The need for a right-shot defenceman has been discussed at length by just about every Toronto hockey fan around. It was Sami Vatanen, then it was Travis Hamonic and this offseason it’s been Dougie Hamilton, Tyler Myers and some have even gone with Chris Tanev. However as of July 2018, none are Leafs.
At this point it’s been two seasons with the same need and the same speculation. A few options were present in free agency and the trade market, but there was nothing reported in terms of the Leafs making a real push to acquire anyone. That’s not to say the team hasn’t been inquiring about any defencemen– we know that Leafs management has looked for a trade in the past. But now with the signing of John Tavares, the luxury of cap space is no longer present. It will be a squeeze to keep the players presently in the system together, not to mention if a top-pair defenceman was added. It may be worth considering that this once seemingly inevitable trade for a defenceman isn’t coming.
That’s not to say the team doesn’t need a right-shot defenceman. The left-side of Toronto’s defence core, made up of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott is great, but the right side is lacking a core piece.
Rather than a trade, the probable route now seems to be finding an answer internally and the most likely option is Timothy Liljegren.
Why wait for Liljegren?
Let me start by saying I was too calling for a trade this past season. Not a move-Nylander-out type of trade, but anything else that would bring in a right-handed defenceman. I even argued the Leafs should target John Carlson over John Tavares in free agency based on positional need (that being said, I still created a large scene in public when I saw the Tavares news). But this post is me playing devil’s advocate, trying to break down the logic of not making a trade for a right-shot defenceman.
A 2017 first-round draft pick, Liljegren was ranked second overall in the draft rankings heading into the season before slipping as the season progressed. But scouts obviously saw something in Liljegren and there was genuine excitement in Toronto when he was selected 17th overall. The whole point of that excitement was that he could potentially come in and be that top-pairing guy and since then, he’s been taking steps in the right direction.
He had an excellent first season in the AHL and now holds the record for the highest points-per-game by an 18-year-old defenceman in league history. He had 17 points in 44 games to go along with a plus-12 rating in his rookie season and was a key part of the Marlies’ Calder Cup run. Travis Dermott was vocal on Sportsnet 590 The FAN’s Good Show that Liljegren won’t be long for the AHL and already has the head to be in the NHL. He’s progressing exactly how everyone had hoped— but we’re still jumping out of our seats, pleading with Kyle Dubas to acquire someone else.
Some would argue there’s no guarantee that Liljegren will be a top-pair defenceman. Completely fair, nobody knows. But we won’t know for a while what his ceiling is and the organization should see it through before making a major trade. Others would argue that this is an excellent year to make a run and we can’t do so without that defenceman. That’s when the idea of acquiring someone for one year makes some sense, such as Tyler Myers. But realistically, if the Leafs were to go and acquire a big-name defenceman long-term, cap troubles are coming.
Nikita Zaitsev’s contract, though fairly reasonable at the time he signed it, will have really backed the team into a corner if he doesn’t have a bounce-back year. Zaitsev did perform as a top-four defenceman in his first year with the Leafs. Definitely not perfect, but a reasonable second-pair defenceman despite some defensive shortcomings. He just needs to get back to that form. He’s being paid to be a top-four defenceman and it would be extremely difficult to try and move a six-year deal with a $4.5 million AAV if he’s not performing as such. Either he’s going to be around for a while because he bounces back and plays as that top-four defenceman worth his money or he’s going to be around for a while because he doesn’t perform and the contract becomes almost immovable for the next few years at least.
My point here is if the team makes a trade for a right-handed defenceman where the goal is to keep them long-term, there may not be cap room for Liljegren long-term once his entry-level contract is done. To add to that, the team would likely need to move out an important forward after this season or the cap crunch would quickly become cap hell, a worst-case situation with Matthews and Marner’s new contracts on the horizon. Zaitsev can’t just be a third-pair defenceman for what he’s being paid and Liljegren’s entry-level contract doesn’t last forever. It would be an extremely difficult task to keep both Liljegren and whatever defenceman is hypothetically acquired long-term, without moving out major pieces.
On a last note: there’s no rush for Toronto to make a trade at this very second. I get that this is a great year to make a playoff run, but it’s not the only year. This is a team that will be very competitive for a very, very long time and there is logic in not selling the farm for a top-pair guy when the organization may already have one that just needs time. Remember that the Leafs have one of the smartest management groups in hockey. A lot of people are very vocal that the Leafs need a right-handed defenceman, but then back away very quickly once someone like Nylander’s name gets brought into the conversation. Maybe the reason there hasn’t been a trade for a top-pair defenceman is because that’s the price.
The core of this team will be together for many years to come and Liljegren should be given time in the NHL before a decision is made on whether to go out and trade for a defencman. Ron Hainsey’s contract lasts one more year and the likely situation is that he’s phased out after the season and replaced with Liljegren going into the 2019-2020 season. In this case, no move could be the right move this season and I could see why a trade to for a defenceman long-term isn’t necessary. If in time it’s clear Liljegren isn’t going to be that top-pair guy, then yeah, make a move. But Liljegren is developing exactly how everyone hoped. All signs would point to him continuing to develop well. He needs time and a chance to grow as a player and providing him with that could be the only move that the Leafs need to make right now.