The Toronto Maple Leafs need a defenseman.
We can all agree on that, right?
Roughly one month out from the trade deadline, the Maple Leafs find themselves in pretty good shape all things considered, on pace to crush their franchise record in points thanks to contributions from some shrewd offseason depth signings and their biggest stars earning their paychecks.
What more could you ask for?
Defense, it seems.
The Maple Leafs have managed to get by this season with a cavernous hole on their second-pairing. Normally, that hole would be filled by a competent Justin Holl. But Holl has been anything but competent this season with an injured Jake Muzzin no longer seeming capable of propping him up, casting Toronto's entire top-six into disarray.
Beyond Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and TJ Brodie, the Leafs' remaining three blueline slots could more or less be rotated between any of their defensemen. Rasmus Sandin has seemingly earned more minutes. But bumping him up to the second pairing requires the 21-year-old to take on harder matchups while playing his off-side. The Leafs even took the Muzzin-Sandin for its first spin versus the Penguins on Thursday night. The results, however, reveal a work-in-progress, with the two being out-shot, out-chanced, and out-scored in 12:22 of ice time together while winning just 25 percent of the expected goals.
Perhaps those two will find wonderful chemistry with each other in time. But the Maple Leafs are about as "win-now" as a hockey team can be. Time is not a luxury they have.
So, a trade for a defender is pretty much a necessity. But who?
Reports seem to indicate the Leafs have heavy interest in Montreal's Ben Chiarot, a hulking 30-year-old left-shot D on an expiring contract who has played some truly terrible hockey this season on the moribund Canadiens.
To the naked eye, Chiarot's player profile seems intriguing. His combination of size and reputation as a defense-first player fits what the Leafs are searching for.
But reports also suggest, and have so for months, that the Canadiens are seeking a first-round pick from any team set on acquiring Chiarot at this year's deadline -- which, when factoring in the lack of term left on his deal, Toronto being stuffed to the gills with left-shots already, and Chiarot's near-league-worst underlying numbers, makes paying a premium for the Hamilton native about as smart as letting a celebrity convince you into buying an NFT.
Just because a defenseman is big and produces little-to-no offense doesn't make him a defensive stalwart. The Leafs should probably reflect on those words for a bit before surrendering their first-rounder for a rental in consecutive years.
So, we move forward, scouring the market for defenders that could help scratch the itch this team has been dealing with practically all season.
Damon Severson is seemingly available to be had from the Devils, which would be fine and dandy. Severson is a phenomenal right-shooting play-driver with terrific underlying numbers and another year left on his deal at a $4.166 million AAV.
The hitch in the giddy-up, though, is that the Leafs need stops. Defensive stops. The hockey equivalent of a dam built to ease the flow of a river that threatens to drown their Stanley Cup aspirations with each passing game. Severson is, like I said, a phenomenal defenseman. And I've always been a proponent of getting the best players onto your roster rather than selling the farm to fill one specific need. But Severson does not give the Leafs something they lack. And given the price it'll take the acquire him, it might be best to look elsewhere.
What the Leafs should be going for instead are, how do you say, boring guys. Wallflowers who are content to sit back and make the defensive zone a safer place for their own goalie.
I can't believe I wrote that sentence, as it goes against everything I typically believe in, but we must play with the cards we are dealt.
The two names that come to mind right away are Justin Braun and Dylan Demelo.
Braun will be, by far, the easiest to acquire of the two. The right-shot veteran is 35 and set to hit the open market at year's end. The Flyers, who are decidedly not good, should be grateful to get an asset for him at all, when the alternative is waiting until he leaves for nothing. Perhaps a fourth or fifth-round pick (in 2023, of course. The Leafs don't have those picks this year) would be enough to bring Braun in?
Braun would certainly provide that steady presence they've been looking for, with his defensive play landing in the 96th percentile among NHL defenders, according to EvolvingWild's data.
If he can be had, do it.
Demelo, on the other hand, is a tad more complicated given his $3 million AAV and the fact that he's a better player than Braun. But for a Jets team that left him exposed in the expansion draft last summer, perhaps Demelo could be had at the right price.
Demelo is more or less the perfect addition to this Leafs' blueline, with his bread and butter being the relentless trench work they'll need from their number four or five D. The cost will certainly be greater, perhaps even climbing as high as a second-rounder if the market unfolds at its current rate. But that's all part of the GM job. my friend. If the Leafs think the risk won't outweigh the reward, they'd do well to pull the trigger.
Regardless of which path they choose, one thing is for certain: the Maple Leafs need to add on D. How they do that remains to be seen. But with clearly defined needs and a contention window as open as it'll ever be, the time to strike is now.
Or, you know, in five weeks at the trade deadline.