is honestly funny how well he fits Toronto’s team. He is a left winger who is on pace for 45 goals this season while shooting at just a tick above his career average. He leads the entire NHL in individual expected goals at five on five. He is defensively responsible, highly skilled and motivated to get as much money as possible in the offseason. He plays on the Sharks’ top line with a Goals% of 62%, which shows how good he has been this year on a bad team. I also think he would add a lot of strength to the second power-play unit for Toronto, an area that has been lacking since they lost Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri.
Despite this, it seems that the Leafs will be priced out of Meier due to their unwillingness to move top prospects or their unwillingness to trade for a rental. I find this to be laughable. I love Matthew Knies. In fact, I tweeted as much 5 months ago.
However, the guy is a second-round draft pick who is third on his team in scoring in college! You might not even have to give him up to get Meier, but to make him untouchable is ludicrous to me. Kyle Dubas is not in a position to worry about the future. He needs to win now.
Furthermore, If you want to win the Stanley Cup, you have to be okay with trading for rentals. It is a part of the gig, and Meier is good enough that you should not care whether he’ll be around next year. I don’t mean to overhype Timo Meier here, but I am high on him because of what he brings to the table and because I don’t think it’ll cost the Leafs that much. You truly can never have enough offence, and the Leafs’ defence has been good enough that Dubas does not have to worry that he is sacrificing shoring up a weakness for going stronger on a strength.
Meier is a better player than Bo Horvat, but not that much better. So using Horvat’s deal as an outline, this deal makes sense for Toronto: Nick Robertson, Topi Niemela, Alex Kerfoot, and a 2023 first-rounder for Timo Meier at 25% retained. This is practically what the Islanders gave up for Horvat, but the Leafs are adding one of their better prospects in Niemela. Now, are the Sharks interested in that? Yes, it might not be the best offer, but it certainly would be enticing. Secondly, does Dubas have the authority to trade that much for a rental? I’m not Brendan Shanahan. What are you fuckin’ asking me for (but probably not)? The Leafs avoid giving up Knies, which is big, and keep enough assets that they would still be able to get another piece. Keeping Knies also allows Toronto to slide him on their third line for the playoffs, and if he is as good as they think he is, that is another big piece.
In all likelihood, the Leafs will strike out on Timo Meier, so option B is to get a player like Ivan Barbashev. I compare Barbashev to Arthuri Lehkonen of the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs picked up Lehkonen at the deadline last year from the Canadiens for a B-level prospect and a second-round pick. Lehkonen was a good player on a bad team that didn’t get a lot of chances to score. Once he was put with better players in better situations, he thrived. Lehkonen went on to have 14 points in 20 playoff games and be a key piece in the Avs cup run.
Barbashev had 60 points and 24 goals in a career year last season. He is really good at one thing, finishing. The problem is he is not very good at anything else. However, as Pension Plan Puppets outlined, Barbashev is perfect for the Leafs. A team with a bottom six that is strong both at dominating possession and defensively but struggles to score goals. Barbashev would play with players like David Kampf and Pierre Engvall, who generate chances but could be better at finishing them. You need goals from your depth players in the playoffs and Barbashev can, at the very least, score consistently. Hey, maybe even get him to bring Ryan O’Reilly over too.
Travis Konecny makes a lot of sense for the Leafs if the Flyers are willing to part with him for a fair price. Brock Boeser also could be a fun addition if the Canucks would eat half of his salary. Pretty much anyone on the market that scores goals at a decent rate in the NHL, the Leafs have to be at least interested. Enough with the Sam Laffertys of the world. Players like him would not improve this team enough to make a difference in the playoffs, and they’re not worth trading anything more than a fifth-rounder.
I don’t want to watch this team fail in the playoffs again because their power play goes cold, and they can’t score enough. I appreciate that a team with four forwards making $40 million should never struggle to score, but it is not always that simple. The Lightning have Stamkos, Point, Kucherov, Hedman. But that didn’t stop them from grabbing not one but two forwards last year that helped get them to a Stanley Cup final. This is also not to say that the Leafs shouldn’t trade for a defenceman if the right offer comes up. There is no doubt that Jake McCabe would be a nice player to have under contract over the next few seasons. However, I do not think they should prioritize improving an already stout defence over a lack of balanced scoring. I think Kyle Dubas will forever regret it if his Leaf career ends without him trading for a star forward at the deadline.
All stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey, and Moneypuck