Identifying the trade market’s best defenceman. Who should the Maple Leafs covet?

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Now that William Nylander has been signed, it’s time for everyone in, or even outside of Toronto, to speculate as to what the next big move will be for the organization.

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner lead a group of pending restricted free agents that need to be signed. In an effort to avoid what happened with Nylander, one would assume the Maple Leafs will attempt to get a jump start in its negotiations with both young stars, though it’s unclear if these talks have begun.

While that will be the most pressing task at hand for Kyle Dubas and the front office, the Maple Leafs core isn’t being split up anytime soon. With the cap situation not nearly as precarious as it will be once the season ends, that means the time to add to an already dangerous team is now.

Few organizations can match the Maple Leafs in terms of skill up front, and while it could use an upgrade over the actually bad Frederik Gauthier and the slightly better, but still bad Tyler Ennis, any major addition should be expected to come in the form of a defenceman or two. The roster freeze, which runs from December 19 to the 28th, shouldn’t affect the Maple Leafs too much, but it’s noteworthy because you never know which team will become desperate at the 11th hour, and which others will try and get ahead of the curve.

In terms of trade candidates, the stars are more than aligning for the Maple Leafs and other buyers. Of the NHL’s bottom dwellers with attractive pieces, the teams most likely to sell in the coming days, weeks and months are the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers, and Carolina Hurricanes. For argument’s sake, let’s assume this group remain in futile and don’t improve much moving forward (for what it’s worth, TSN’s Bob McKenzie noted on Friday that almost all of these teams are ready to deal).

With that in mind, let’s aim to identify one, or maybe two defencemen from each of these clubs that will be of great interest to the Maple Leafs and, ostensibly, other buyers around the NHL.

Sidenote: the Arizona Coyotes, Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, and New Jersey Devils were not included because I don’t see a deal that makes sense for the Maple Leafs and the team involved.

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Shoots: Left

Age: 26

Contract: Two years left ($1.2 million AAV)

This wouldn’t be a sizeable upgrade by any means, but of Chicago’s defenceman, Gustafsson makes the most sense. Duncan Keith’s name has been mentioned, and though he still provides decent value at age 35, his contract is, uh, not great. I can’t see Dubas taking that on with the current and future state of the team in mind.

Gustafsson has been a steady contributor this year and his advanced stats back that up. Among the team’s defenceman with over 500 minutes in ice time, he is second (52.3) in CF % behind Henri Jokiharju — who, at only 19 years old, looks like a stud in the making — and third behind Keith and Jokiharju in Game Score (12.1).

The fact that he’s left-handed shouldn’t prevent the Maple Leafs from showing interest, though, admittedly, there will likely be some more attractive defenceman on the trade market.

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Shoots: Left

Age: 29

Contract: Two years left ($4 million AAV)

Muzzin is considered a workhorse defenceman and he fits that label perfectly because of his ability to stay healthy. Since 2015, Muzzin hasn’t played fewer than 74 games per season and ranks 25th among active defenceman in total ice time.

On top of his knack of staying on the ice, Muzzin has built the reputation as a puck-possession darling. Some of that is credited to Drew Doughty — his teammate and usual partner on the right side, but Muzzin is still deserving of praise for driving play and doing well with, and without the puck.

Expect Muzzin to generate a ton of buzz ahead of the trade deadline if the Kings sell. His contract won’t hurt anyone, let alone the Maple Leafs, and Muzzin would be a great fit in the Leafs top-4, and can more than hold his own on the man advantage. If Dubas really wanted to make a splash, he could try and land both Muzzin and winger Tyler Toffoli, but that would likely come at the cost of Kapanen plus a pretty high draft pick.

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Shoots: Right

Age: 25

Contract: Four years left ($5.5 million AAV)

Remember how I mentioned the stars have aligned for the Maple Leafs? Look no further than Parayko. He’s the crown jewel of the trade market if the Blues do in fact make several players available.

A ton of rumors have swirled on the future of Alex Pietrangelo, who is a good boy and would be a sizeable upgrade for most teams, but he’s hurt right now. Frankly, if I am the Maple Leafs, I go hard after Parayko instead.

The 25-year-old is everything you want in a top-pairing defenceman. Since entering the league in 2015, Parayko has hovered around the 35-point mark, producing both on 5v5 and on the powerplay. He’s also among the top 30 defencemen in terms of GS/60 and, perhaps more impressively, has reached a Game Score of 122.8; ahead of the likes of John Carlson, PK Subban, and Pietrangelo.

It’s no surprise the Blues locked him up to an extension, which makes the prospects of a trade difficult to imagine. Why would a savvy general manager like Doug Armstrong part ways with a 25-year-old stud defenceman he just signed long term? Well, I don’t know the answer. If Dubas can woo John Tavares to sign with the Maple Leafs, maybe he can convince Armstrong to trade Parayko, who knows.

Kapanen would need to go, as I can’t imagine the Blues wanting Johnsson or another prospect as the centerpiece. It’s reasonable to assume, or rather, predict, the Blues would ask for someone like Travis Dermott, as well. One thing is for certain: if the Maple Leafs managed to land Parayko, it would go a long way in cementing them as Stanley Cup favorites. Did I mention he’s right-handed!?

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Shoots: Right

Age: 28

Contract: Two years left ($3.35 million AAV)

If Parayko is the crown jewel of trade targets, Gudas is the diamond in the rough. Because he’s rough and tough, but also good. I’ll see myself out.

My dream is for the Maple Leafs to acquire Parayko but if I had to think of a second realistic wish, it would be the team trading for Gudas. Not only does he look like a Spider-Man villain, but Gudas can also play. He’s really good. He’s one of the few rugged defensive defencemen that actually know how to drive possession, leading to good ol’ hockey. He looks like Roman Polak but plays like, well, Parayko. Sort of.

Remember when I mentioned leaders in Game Score since 2015? Well, Gudas also happens to rank among the top-30 in that regard, sandwiched between John Carlson and Jake Gardiner, and right above Morgan Rielly.

In addition to his impressive numbers courtesy of Game Score, Gudas is a rare breed in the puck possession game because he’s tough, but isn’t a liability with or without the puck. Since 2017, Gudas ranks first among Flyers defenders with 52.2 CF%; just ahead of Shayne Gostibehere.

The Flyers are a good team, so I can see them turning it around. That would break my heart because it would mean Gudas likely stays put. If they don’t recover, Dubas should be all over the Flyers for Gudas. He’s a perfect complement to Rielly and Gardiner and would be a nice boost of truculence (yeah I went there) that the Maple Leafs lack. You want to protect Matthews, Marner, and Nylander in the playoffs? Gudas is your guy. He’s also good, in case I didn’t already make that clear.

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Shoots: Right

Age: 26

Contract: Two years left ($4.8 million AAV) — *carries a modified no-trade clause

It’s almost gotten tiring with so many connecting the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs through trade. The Hurricanes want a top-6 forward. They loved Nylander, and then he signed. Now, apparently, the front office has interest in Kapanen. It’s maddening but there’s no doubt about it: these two teams match up well as trade partners.

Almost every single Hurricanes defenceman would be an upgrade for the Maple Leafs, so let’s start eliminating some. Calvin De Haan was signed this summer to a four-year contract, so he’s probably not in play. Haydn Fleury is still very young and doesn’t make sense for the Maple Leafs. Dougie Hamilton would be really nice but as others have attested to, it’s hard to see the Hurricanes giving up on him only after a few months. Jaccob Slavin is another candidate but he, too, was locked up for the long haul recently. I can’t see him going anywhere.

That leaves three good options: Brett Pesce, Trevor Van Riemsdyk, and Justin Faulk.

I was all for the Maple Leafs letting James Van Riemsdyk walk in free agency only to have the team sign his younger brother. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes were selfish and need all the good defenceman, apparently. Trevor is in Erik Gustafsson territory in the sense that he wouldn’t be a sexy pickup, but merely a good depth acquisition. If the Maple Leafs want to go that route, that’s fine.

I am not as sold on Pesce as others seem to be. Much like Slavin, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Hurricanes part with him after extending his contract not long ago. With all that in mind, if the Maple Leafs want to go bigger, but not crazy, Faulk looks like the guy.

Only 26 years old, Faulk is the veteran of the Hurricanes defence, recently playing his 500th game with the organization. Faulk’s production has slowed a bit since his breakout in 2014–15; a season in which he reached a career-high 49 points with 20 coming on the power play. He was a beast the following year, as well, particularly on the power play once again, with 12 of his 16 goals coming on the man advantage. Since then, he’s cooled down. Faulk is still good for around 30 points and 10 goals, but we have yet to see a repeat in production from the early days.

That isn’t to say he can’t get back to it, though. He’s remained mostly healthy throughout his career and he still shoots the puck a ton. Faulk’s downfall is his defense. While there is still some good scoring upside with him, he’s not going to blow anyone away in a shutdown role. The Maple Leafs already struggle in that regard, so something would have to give.

Maybe Dubas swings for the fences with Hamilton or Slavin, or maybe he takes the plunge on Pesce; a younger, and much more capable defender than Faulk. Or, as I mentioned, maybe he tries for Van Riemsdyk and follows that with a separate trade by acquiring a defenceman elsewhere. Another possibility could see the Maple Leafs trying for a Hurricanes defender and forward. Michal Ferland — a steady but unspectacular producer that can play both wings — could be that guy.

Maple Leafs trade:

Andreas Johnsson, Nikita Zaitsev, 4th round draft pick (2019 — Blues)

Hurricanes trade:

Michal Ferland and Justin Faulk

Maple Leafs trade:

Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Zaitsev, 2nd round draft pick (2019)

Hurricanes trade:

Michal Ferland, Brett Pesce

Maple Leafs trade:

Andreas Johnsson, Justin Holl, 2nd round draft pick (2019)

Flyers trade:

Radko Gudas, Wayne Simmonds

Maple Leafs trade:

Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Zaitsev, Andreas Borgman, 2nd round draft pick (2019)

Kings trade:

Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli

Maple Leafs trade:

Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Zaitsev, Timothy Liljegren, 1st round draft pick (2019)

Blues trade:

Colton Parayko, Pat Maroon, Jakub Jerabek (AHL)

Journalist/Reporter. Current: @680News | Published work: @thescore, @CDNbaseball | Contact: lukecasaletto@gmail.com

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