Toronto Maple Leafs biggest need ahead of trade deadline

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: (L-R) Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs attend the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: (L-R) Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs attend the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not expected to be big players at the trade deadline but there are areas where they can improve but what is the most pressing need?

Not too long ago, Mike Babcock made it known to reporters that if the Toronto Maple Leafs wanted Lou Lamoriello to bring in some help at the trade deadline, they have to show it with their play.

That was back on January 28 and since then the team is tied with the Boston Bruins atop of the league in wins (six) and points (12) in seven games.

They have also given up 16 goals over that stretch while scoring 29 goals (fourth-best in the league in both categories). Safe to say the team has heard their coach’s message loud and clear.

While it might not completely change management’s approach at the deadline, the team’s play has kept the possibility open. The question is what is the biggest need at the trade deadline?

Many will point to the blueline and that still remains a concern after the Leafs could not hold a three goal lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning even though they came away with the win. The addition of Travis Dermott has acted like a mid-season acquisition, but the right side is still an area of need.

Thin blueline market makes trade decisions tough

The issue right is that the trade market does not have attractive options for the Leafs to consider. The top ranked defenceman on TSN’s trade bait list is Mike Green, who is a pending free agent and will command a hefty rental price tag.

The only benefit the Leafs would get from acquiring the 32-year old is the impact he can have on the powerplay but his impact would not be anywhere close to what it was in past years.

Andrew Berkshire looked into what Green could do for a Stanley Cup contender back for Sportsnet. Berkshire points out that Green’s ability to generate offence through his strong puck moving and playmaking on the powerplay are near the top in the league.

This would help the Leafs on the man advantage which is ranked 15th in the NHL. However, part of the team’s struggles to produce on the powerplay can be linked to only having 161 opportunities this season which is 29th in the league.

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The Leafs defencemen are at their best when they use their skating to dictate the pace. Where they struggle is positioning in the defensive zone that allows the opposition to set up the cycle with limited pressure to break it up.

Since Jan. 28, none of the Leafs top four defencemen have positive possession numbers and on the season; only Morgan Rielly, Dermott, Connor Carrick and Andreas Borgman are above 50 percent possession.

The issue is that the Leafs are also in need of a defenceman that brings stability in his own end in, preferably in a top four role so that a player like Ron Hainsey can be pushed down to play less minutes at even strength since he plays a lot on the penalty kill.

This is why rumours surrounding Erik Gudbranson and the Leafs have been pushed out more. Berkshire also looked at whether the 26-year old fills the Leafs need on the right side. Despite having the reputation as a stay-at-home defenceman, what Gudbranson brings is not something the Leafs need.

Here is how Berkshire breaks down the Leafs defensive struggles:

"The Maple Leafs rank 29th in transition plays by defencemen, 31st in completed offensive zone passes, 29th in offensive zone loose puck recoveries, 28th in completed neutral zone passes, and 31st in completed outlet passes.The outlet pass issue is a big one, as that’s the main way teams organize zone exits in the NHL, however it seems to be a systemic choice, because while 31st in completed outlet passes, the Leafs are second in completed stretch passes. What’s odd is that they also have the worst stretch pass completion rate in the NHL, so they’re attempting those at an absurd rate. It’s an odd, risky choice."

While Gudbranson will not make a drastic improvement to the Leafs transition game, he would bring a much-needed upgrade to what they get from Roman Polak. So Babcock could still have his bruising defenceman and Leafs fans would get an improvement to the bottom six pairing but that is all they get from Gudbranson.

The issue becomes the price to acquire a defenceman like Gudbranson, the Vancouver Canucks understand that the market has a deficiency in right-handed defenders so that allows them to drive the price up. If the Leafs are going to pay a high price for a defenceman from the Cauncks it would be for Chris Tanev not Gudbranson.

At the same time there was the rumour surrounding the Leafs being interested in Tyson Barrie, who has term left on his contract at $5.5 million for the next two seasons.

That would be a tougher deal to pull off in season as the Colorado Avalanche would want to try and push for a Wild Card berth in the Western Conference. The Leafs would be getting a defenceman who has dynamic offensive ability with 31 points in 41 games this season.

If he were to continue at that pace the 26-year old would have 51 points in 68 games which would be two points off his career high of 53 points which he had during the 2014-15 season in 80 games.

Again if the Leafs are looking for a more physical presence in the defensive zone along with mobility, Barrie does not check off those boxes.

Hunting for an upgrade at centre

The other area that management will try to look for an upgrade at is down the middle which like defenceman are a hot commodity on the trade market.

None of the top 10 players on TSN’s trade bait list are centres and that’s because teams are not making them readily available. As more teams become sellers than the Leafs could take advantage of more players becoming available like they did when Brian Boyle became available.

Recently Seravalli added Boone Jenner‘s name to his trade bait list which is an intriguing possibility for the Leafs because of the potential that Jenner can provide. The 24-year old has struggled offensively this season with five goals and 16 points in 49 games after putting up 30 goals in 2015-16 and 28 goals in 2016-17.

He is primary used in defensive situations and has the versatility to play both centre and on the wing. If the Leafs can find a way to buy low on Jenner and hope that a change of scenery sparks a turnaround, then he could be a good candidate to take over for Tyler Bozak if he is not brought back.

Another player that could be of interest is Winnipeg Jets’ centre Nic Petan, who Seravalli believes the Jets could offload in order to acquire a winger that fits in their top six. The Leafs have wingers available but would the Jets move the 22-year-old for a package including wingers like Josh Leivo or Nikita Soshnikov.

Petan has 41 points in 39 games in the AHL but has only played 10 games in the NHL this season with one goal. If the Leafs acquire him and the fit is not ideal, he can be sent down without having to clear waivers so that would help solve the roster crunch.

If the Leafs are looking for just a rental options, then there are options like Mark Letestu, and Derek Ryan who would bump Dominic Moore on the fourth line.

While most teams will be looking for draft picks to get a deal done at the deadline, the Leafs would want a couple of contracts to be sent the other way in a trade because they are at the limit of 50. The obvious ones that would be ideal to move are Leivo, Soshnikov or Matt Martin with limited to no space on the roster.

While it might be easier to find a centre, the Leafs would be better off focusing on their blueline first then take a run at finding a centre that fits the roster.

Next: Maple Leafs show their maturity in victory over Lightning

Which position should be the priority for the Leafs at the trade deadline? Who would be the ideal target? Let us know in the comments below.