The Toronto Maple Leafs concluded a very surprising and successful season after a first round exit against the Washington Capitals. Led by a trio of rookies, which is highlighted by Calder favourite Auston Matthews, the Leafs were rejuvenated this season and managed to squeak into the last playoff spot in the East. This is great progression for the Shanaplan, which is headed by legend Brendan Shanahan and veteran G.M. Lou Lamoriello. The Leafs made many key changes in the offseason which contributed greatly to their march to the playoffs. For instance, goaltender Frederik Andersen, who was acquired from Anaheim, was solid down the stretch for the Maple Leafs. After a very shaky start to the year, Andersen was able to buckle down and put up solid numbers (.915 SV% ,2.68GAA, and 4 Shutouts). After settling their goaltending issue, Leafs management drafted Auston Matthews 1st overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. By the end of training camp, Mitch Marner had blown through Toronto’s forward depth chart and claimed a spot on the team, along with fellow rookies William Nylander, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman. Auston Matthews went on to have 40 goals, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri and William Nylander posted 61 points and JVR returned to his form with a 62-point campaign. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly led the defense on their respective pairing, with veteran Roman Polak and the young Connor Carrick filling in the top 4.
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Morgan Rielly||Nikita Zaitsev|
|Jake Gardiner||Connor Carrick|
|Matt Hunwick (UFA)||Alexey Marchenko (RFA)|
|Martin Marincin||Roman Polak|
|Travis Dermott||Andre Nielsen|
However, going into the 2017 Trade Deadline and now into the offseason was the apparent need for top end depth on the blueline. A simple look at the Leafs’ depth chart would demonstrate a need for a top defenseman who could play on the right side with Rielly. In short, Toronto has to go shopping for a top flight Right Defenseman, and, with the NHL Expansion draft coming up, here are some possibilities that Toronto could explore going into the summer:
Sami Vatanen: Here’s an interesting option for the Leafs due to the upcoming expansion draft. The format comes down to protecting 6 forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or 5 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie. Ultimately, a team like Anaheim would surely want to protect the likes of Getzlaf, Perry, Rakell, Kesler, Silfverberg and Cogliano, which would mean they would only protect three defensemen (Fowler, Lindholm and Manson). Due to Simon Despres’ potential career ending concussion, Josh Manson becomes the ideal candidate to protect. This would ultimately leave a valuable asset in Vatanen exposed for the Vegas Golden Knights to snap up and place on their top pairing.
However, Anaheim G.M. Bob Murray will certainly look to turn that excess into assets prior to the expansion draft and not lose someone of Vatanen’s ilk for free. What the Ducks require are young, NHL-ready forward prospects that could come into their top-9 and have an impact. Many would to William Nylander as a potential trade candidate, but Nylander’s contract expiring next year might dissuade a Duck’s team that is very tight on the Salary Cap. Kasperi Kapanen is an excellent trade chip to use, especially after his end of season heroics, playoff overtime goal, and excellent playoff record for the Toronto Marlies. The inclusion of draft picks, which would potentially be a 1st round pick, would seal such a deal, as Murray would have found relative value in such a package.
Travis Hamonic: The Islanders would find themselves in a similar bind, where they would undoubtedly protect Nick Leddy and begrudgingly protect Johnny Boychuk due to his No-Movement clause. This would leave rearguards Calvin De Haan and Travis Hamonic for the final slot. Garth Snow lost a two valuable pieces last year to unrestricted free agency in Kyle Okposo and Franz Nielsen, which means he cannot lose his quality top-4 defensemen for nothing. With a player of Hamonic’s pedigree, The Islanders would seek a young, expansion draft exempt forward that could contribute immediately. In this case a trade centered around William Nylander would be ideal for both sides, as Hamonic would immediately anchor the blue line for Toronto, allowing Rielly or Gardiner free offensive reign.
Cody Ceci: Although Cody Ceci is not what one would consider a top flight NHL defenseman, he does have the potential to be a top pairing player on a team where Erik Karlsson is not in front of him on the depth chart. Ottawa, boasting forward stars like Ryan, Turris, Hoffman, Stone, Brassard and Pageau, would certainly protect six forwards, while protecting a trio of defensemen that includes Karlsson, Phaneuf and Methot. This would leave the 23- year old Ceci available for the Golden Knights to snatch.
For the leafs, a one for one swap of Kapanen for Ceci, with the potential inclusion of a late round pick from Toronto, would certainly seal this deal. My guess is that Ottawa would want to keep the same core intact after Ottawa’s successful playoff push. Methot and Karlsson are both on the first pairing, while Dion Phaneuf has a No-Movement clause in his contract. A young forward like Kapanen could challenge Ryan Dzingel for a spot in Ottawa’s top 6, increasing the depth of an already balanced offensive team.
This list begins and ends with Kevin Shattenkirk. Although there are other quality defensemen in this UFA crop, none are on the level that Shattenkirk can get to. Karl Alzner, Trevor Daley or Mark Streit could all be viable options, but the Leafs would want to make a large bang if they were ever to invest their barely used cap-space. A contract spanning several season, with an annual average of roughly 6 to 7 million a year would not be uncommon for someone of Shattenkirk’s credentials. He just completed a 56-point season with the Saint Louis Blues and Washington Capitals, where he anchored their respective power plays and handled much of the five on five possession. In short, Shattenkirk can legitimately drive an offensive play by himself, which the Leafs had become familiar with in their 6 game series with the Capitals.
He’s average more than 10 goals per season for the last four seasons, he consistently hit the 40-point mark in the same amount of time and went as high as 56 points this year. His defensive game, albeit often question, was a big part of the Capitals defense. With Shattenkirk’s ability to put his stick in the passing lanes, he intercepted and launched the play out of the defensive zone efficiently. In 2017, that is what we call defense in the NHL.
The Leafs do not possess much on the depth chart on the right side in the pipeline. Their best current defensive prospect plays mostly on the left side. Travis Dermott, the 2015-2016 Best OHL Defenseman runner-up, followed an excellent junior career with an exceptional rookie season for the Toronto Marlies. He has taken a pivitol role in the Marlies playoff success so far, and looks poised to slot into the third pair for the Leafs on the left side.
The prospect with the best shot of subbing in on the right side is Andrew Nielsen. The 6,3” 207-pound right defensemen put up 39 points in 74 games for the Toronto Marlies. He’s been a rock defensively, while also boast a good possession game and a solid physical element. He is unique in his skillset within the leafs depth chart, but he is still not ready for a top 4 role in the show just yet.
At this stage, if the Maple Leafs want to progress on their backend, especially on the right side, it will have to come from outside the organization. Will the Leafs be able to entice a team with expansion draft anxiety to sell their top 4 defensemen? It remains to be seen. In the end, it comes down to what each G.M. is willing to protect. Once those protections lists are made public, prepare yourself for a very interesting week of trade talk and rumor roundups. It’s almost certain the Leafs will be in the mix during the expansion draft week, but rest assured, this will be something to follow going into the summer.