On Hockey Night in Canadas “Headlines” segment last night, Chris Johnston revealed that St. Louis Blues GM, Doug Armstrong, has been keeping tabs on the Maple Leafs.
“Doug Armstrong is here, of the St. Louis Blues” Johnston said. “He’s also here with his Vice President of Hockey Operations, Dave Taylor, and obviously, you know whenever you see two senior executives from one team in a building it raises some eyebrows…………. This is at least the second time that Armstrong has watched the Leafs play live this season. They’ve had a number of senior staffers around Toronto games this year, so that’s something to watch as we get closer to the trade season.”
Johnston did add that Hugh McGing, a former 5th round pick of the Blues, who is now captain of his Western Michigan University team, played the University of Denver the night before. It would be easy to speculate that he was simply in town to see how his 5th round investment has been progressing and decided to take in the Leafs game while he was there, but that’s boring, so we’re going to make stuff up instead.
So here we go…..
The first thing everybody started to talk about is which right shot defender the Leafs may be targeting from St. Louis. Which is an odd thing to happen considering the Blues are scouting the Leafs. Should we be asking who the Blues are targeting instead? Anyway, they’re deep at the right defense position after having traded for Justin Faulk in late September, and then extending him to the tune of 6.5M per season for 7 years.
That trade, and subsequent signing, meant they have captain Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk, and Robert Bortuzzo as right shooting defenders on the main roster. With Jay Bouwmeester, Vince Dunn, and Carl Gunnarsson rounding out their top 7 defenders, and Derick Pouliot and Jake Dotchin as depth defenders with NHL experience on the farm, they have some depth, but I wouldn’t call it an embarrassment of riches either.
One thing is very clear though, they are weaker on the left side than they are the right. Meanwhile, the Leafs, with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Travis Dermott on the big club, as well as Rasmus Sandin of the AHL Toronto Marlies largely considered to be a NHL caliber player that isn’t in the NHL, are far deeper on the left side.
That has the makings of a good old fashioned hockey trade if you ask me.
Another need for the Leafs is a backup goaltender, but it looks as if the Blues wouldn’t be able to help there. Behind starter Jordan Binnington they have Jake Allen, who they may be willing to part with, but with a 4.35M cap hit through the 2020-21 season, he’s simply too rich for the Leafs to be able to afford. They also lack any goalies in the system that seem poised to make the jump to the NHL at the moment.
Lastly, the Leafs could use a little more punch to their game. Forwards with the ability to grind and defend are generally lacking, and they don’t really have anybody that can help “keep the flies off” as Mike Babcock once put it.
In fact, it’s looking like the “our powerplay is our toughness” philosophy belonged more to Mike Babcock than anybody else.
This is what GM Kyle Dubas had to say when Ron MacLean asked him about toughness, and some of the big hits his team has sustained over the start of the season, during a first intermission interview last night:
“We want to be a team that… obviously you never want to see that (big hits against his players), we don’t want to be a team where teams come into our building, or we go on the road, and they think they can take free runs at our players, and I’ve heard that throughout the league, that teams feel that way. So we want our guys to be tough as a group and as a team, and if something happens they know that the entire group is gonna be in there. We’ve looked at it every which way, and adding somebody… we’d love to have some of the players that you mention there (Ron mentioned big hits against the Leafs by Shea Weber, Tom Wilson, Brendan Dillon and Justin Abdelkader), a few that are very good players but also bring that physical element. It’s something that we’ll continue to look for but we’re not going to sacrifice the talent base of our skill to bring in an enforcer type. And I think our guys have shown here, as they build their confidence, as we get rolling, they’ve been much better of late at jumping in and helping one another and supporting one another. And that’s really what we want to see, Ron, and I know that’s not going to satiate everybody and we could be proven very wrong on it, but that’s our belief, and we sure hope that our guys will just continue to build on that.” (sic)
Sweet Baby Jesus in his manger, it’s as if he took the words I’ve been saying for years directly from my mouth and spit them out himself.
The Leafs have long been in need of players that can play high end hockey AS WELL as play a physical game.
The question is if the Blues have any of those players to spare in a trade.
If we stick with the idea that the Leafs need right defense then the answer, in short, is no. Robert Bortuzzo could be a good fit. He probably trends a little further towards the “enforcer” type of player, but he plays nearly 3 minutes a night on the penalty kill, so he could help the Leafs a little there. In other words he isn’t exactly a black hole on defense, where plays go to die, but he doesn’t fit the “but we’re not going to sacrifice the talent base of our skill” part of what Dubas was saying either. The most I could say is that he’d be a nice partner for Sandin on the 3rd pair if they wanted to call the youngster up and allow him to feel comfortable to play his game.
Lets scrap that for now.
Obviously Alex Pietrangelo would be a terrific fit. But would the reigning Stanley Cup champions move their captain, mid season, while they sit so high in the standings, simply because he’s on an expiring contract? Call me a skeptic.
Colton Parayko has been playing the left side at times this season, and I think he’d be a great fit on the Leafs. He won’t help the Leafs solve their toughness issues, but he would definitely help them become a bigger team without sacrificing skill. The 6’6″, 230 pound Alberta native is regularly above the 30pt plateau each year. He could slot in next to any of Torontos left defenders and complement them nicely.
We’ll assume they aren’t moving on from Justin Faulk just yet as well.
If you want to consider forwards the Leafs may be interested in as well, and again basing things off of what Kyle Dubas had to say last night, then Ivan Barbashev or Sammy Blais could be targets. Both bring a level of physical play, as well as some skill. Both are young though and seem to fit the general identity of the Blues.
Aside from a possible boost to the left side of their defense it’s worth asking what else the Blues may be interested in.
With Vladimir Tarasenko out for an extended length of time, it could be possible for Armstrong to want to shore up the right wing position for his team. This is something else the Leafs have an abundance of. Even with Mitch Marner on the shelf, the Leafs are deep there right now with William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen as right shot wingers. If new head coach Sheldon Keefe wants to keep Hyman on his natural side then adding Mitch Marner will see that position become very crowded.
For the Blues, adding a right winger only helps them later down the road, when Tarasenko returns, as they’ll want to have the depth for what I’m sure they expect to be another long post season run.
This could be nothing. It could be as simple as some executives taking in a game while they were in town.
It could also be that the teams are looking at a simple swap of depth players, but I’d have to ask why the GM is putting so much effort into a minor deal.
It could be that both teams are looking at something bigger. They have been frequent trade partners the past couple of seasons, with deals for players such as Nikita Soshnikov, Andreas Borgman, Justin Schultz and Dakota Joshua, and pick trades on the draft floor (it was the Blues that traded 2 picks to move up in the draft, which allowed the Leafs to draft Rasmus Sandin), they seem to be comfortable with each other.
So here’s my guess.
The Blues have Jay Bouwmeester and Vince Dunn as left shot defenders on the big club already. They also have Carl Gunnarsson but he has only played 38 games between this season and last year. With Gunnarsson not being considered a top 4 defender, and Jay Bouwmeester on a one year deal at 36 years old, they may look to help themselves now and in the future at that position. On top of that they currently have Tyler Bozak, a natural center, playing right wing, so adding a winger and allowing him to move back to the middle might be in the plans.
While a lot of Leafs fans would hate the idea, Travis Dermott could be a very good fit for St. Louis. He’s a mobile defender with a bright future, and considering the Leafs may want to re-sign Jake Muzzin and have Rasmus Sandin ready to jump into the fray, he may be a chip they’re willing to part with for the right return. The only hiccup here is the cap. As many are aware, Kyle Dubas has painted himself into a corner by signing his young core to big dollar contracts, so a deal that revolved around Travis Dermott and any winger on the team not named Mitch Marner or William Nylander, would mean taking on more cap dollars. The Leafs simply can’t do that. In order for this deal to go through the Leafs would have to make a 2nd deal to shed salary, or attach a player with a hefty contract (Ceci, Muzzin or Barrie). Basically the deal would expand to a point where it could easily fall apart.
With that said Jake Muzzin would also make a lot of sense for the Blues. If Armstrong believes he can re-sign him and Pietrangelo, then he could be willing to make the move. The Leafs would get on board of course, if Parayko is, in fact, the target, as Parayko has more value long term, and has some cost certainty for the next couple of years.
Lastly, my assumptions could be way off. Armstrong may simply regret his acquisition of Justin Faulk, and it could be him that the Leafs are looking at. Or he could be ready to move on from his captain if he feels the team is actually being lead by somebody else.
Either way, at the end of the day there is no clear answer as to who might be on the move. That’s what makes this rumour so much fun. The discussion can last for hours and never end up anywhere.
So let the dreams of Pietrangelo or Parayko dance through your head Leafs Nation. Either one would be ideal for the Leafs, and they have the trade chips to make a move.
The question is, do they have the guts to offer it up?