Dave Nonis knows sometimes a trade is needed to breathe some fresh air into a hockey club. As general manager in Vancouver, he made the blockbuster trade that made Roberto Luongo a Canuck. The move paved the way toward a long stretch of cup contention for Vancouver. Under Brian Burke, Nonis is said to have been the architect behind trading Francois Beauchemin for Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner, perhaps the best trade during Burke’s tenure. Nonis hasn’t yet made a blockbuster trade at the helm of the Leafs organization, but his trades for Dave Bolland and Jonathan Bernier have paid off huge dividends for the Buds so far.
Despite their record, the Leafs have struggled early in the season. They lead the league in giveaways and are third in shots against per game. The Leafs will have to shore up their defense and puck possession soon or their sloppy play will catch up to them. A minute-munching, defensive defenseman has been needed in Toronto for some time now, sitting on their wish list alongside the elusive number-one centre they’ve searched for since Mats Sundin left. But I think that with the rise of Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak’s extension, it’s unlikely the Leafs move for a top-six centre this season.
To speculate on what the Leafs could be looking for on the trade market, we also have to look at what the Leafs could stand to lose. There are quite a few players with expiring contracts who could be used as trade bait at some point during the season. Dion Phaneuf is one such player with an expiring contract, but given his important role as captain and anchor on defense, I don’t see the Leafs dealing him unless a defenseman as good or better is coming in return, which I see as unlikely because those kinds of defensemen aren’t usually available.
Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement, Dave Bolland, Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger and Mason Raymond are the other Leafs who hit unrestricted free agency and could see themselves on the move at some point this year. Jake Gardiner is another potential trade option for the Leafs, he has undoubtedly improved in recent games, but given reports that Morgan Rielly is intended to spend the full year in Toronto, Gardiner’s services may not be needed anymore. John-Michael Liles is the final Leaf I think could be moved, almost certainly as a cap dump to counteract salary coming to Toronto in a trade.
Of the group listed, I don’t think McClement, Bolland, or Ranger are likely to be moved. Ranger because of his no-trade clause, and McClement and Bolland because of how little depth the Leafs have at centre.
This leaves us with Mark Fraser, Nikolai Kulemin, Mason Raymond, Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles as players who would be prime targets to be relocated. Raymond the Leafs may be forced to trade should if he even come close to maintaining his early season pace, as he’ll be asking for a sizable increase in salary from the $1-million he’s making this season. Mark Fraser’s job could be on the line because of how many young defensemen are hot on his tail for a bottom-pairing spot, namely Morgan Rielly, Jesse Blacker, Petter Granberg and Andrew MacWilliam. In my opinion, trading Fraser would be a mistake, as the Leafs won’t be helping their defensive problems by getting rid of one of the defensemen who can be used in a shutdown role.
So who should the Leafs pursue? As far as defensemen go, there are quite a few players who could be targeted: Dan Girardi, Tim Gleason, Mark Stuart, Adam McQuaid and Roman Polak to name a few. All play strong defensive games and are capable of playing in a shutdown role. They also all play the blue-collar style that Randy Carlyle covets, meaning they’d likely fit in well in Toronto. Girardi is the best of the group, and a player who would surely shore up the defensive unit. The rest are all a step or two down from Girardi, but would still provide some much-needed stability on the back-end. One other target, and possibly the least likely to be traded, is Marc Staal. Staal is a premier shutdown defenseman and acquiring him would instantly turn around the Leafs’ defense.
I think that ideally the Leafs would acquire two of the players I listed, but given the depth they have on their blue line, it’s more realistic to trade for one. Staal is the best of the group, and is the player the Leafs should target. Staal makes $3.975-million, and the Rangers have $867,897 in cap space. This means the Leafs must send at least the same amount as Staal’s salary, and a maximum of $4,842,897 in exchange for the Thunder Bay native. I think Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles both work as players to send the other way, but as them alone are not enough to get Staal, prospects and draft picks will have to be added to the package. The Rangers do not have much defensive talent in their prospect pool, and seeing as the Leafs have a lot, it makes sense that one of Toronto’s young defensemen could go to Broadway as a sweetener. Matt Finn and Stuart Percy are the best options for that. Finally, a second round pick in next year’s draft should also be used to coax Staal out of New York’s grip.
So there you have it: Jake Gardiner, John-Michael Liles, Stuart Percy and a second-round pick for Marc Staal. Some Leafs fans may see this as an overpayment, but you have to give to get, and if Marc Staal were to play as well here as he did in New York, the price tag is well worth it.