Leafs Need Help On Defence

It is no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs need to improve their blueline if they have aspirations for a deep playoff run. In fact, it may be a necessity to even keep their playoff spot. The team currently has one of the leagues best defence pairs playing this season in Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe. McCabe leads NHL defencemen in points and Kaberle is also among the top 10. The two blueliners are also one and two in ice time. They have carried the load and then some for the Leafs.

Though the rest of the defence has been adequate, the dropoff from McCabe and Kaberle is significant. Often this season we have seen the likes of Ken Klee, Aki Berg, Alex Khavanov, Staffan Kronvall, Wade Belak and Carlo Coliacovo be exposed at some point. The game plan that has worked for opponents is to wear down the top pair and roll their top players against the Leafs weaker D. It has worked. How many times have we seen one of the rookies or the likes or Berg or Belak against the opposing teams best players?

Klee has been steady at times, but has looked slow many other times and teams are starting to take advantage of that. Khavanov has been physically punished game after game and it has started to show in his play. Berg has been much better playing with a pair of rookies than he was with Wade Belak. That may have been the best move by the team all year by ending the Belak as a blueliner experiment. Kronwall and Coliacovo have proven that they are NHL calibre but still, are rookies with plenty to learn.

Despite the fact that McCabe and Kaberle are out there for half the game, they simply cannot do everything. Though the two enjoy the big ice time, it remains to be seen how much left they will have in the tank towards the end of the year.

This is why I think it is pressing for the Leafs to get something done to improve their defence.

However there are a few obstacles standing in the way of the Leafs.

1. Cap Room

The Leafs are one of the teams that is close to the cap maximum. The team probably has about $2-3 million in room. That includes the assumption that Jason Allison meets his bonuses. The Leafs must leave as much room as possible under the cap in order to cover themselves in case of injury. And since the team has many players who are injury risks, it may be more important to them then other teams to keep cap space right up to the trade deadline. Not only is Toronto interested in keeping the dollars down, but also staying away from the older players with long term deals. I have to believe the team wants to keep as much cap room next summer as possible in order to be more active in the free agent market. This is especially true because the age of free agency is declining beginning next year. The thing is, can the Leafs afford to wait that long to fill such an important need?

2. Abled Assets to Trade

GM John Ferguson will have to do quite the juggling act to get the help he needs without hurting team chemistry and stripping the team of all of it’s youth as in past regimes. There is few players if any in the Leafs organization outside their parent roster that have any value at all to other teams. Really besides top pick Tukka Rask and some high draft picks, the Leafs have little to offer. The Leafs could very well offer Coliacovo in any deal however the question is, is it worth giving up a cheaper young player for a rent a player? or a player in their 30s with more than 1 year left on their current contract? We always seem to hear the usual names on the block such as the likes of Berg, Nik Antropov, Alex Ponikarovsky. The problem is that how much of an improvement would they bring? Another 5-6 defencemen which they have an abundance of? And since Antropov and Ponikarovsky are young, cheap players who are doing OK, it may be best served to keep them. When you think about it, the Leaf forwards have done an fine job and though slow, they are fairly deep and decent enough to compete with any team. But if the team moves a higher profile player like a Tucker or an Allison, it will weaken one area but strengthen another. Like I said, it’s a tough balancing act for JFJ to handle. It hurts the team significantly not having a real deep farm system to afford to move assets.

3. Too Much Demand, Not Enough Supply

Like I said, the Leafs needs help on D. There is no question about that. However, there are 29 other teams that could use some help as well. Even the Ottawa Senators would probably like to add another blueliner for the playoffs. It isnt because they are not good enough. I feel Ottawa has the league’s best D. however if an injury or injuries hit, they could be in trouble. I think they would love to add an experienced 7th defenceman to the team for depth purposes. You can never have enough defencemen on your roster. So the competition for available blueliners, if any, will be fierce. Because of point number two listed above, it is very likely the Leafs would be outbid on any of the better defencemen available on the trade market. It may result in the team standing pat and hoping for the best. That would be the worst case scenario especially if the Leafs are in a playoff spot. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and it would be best to give your team the best chance to win.

So who could the Leafs target? Almost every team is still in the running for a playoff spot as they are only about 30 games in. But here are some possibilities:

Keith Carney or Ruslan Salei – the Ducks have made things pretty clear that the team is looking to free up some cap space. this is why the team rid themselves of Fedorov. Both of these blueliners will be free agents next summer and are not likely to be in the team’s long term plans. They are both mobile and can move the put but they earn their stripes with strong play in their own end. I think Toronto would have to part with one of their two fine young blueliners whether it be Kronwall or Coliacovo. I think Anaheim is first going to look to move Sandis Ozolinsh and try to piggyback Petr Sykora in any deal involving one of their D. Ozolinsh is on a multi year deal which may be near impossible to move. And he would not at all solve the Leafs defensive woes.

Jordan Leopold – With the emergence of Dion Phaneuf, Leopold has seen his production drop significantly. perhaps it may be his concussion history that has also affected his play. Either way, Leopold may become expendable as Calgary may feel the need to add more scoring support for Jarome Iginla. Leopold is a fine puck moving blueliner who is young and comes relatively cheap. I believe the first name that Darryl Sutter is going to mention in return is Darcy Tucker. If that were the case, I think the Leafs and Flames could probably put together a multi player deal. I am sure the Flames would want a Dman in return for depth and the Leafs probably would be interested in a forward or two for their depth. It would be very difficult for JFJ to part with Tucker I am sure but he just might be the most marketable player on the Leaf roster.

Jassen Cullimore – Cullimore has not lived up to standards after signing a big multi-year deal with the Hawks. With the emergence of some of their young blueliners like Brent Seabrook, perhaps to free up cash, they could dump Cullimore. I think he would help Toronto as he is fairly mobile and has good size and takes care of his own end. However these are the types of players I think Toronto should stay away from. Those locked in longer term deals while in their 30s. It would be a risky proposition however it would also probably cost Toronto little in terms of trade.

Bob Boughner and/or Kurt Sauer – These two are riding the pine in Colorado. They were beaten out of a job by Brent Clark which either says alot about Clark or proves how far players like Boughner and Sauer have fallen. It will cost Toronto little to acquire any one of those players. and since they are both making under 1 million, it wont break the bank either. However how much a help would a couple of 7th defencemen be? I think Toronto would be better off letting the kids play than waste a spot with a journeyman who would offer little impact. They also probably would have kept Bryan Marchment if they were interested in this type of player.

Steve Staios – This guy is an underrated player. He can move the puck and provide some offence, yet he has alot of grit and heart making him tough in his own end. I am really not sure if the Oilers would move him or not but if they did, there would be alot of teams interested. Staois is one of those players that winning teams always seem to have. Kind of like Darryl Sydor in both Tampa and Dallas, or Shawn Chambers in Dallas and New Jersey. They never hurt their team and always seem to do the little things all over the ice. It is hard to place a value on a player like that because the team that has thing values these players greatly. I think if Staios were to be moved, he would be part of a big package to bring Edmonton a high profile scorer or goaltending help.

Willie Mitchell – If Toronto wanted to quietly add an effective defensive defenceman who gets the job done, can log big minutes and can go up against top forwards night anfter night with no glory, then Mitchell would be their man. Toronto could definitely offer a package starting with Coliacovo to get a guy like Mitchell. He is still young, plays hard and would be a great fit to the team in need of defensive stability. He is also a well schooled player with lots of smarts. I think Toronto needs more of that from their defence. If I had a choice, Mitchell would actually be my first choice for Toronto to try and get.

Eric Brewer or Eric Weinrich – Brewer has fallen on hard times in St Louis. He has game but simply is not the sum of his parts just yet. He can skate, he is big and strong, he can move the puck and QB the powerplay, he can play physical in his own end. He loves joining the rush. But he simply teases scouts with his talents and some nights just isnt around. In St Louis this year he hasnt been around at all either with shoddy play or being hurt. He would be someone I think Pat Quinn would favor in acquiring. He has played for Quinn internationally and I think Quinn feels he could help Brewer turn the corner to become a more complete player. Kind of like how McCabe has been much improved from his years in Chicago, Vancouver and Long Island. It also works to Toronto’s advantage that JFJ has ties with the Blues and is very familiar with how their management operates.

As for Weinrich, he is a solid veteran who could really help depth wise. I think he would be instantly the Leafs 3rd best Dman. He could run the 2nd powerplay yet also be their for the PK. I think because of his age, him being a free agent next summer, there would be many teams who would be looking for exactly this kind of player at the trade deadline. I think he would be a fine addition to Toronto as a rent a player provided that the price to acquire him is reasonable.

Well there is just a few names that Toronto could look into. You will notice that none of them play in the Eastern Conference. I just feel that teams wont trade within the conference anymore with the schedule like it is, loaded with division and conference matchups. There are several attractive players in the East who could be available such as Brendan Witt, Janne Niinimaa, Richard Matvichuk, Jay Bouwmeester, Sean Hill. But I dont think it is likely that those teams that own these players will trade them within the conference. I think it would take a pretty big package to have that happen. But who knows, there are plenty of Mad Mikes within the East that could really shake things up.

We will have to wait and see what happens. I think the next 10-15 games are going to be huge for Toronto as that will really decide what direction they go. If they are winning alot and playing well, they could probably wait until March, but if the defensive woes continue, JFJ may need to do something to shake things up. Hockey interest is great nowadays, so why not a few trades to spice things up some more.