The Toronto Maple Leafs just acquired Jake Muzzin from the Los Angles Kings, but it may not work out the way everyone is hoping. Muzzin is a left-handed defenceman with limited time spent on the right side. He’s going to play there anyway, or Morgan Rielly will, but there’s no guarantee either will be at their best on his off side. If the Maple Leafs could trade Jake Gardiner for a right-handed defenceman, their blue line could be about as formidable as any team’s.
Toronto Maple Leafs Could Trade Jake Gardiner
He’ll Be A UFA
Jake Gardiner is heading to unrestricted free agency this off-season, and there’s little chance of being able to re-sign him. It’s not that the team wouldn’t want to, but he’ll command somewhere between six and seven million per season. With Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner contracts looming, the Maple Leafs don’t have the cap room for Gardiner. Especially not with Muzzin’s four million added to the roster for next season.
That doesn’t mean the team should trade him for futures. They have a chance to go deep in this year’s playoffs. Even with the Tampa Bay Lightning waiting for them in the first or second round. Kyle Dubas wouldn’t trade Jake Gardiner for futures, but what if he could turn him into a right-handed defenceman with a couple of shrewd trades?
Too Many Lefties
Toronto has Rielly, Muzzin, Gardiner, and Travis Dermott on the left side. They have Ron Hainsey, who is also a lefty but plays his off side, Nikita Zaitsev, and Igor Ozhiganov on the right side. If Muzzin, or Rielly, can comfortably move to the right side, then maybe all the Maple Leafs need is a little more depth. If neither Rielly or Muzzin work out on the right side, then adding Muzzin really doesn’t help the team significantly. It will probably work out in some way of course. It’s not likely Muzzin or Rielly won’t perform well on the right side, but what if Muzzin could take the place of second pair defenceman on the left side and Rielly could pair up with Gardiner’s right side equivalent.
There are a few options out there. Brett Pesce is a name that’s been commonly tied to the Maple Leafs. Dougie Hamilton may be a better fit, but he may also be too expensive. If we use Pesce as an example of a player the Maple Leafs might target, the first observation that comes to mind is the Carolina Hurricanes would never take Gardiner for Pesce. They wouldn’t take any pending UFA in return. Carolina wants a roster player and more specifically a forward. They’re going to want someone under contract as well. Since they have little chance of making the playoffs this year. That’s another reason they won’t want Jake Gardiner.
Defencemen are an expensive commodity. The Maple Leafs are going to have to pay to get Pesce or the equivalent player.
If defencemen are selling for a premium, then that includes Jake Gardiner. That means the Maple Leafs should be able to get something significant back for him. However, they’ll need the right trade partner. They need to find someone looking to fill a defensive void, specifically one on the left side. There aren’t a lot of teams that meet those criteria, but there are some. Whomever Toronto trades with would also need to be looking for a playoff rental as well. There’s a chance someone would re-sign Gardiner, but it’s a risk. That further reduces the numbers of teams that may be interested.
One team that comes to mind is the Winnipeg Jets. They’re a team that’s strong on the right side, and less so on the left. They might not be willing to offer the Maple Leafs enough that could be flipped to Carolina for Pesce, but it could get Toronto most of the way there. The Maple Leafs don’t need to trade Gardiner for enough of a return that would match whatever they send for a player like Pesce. They have enough organizational depth to add to the Gardiner return to make a team like Carolina interested.
There’s A Lot To Line Up
A lot of things need to go the Maple Leafs way for them to turn Gardiner into the equivalent right side defenceman.
They need to find a partner interested in Gardiner, and they need to find an available defenseman to trade for. The return for Gardiner needs to be close to the ask for that available defenceman. It has to happen all at once too. They can’t trade Gardiner and then have the second trade fall through.
A three-way trade with Winnipeg and Carolina specifically may not work out. Carolina reportedly wants a roster player, a scoring forward. The Jets do have that in abundance, but are they willing to part with any? Much like the Maple Leafs, Winnipeg is looking ahead to a long spring. They’re not going to want to part with roster players. Toronto didn’t give up a roster player to acquire Muzzin. Whoever trades a right-handed defenceman to the Maple Leafs is going to have to settle for futures in return. That’s not a stretch. It may even be something Carolina is okay with. Typically, teams outside the playoffs looking in at the trade deadline are looking for futures anyway.
It’s Not Necessary To Trade Gardiner
Ideally, Toronto enters the playoffs with a top-four defence crew all playing their preferred sides. If not, well Muzzin and Rielly are both excellent defencemen. One or both of them are going to be able to switch to the right side without losing too much of their game. It’s a common topic now but is used to be that no one paid attention to which side a defenceman was on, or at least it wasn’t a considerable detriment to play on the off side.
The Maple Leafs may still be able to beef up the right side while keeping Gardiner too. They may have to lower their expectations a bit, but finding depth to give Hainsey a break or move Zaitsev down the lineup, or both, is still possible. The trouble there is that they’re up against the cap wall now, or at least they will be if Matthews hits his bonuses. They’re allowed to go over the cap this year on those bonuses, but it will eat into next year’s cap space.
Next year, they’re going to need all the cap space they can get. Dubas isn’t going to want to push the Leafs to the cap’s maximum this season. If they managed to find a way out of Zaitsev’s contract, they could use that space to add a better player to fill his role, but that will be a challenge. That’s why trading Gardiner may be a fit.
Not only are you trading what could be a valuable asset to another team and likely getting a solid return, but you’re also freeing up cap space for the addition of another top-four defenceman. It might not improve the roster dramatically, but for those who really think defenceman can only play one side, it’s an option.