At 4:54 on December 1st, the Leafs were a Cup contender. When they signed Nylander at 4:55, they became a better one.
Still, even with one of the most loaded offensive forward groups of the cap era assembled, there are questions about how Kyle Dubas can shore up places where the team is weak. And with that, we spin that old broken record about the blue line.
If the Leafs were to start a playoff series today, their defence pairings for game one would be Rielly-Hainsey, Gardiner-Zaitsev, Dermott-Ozhiganov. If they don’t do anything between now and the trade deadline, those pairings are likely what we’ll see in April. There are no internal options who will be brought into that group during the season aside from Justin Holl, no prospects really on the cusp. There’s no one in waiting who can make a major difference. While Dermott has clearly improved and Ozhiganov is found money, Toronto is looking at rolling through the season and playoffs with essentially the same group they had last year. The problems their defence had trouble with last season will give them trouble again, if not now then in the playoffs.
So what do they do? Can we believe the answer is “nothing” again? When Babcock or Dubas implies this group is good enough or perhaps underrated, are they being serious? I have a hard time believing they don’t have the same fears those on the outside do. For argument’s sake, let’s say the Leafs draw the Bruins again in the first round. Pastrnak, Bergeron, and Marchand are firing on all cylinders and the Leafs are still rolling out Hainsey-Zaitsev-Ozhiganov down the right side at evens and on the penalty kill. Boston made a point of exposing those guys last year and it went a long way in them opening the series by thumping the Leafs, and created a situation the Leafs couldn’t adjust to. It can’t happen again.
And it isn’t just the Bruins. The Leafs really can’t cross paths with any contender and think that defence corps is enough. They’re a dynamite offensive team, and their powerplay will bury most teams, but given how the playoffs usually means refs putting the whistles away, Toronto needs to establish themselves as a team that skates more downhill at even-strength, and a big boost on the right side can do that.
A week UFA group makes the rental market for defencemen as weak as it’s ever been. The Leafs have no options in that regard, at least as far as true difference makers go. If we look another year down the line though, one of the more interesting names is Alex Pietrangelo out of St. Louis, who is in process of recovering from a hand injury until after Christmas. With a deal expiring in 2020 and a cap hit of $6.5-million, Pietrangelo – a top flight right-handed defenceman who is still just 28 – is about as good a fit as you’ll find for the Leafs to put themselves over the top both at the end of this season and the next. And while he’s been such an important part of the Blues for so long, their season is now a write-off and he’s owed the most money in his deal over these last two seasons. It’s definitely something worth exploring for the Leafs, as this is the kind of deal they’ll probably need to make, not one for a rental or anything enormous enough to require a huge piece like Nylander or Marner shipped out. There needs to be a middle ground. The core is set with Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Marner, and Rielly. The rest of this team and most importantly its cupboard of prospects and picks can’t be bolted down.
(Pietrangelo’s contract status, via CapFriendly)
If we want to get an idea of how the Leafs could shake someone like Pietrangelo loose, a pretty easy comparable is the deal the Lightning swung for Ryan McDonagh last season. Those two players are in a similar stratosphere, and like Pietro now, McDonagh had another year left on his deal, he wasn’t a rental. In that trade, Tampa shipped out Namestnikov (a middling forward), two okay prospects in Brett Howden and Libor Hajek, and a first rounder (with another conditional first). But the Lightning also received JT Miller in that deal. To spitball something similar between the Leafs and Blues for Pietrangelo, it might be better to just focus on loading up on picks instead of the classic “Kapanen and Brown” kinda of talk. Toronto can probably squeeze out a deal like this with a pair of picks and a prospect like Liljegren or Grundstrom.
In the end, this is all wishful thinking, exploring a way to fit a true upgrade into that Leafs blue line. But whether it’s Pietrangelo or someone else, the time for Dubas to put this team on the cusp is now, and it doesn’t need to cost them much in terms of their longterm future. A key part of that search is identifying a team on the tumble like the Bolts did with New York last season. And while it seems a little foolish to speculate on these types of moves, it’s also hard to believe Toronto will keep exactly what they have on the blue line and hold out hope that adding Tavares is enough to overcome that weakness when the games get so tough and match-heavy.