Toronto Maple Leafs actively pursuing blue line upgrade

John Lilley, Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
John Lilley, Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are reportedly searching extensively to find a right-shot defenceman by the upcoming Feb. 25 trade deadline.

No matter how excellent Frederik Andersen has been this season — and he’s been fantastic — there is still only so much he can do. While the Toronto Maple Leafs enter Sunday’s slate of games tied for the fourth-fewest goals allowed, this is slightly misleading; the blue line is still the weakest aspect on the roster.

With this in mind, the latest report from Sportsnet will come as no surprise, with the Leafs apparently actively searching for an upgrade in defence. More specifically, they’re pursuing a top four right-shot defenceman.

The speculation came courtesy of Nick Kypreos, during Saturday’s Headlines segment on Hockey Night in Canada. Kypreos said:

"“Certainly the Leafs are looking for one. In terms of what they’re looking for, the problem is if you’re going to go after a top four — and we mentioned (Alex) Pietrangelo months ago, and it’s debatable whether he’s still available but they are perhaps, the St. Louis Blues, two or three or four-game losing streaks away from making him available — they’re expensive. Extremely expensive.”"

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With this in mind, it is understandable why the Leafs are apparently prepared to include a top draft pick in any potential package. As we reported a few days ago, the team’s 2019 first round draft pick is in play, in order to secure a blue line upgrade by the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

The Leafs are going to need to offer more though, given what they’re looking for. One or more of their prospects would certainly help. (Timothy Liljegren and Jeremy Bracco are two of the players who have been mentioned.)

However, even this will arguably not be enough. Someone from the current roster might also need to be included.

In this respect, one name which has been brought up recently is Jake Gardiner, who is in a contract year and receiving a lot of negativity from the fan base. However, as we’ve already noted, the Leafs’ preference is to attempt to re-sign him.

(From out perspective, we would attempt to trade Gardiner, and not just because a fresh start might be the best move for him. With the Toronto Maple Leafs’ pending salary cap issues for next season, combined with how much the 28-year-old will likely be demanding — he’s making $4.05 million this season and will want a payrise  — they probably won’t be able to afford to keep him anyway.)

Interestingly, another possibility is Nikita Zaitsev, who has been referenced by Sportsnet‘s Chris Johnston. The Moscow native’s name came up, while Johnston was making an appearance on Wednesday, on Sportsnet 590.

Apparently, there are a number of teams who are interested in acquiring Zaitsev. However, there are a couple of issues from out perspective.

The first is that Zaitsev is one of the Leafs’ top four blue liners and a right-shot defenceman, i.e. the type of player they’re already looking for. Would addition by subtraction really work in this case, especially with what he has meant during his three seasons in Toronto, as a durable, consistent and quality player.

The second issue is the 27-year-old’s contract. After this season, he still has four years remaining on his current deal, which comes with an annual cap hit of $4.5 million.

In addition, even if the Leafs did manage to include Zaitsev in any trade, it still wouldn’t help their salary cap situation. In fact, given what the team is looking for, anyone coming in would probably include a cap hit on a par — at least — with the Russian international.

Overall, Leafs fans can only hope the team finds a way to strengthen their blue line for the stretch run and the playoffs. It should all make for an interesting few weeks, in the lead up to the trade deadline.

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How confident are you that the Toronto Maple Leafs will upgrade their blue line by the trade deadline? Is there anyone in particular (realistically) you would like to see them pursue? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.