The warning signs were there before the 2023-24 Toronto Maple Leafs took the ice.
They said goodbye to Luke Schenn, their best defenseman in the 2023 playoffs, and Ryan O’Reilly, one of the top defensive forwards of his generation, in free agency. Alex Kerfoot, one of their key penalty killers, walked as well. As new GM Brad Treliving turned over Toronto’s roster, he added multiple players known for their struggles in their own end, including defenseman John Klingberg and forwards Max Domi and Ryan Reaves.
It thus should not have come as a surprise to see the Leafs sink to the bottom half of the NHL in shots, shot attempts and scoring chances allowed per 60 at 5-on-5 while icing the league’s 18th-best penalty kill this season. This team was constructed to win (and lose) track meets. The 1994-95 New Jersey Devils they ain’t. So as Treliving embarks on his quest to find at least one defenseman, having spoken openly this week about the need to make a move, it’s hardly a “How did we get here?” situation. The Leafs were already there going into the season.
With Klingberg battling a hip injury and heading to long-term injured reserve, $4.15 million in cap space comes off the books – and that might be lasting cap space given Klingberg is no lock to return at any point this season. Treliving now has the wiggle room to pursue an impactful defense-oriented blueliner – perhaps even two, if he can make the money work. Upping the urgency even more: Tuesday night’s Mark Giordano injury.
Which veteran defenseman makes the most sense for the Leafs? Consider these names, ranked by a combination of hockey fit and how plausible they are as targets.
1. Chris Tanev, Calgary Flames
Contract: $4.5 million, 2024 UFA
(10-team no-trade list)
He had to be No. 1 here. It was Treliving who signed Tanev to a four-year deal, now in its final season, in 2020 when Treliving was GM in Calgary. Tanev has the exact game Toronto seeks. He’s not a pure intimidator, but he’s a modern, mobile defensive defenseman who plays with little regard for his own safety, blocking shots at will. Only four players league-wide have more blocks over the past five seasons. Over that same span, Tanev ranks among the league leaders in shorthanded minutes per game. The previous three seasons, he had one of the best on-ice scoring chance differentials in the league at 5-on-5 despite handling tough matchups. To top it off: he’s a right shot and thus a direct replacement for the injured Klingberg and Timothy Liljegren.
Tanev does have a 10-team no-trade list, but (a) he has played his entire career in high-pressure Canadian markets, meaning Toronto isn’t too likely to scare him off and (b) he’s from Toronto. So it’s tough to imagine the Leafs being one of his vetoed destinations. Tanev did exit a game earlier this week after taking a puck to the face, but he’s not expected to miss much if any time.
2. Andrew Peeke, Columbus Blue Jackets
Contract: $2.75 million through 2025-26
It feels like Peeke has been around forever, but he’s just 25, hailing from the same draft class as Charlie McAvoy. Peeke plays a meat-and-potatoes game in a 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame. He’s not someone you count on for offense. But he’s very physical. The Leafs could certainly use a blunt instrument like him. And the acquisition cost wouldn’t be too prohibitive; after he logged more than 21 minutes a game last season, he’s been squeezed out by the upgraded D-corps in Columbus, playing just 14:55 and only suiting up four times this season. He’s pretty clearly expendable for GM Jarmo Kekalainen. The Leafs could comfortably accommodate his cap number, too, even if the Blue Jackets didn’t retain any salary.
The underlying numbers for Peeke have been pretty ugly in his career, but they’ve come while playing on some bad Columbus teams. He’s also been used in difficult assignments against opponents’ top forwards. His most commonly faced opponents over the previous three seasons were Sidney Crosby’s line and Alex Ovechkin’s line. So Peeke might fare better on a stronger team in a third-pair deployment.
3. Alexandre Carrier, Nashville Predators
Contract: $2.5 million, 2024 UFA
Carrier had serious juice just two years ago. He piled up 30 points in 77 games in his first full NHL season, making the All-Rookie Team and finishing 10th in the Calder Trophy vote. He seemed to be emerging as one of the better young two-way defenders in the game. But he struggled to meet elevated expectations last season and suffered a pair of injuries, one of which came in an ill-advised fight against the towering Logan Stanley, and was limited to just 43 games. At this stage, Carrier feels like more of an unpredictable commodity. Could he get his career back on track with the right team?
As an undersized defender who can move and does a bit of everything effectively when he’s at his best, he could turn into a T.J. Brodie type. But the Leafs would be unwise to pay a sure-thing price for Carrier, especially given his contract expires after this season.
4. Nikita Zadorov, Calgary Flames
Contract: $3.75 million, 2024 UFA
Zadorov stands out along with teammate Tanev as the other obvious trade target tabled by many a fan and pundit – and, apparently, by a Leaf player who reportedly told Zadorov he’s exactly what the Leafs need after they took on the Flames earlier this month. It’s worth noting Zadorov, Mitch Marner and Max Domi were teammates on the OHL’s London Knights a decade ago.
Zadorov certainly meets a lot of the Leafs’ presumed criteria. He’s a massive 6-foot-6 and 248 pounds. He’s a punishing hitter. He moves well for a man his size. He can kill penalties with that rangy wingspan of his. On the other hand, because he has such a unique set of physical tools, there should be plenty of competition for his services, driving up the price. He also struggles to stay out of the penalty box. Over the past three seasons, among NHL blueliners with at least 100 games played, he takes the 10th most penalties per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. It’s hard to assist the PK if you’re the one in the box.
5. Will Borgen, Seattle Kraken
Contract: $2.75 million through 2024-25
Borgen doesn’t play a ton of minutes on a deep Seattle blueline, but he’s a bludgeoning force when he’s out there, cracking the 92nd percentile among all NHL defensemen in hits per 60 since being claimed by Seattle in the 2021 expansion draft. He plays a simple, unselfish defense-first game and kills penalties, albeit not on Seattle’s No. 1 unit. And despite his relatively small ice time share, he’s accustomed to taking on elite players in his assignments. He also qualifies as a two-year rental carrying a reasonable cap hit of $2.75 million. He might not be as exciting as a few of the bigger-name options out there, but Borgen could be a low-key steal.
That said: the Kraken intended to be competitive this season after coming within one victory of the Western Conference Final last spring. Despite their sluggish start to 2023-24, they’re one point back of the No. 2 Wildcard spot in the West. Would it actually make sense to trade Borgen, who is currently playing in their top four alongside Jamie Oleksiak?
6. Mario Ferraro, San Jose Sharks
Contract: $3.25 million through 2025-26
Ferraro is one of those players who makes you double-take when you look up his bio. He’s only six-foot – and listed at 5-foot-11 in some places. But he plays bigger than that. He’s willing to get his nose dirty. He has quietly munched major minutes on the floundering Sharks in recent seasons, more the result of being pushed up the depth chart on a bad team than earning true top-pair status on merit. He could handle a second- or third-pairing role on a contender. He’s similar to Jake McCabe last season in that he’s a rugged blueliner who hasn’t been tested much in high-stakes games because he’s been stuck on bad teams. Ferraro has yet to play an NHL postseason game, just like McCabe when the Leafs acquired him last season.
Ferraro carries a $3.25 million cap hit for two more seasons after this one. Is that a bug or a feature? It’s debatable.
7. Travis Sanheim, Philadelphia Flyers
Contract: $6.25 million through 2030-31
(Full no-trade clause through 2027-28)
For fun, let’s throw an ambitious target onto this list in Sanheim. He feels like more of an off-season option given he carries a cap hit north of $6 million AND a full no-trade clause and is in Year 1 of an eight-year extension. An acquisition this complicated isn’t easy to execute mid-season. The Leafs would have to pay up with a package including major draft capital and prospects. Sanheim would also have to waive his NTC. And there’s no way the Flyers would retain salary on someone with seven years left on his deal after this season.
Still, if the Leafs decide they have to do something drastic to change their team makeup? Sanheim would change the identity of their D-corps with his well-rounded, all-situations game and ability to play massive amounts of minutes. Treliving is no stranger to bold trades, either.
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