A quiet trade deadline has led to low-grade outrage in Leafs Nation. Many fans believe the Toronto Maple Leafs defence needs an upgrade. And they’re not wrong. But that doesn’t mean the Lou Lamoriello and the Leafs didn’t make the right decisions last week. The defence does need an upgrade, but not necessarily right now, and not at the going prices.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Defence Will Be Fine
What The Leafs Did
The Leafs made one trade the day before the deadline and none on deadline day itself. On February 25th, the Leafs acquired Tomas Plekanec for a second round pick and a couple of middling prospects. Plekanec brings centre depth to a team that really needs it despite having Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri. He potentially brings a lot more than that.
Plekanec has had a Corsi For percentage above 50 for the past three years. Including a 51.4 percentage this season between the Montreal Canadians and the Leafs. In his two games with the Leafs so far, he has a relative Corsi For Percentage of +4.5. It’s a small sample size, but that’s good for third best on the team. He’s also starting in the defensive zone 80 percent of the time through two games with the Leafs.
Depth, especially at centre, is important in the playoffs, no doubt. But the Leafs have a troubling trend of blowing third-period leads over the past couple of seasons. Plekanec was brought in to help stop that. There’s no reason to think he won’t improve the Leafs defensively. It’s area of weakness they acknowledged and addressed for a very reasonable price.
Plekanec Is Not Enough
It was logical to think the Leafs were going to make more moves, possibly a major move, on February 26th after the trade with Montreal. The reasoning being that the Leafs could do one of two things. They could address areas of weakness, centre depth but more importantly the defence. Or they could trade their UFAs for a small fortune of picks and prospects. Once they traded for Plekanec, the path was clear. They’re going for it. Except they didn’t add a defenseman at all. Not even a depth blueliner.
Why give up any prospects or picks if the biggest problem with the team wasn’t going to be addressed? Plekanec is not enough to make the Leafs favourites over the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning, their most probable first two opponents in the playoffs. The Leafs needed to add a player like Ryan McDonagh. Not only did the Leafs not land McDonagh, the Lightning picked him up, making them even more formidable.
The Leafs tried to acquire a defenseman. McDonough was too expensive, the New York Rangers wanted Timothy Liljegren in return. Mike Green wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause to come to Toronto. Chris Tanev is injured and not worth the risk. And take your pick as to why the Leafs didn’t trade for Erik Karlsson. There simply wasn’t a deal the Leafs were comfortable making.
What’s The Shannaplan?
Thinking the Leafs should have broken the bank for McDonagh is short-sighted thinking. There is a school of thought that says if you have a chance, go for it. You may not get another one. That is not how the current regime thinks. It’s easy to forgive Leaf fans for their insistence that the Leafs should have gone for broke this year. Patience is not something familiar to most former Leaf general managers. Leafs fans know crazy trades. Remember the classic “Draft Schmaft” comment? Cliff Fletcher did good things for the Leafs overall, helping them get to conference finals, but they won zero Cups.
Sure the Leafs want to win now. They won’t sacrifice the future to do it. This team is young, and there are a lot of pieces in place for years to come. The goal isn’t to get close, beef up at the trade deadline for a shot at the Stanley Cup, then retool for another run. The goal is to be a contender every year. They’re not there yet. They’re not supposed to be there yet.
If the team can get a taste of winning in this year’s playoffs, something Plekanec can help with, they’ll be taking a step forward. They want this team to learn how to win. That doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s also a bit of bad luck that with the current playoff format the Leafs need to play two of the top five teams in the NHL in the first two rounds. The Leafs currently sit in third place in the conference and need to play the first and second place teams to make the conference finals. That means one of the top three teams in the conference will be out in the first round. Next year could be a different story entirely. They can’t make decisions based on this year’s first-round matchup. Not while they’re still in a growth phase.
Eventually, They’ll Need A Top Four Addition
For the right price, McDonagh would have been a great pick up. One reason the team didn’t up their offer is that he is a left-handed shot, something the Leafs already have in abundance in Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Travis Dermott. They need someone with a right-handed shot in the top four. There wasn’t one available this year. There will be eventually before the Leafs window of opportunity starts closing.
Internally, that could be Liljegren in a couple years. They may get lucky in free agency in the next year or two. Or they could still trade for a top-four defenseman. When the team is already considered a contender without an addition, not out of desperation. That could be as close as next year.
This Year’s Playoffs
The defence they have is not that bad. They’ve already improved it with the addition of Dermott, who will gain valuable playoff experience this year. And the team is built to score their way out of trouble. It’s hard to see them making the conference finals, but stranger things have happened and it doesn’t mean that can’t win a round.
If they do lose in the first round, it’s not a wasted season. Fans don’t want to wait another year for the next chance. Fans are supposed to be greedy. Management needs to think long-term, which is exactly what they are doing.
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