Three valuable trade targets for the Maple Leafs blue line – TheLeafsNation

In today’s trade episode for a top-four defenseman, we’ll talk about some lesser-known options that may be available to the Toronto Maple Leafs at this year’s trade deadline. All-Star weekend and Kyle Dubas’ press conference last Sunday revealed a lot of what the team is looking to do with the rest of the regular season and trade deadline. We now know for sure that the Leafs prefer to add term players over rental players. We explained how difficult this would be for them to achieve in a previous article last week. To add to that, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman also revealed that the asking price for a rental defender would be a first and third round pick.

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If the Maple Leafs can’t trade for someone with a fixed term, those options should serve as decent backups if they don’t want to pay sky-high rental prices. Ideally, the Leafs can find someone to eat the first four minutes playing alongside Jake Muzzin. It’s not a blow for Justin Holl, he and Muzzin weren’t very good to start the season. I would still like someone better. To be fair to Holl, he’s been better lately playing in the first four minutes alongside Rasmus Sandin. But if you’re able to put Holl lower in formation, that’s how you can create depth for yourself.

And just to check that it’s not the Sandin effect, here are the statistics with and without in 2022.

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But if we look at what kind of defenseman the Maple Leafs should be looking to add, it reminds me of that quote from Sheldon Keefe from mid-January.

Specifically, the part where Keefe said, “He’s doing a lot of really good things, but I think there’s some inconsistencies there, especially with the puck and that’s where things went wrong for him.”

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If Muzzin has had trouble carrying and making decisions with the puck, I think it would be best to acquire someone who can help with that. I want the big killer defender too, but if they can’t help Muzzin with what he’s struggled with this year, what’s the point? Acquiring someone who can’t move the puck well can make the problem worse.

The ideal defender for me is someone who is good in his own half when needed. But the game plan should be to play outside of your zone as much as possible. Obviously, in this article with lesser known names, the chances of finding the ideal defender are low. Good defensive players should be able to lock things down, but also get the puck out to counterattack or lighten the pressure. Defenders who cannot contribute to this should not play this role. At this point, they are simply forcing their team to defend more and the chances of mistakes and clumsiness increase. I respect their ability to be good in that part of the ice, but I’d rather not be there at all. I’d like to avoid what happened in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs, where the Bruins picked one side of the ice and were able to stifle our escapes because no one on the right side could move the puck. So what we’re looking for is a mix of the two, a compromise.

Many people miss Zach Bogosian. He came announced as a tough, homebody guy, but showed an offensive flayer at times. Especially down the stretch last season, where he was a very effective player before crashing on the boards and injuring his shoulder.

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The Russian defender is 6’2 and 201 pounds. Lyubushkin is playing for a bad Arizona Coyotes team, so the focus will be on relative and contextual stats. In four seasons, two of which were cut short, he played 177 career NHL games. But 2021/2022 has been a bit of a pivotal year for him. He’s always produced decent defensive results, but this year he’s doing it while playing a career-high 18:03 ATOI. Plus-minus is a bit straightforward, but I find it impressive that Lyubushkin only has -6 while the Coyotes have a -70 goal differential. His 93 hits or 7.18 hits/60 would rank first among Toronto defensemen by a decent margin (Muzzin has 74 or 5.93 hits/60). That ticks a box, but I’m sure it also speaks to the time the Coyotes go without the puck. Can he play, though?

Well, his most common partner this season has been Jakob Chychrun, but he’s also played a lot of minutes away from him. Here’s how the Coyotes are doing defensively with and without him on the ice.

Curiously, Lyubushkin found a way to get away from Chychrun better in a heavier defensive role, while the reverse is true for Chychrun. They each play roughly the same percentage of YOU against the other team’s best players. Lyubushkin’s partners all have one thing in common and that is that they are all more attacking players. That doesn’t mean he can’t move the puck well. It just means that he’s usually not the primary puck carrier on his pairing. Transition stats aren’t publicly available, but in a limited sample this season Lyubushkin has been decent. But again, that’s a small sample size. His numbers from last season are not at all comparable. I’m also worried about how he’ll walk away from a system that tends to play safer and slower. However, the Coyotes are starting to pick up the pace a bit and be more exciting to watch. He is also the type of defender who hardly generates any offense. I imagine he and Muzzin would be a bit slow too. What is the asking price? I’m not sure, but it definitely won’t be a 1st round pick.

Stecher has only played six games this season and will be out for a bit longer. He underwent wrist surgery in November, but recently started skating again in a non-contact jersey. Now, shooting a quick on Steve Yzerman probably won’t happen. But if he’s not in their long-term plans, it would be beneficial for the Red Wings to get something for the pending UFA, as they’re nowhere near the playoffs. The 27-year-old has played 336 career games, most of them with Vancouver. I admit it, he’s been on my radar for the Leafs for a while now. He is a bit shorter at 5ft 10 and 186lbs but is described by many as being tough. He was able to produce some very respectable results playing about second pair minutes in a defensive role.

Former Marlies video coach Jack Han mentioned him as someone he was a fan of when he was with the team. Stecher’s name was also rumored at the 2020 trade deadline when the Leafs considered trading Tyson Barrie. Stecher had an expensive qualifying offer tied to him in the offseason and that’s why he was the subject of trade rumours. It’s also why the Canucks decided not to offer him and let him become a free agent in the fall. But judging that he signed a very reasonable $1.7 million contract for two seasons at the start of free agency leads me to believe there was room to negotiate around that.

A little more context for Stecher’s 2021 season shows a high volume of turnovers and in the defensive end. Jack noted in a response that he believed the issue was fixable. It’s good to see him rank high in breakouts and puck battles, though. If you could get him to reduce turnovers, he would be a good addition to the Leafs. Again, another option that shouldn’t cost a 1st round pick.

Pysyk is an analyst community favorite and should be available for less than his Buffalo teammate Colin Miller. Pysyk plays 18:49 of ATOI for a Buffalo team that is once again near the bottom of the standings. At least this time it’s on purpose, I guess. The Sabers this season are a good defensive team but struggle to score goals. Again, like Lyubushkin, I fear Pysyk won’t be as effective once removed from his team’s slower, defensive structure.

Pysyk has done well playing against better players from other teams compared to his teammates. Bad versus worst doesn’t say much, though. But to give Pysyk credit, he plays more of a defensive role in this sample compared to most of his teammates. According to PuckIQ, the Sabers outshot the elite competition 7-4 in over 200 minutes at 5V5 with him on the ice. Mind you, his most common partner has been Rasmus Dahlin this season, but he’s also had a lot of minutes away from him with the likes of Robert Hagg and Will Butcher.

Pysyk’s numbers with and without Dahlin don’t change a ton while having more defensive responsibilities. Dahlin away from Pysyk in a much more protected role hasn’t been very good. Pysyk also leads all Sabers defensemen in TOI shorthanded while still having decent results if you needed an extra penalty killer. While he’s certainly not the primary puck mover on the pairs he’s been involved in, his transition numbers are pretty good in the limited sample size I have. He’s not the shortest guy at 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, but being a physical presence isn’t his game. I don’t know if I’m ready to jump on the Pysyk Analytics bandwagon, but he has himself a good season at Buffalo. He shouldn’t cost you a first-round pick either.

There are more than three value options available, but I think three is a good stopping point for today. The trade deadline is still over a month away. More players may become available as we progress through the schedule. None of these guys are perfect, but honestly I don’t think there’s a perfect match available now or one that will be by March 21st. Even guys who are rumored to cost a first-round pick or more have pros and cons. The ideal situation for the Maple Leafs remains for Muzzin to get fit and stay healthy. That would be more valuable than anyone they could add to their roster. According to Evolving Hockey, from 2018/2019 to 2021, only ten other defensemen rank higher than Muzzin in xGAR and WAR. If Timothy Liljegren wanted to take steps in his development over the next month, that would be fine too. Either way, the Leafs are 26-6-2 since Nov. 1 and 10-2-1 in 2022.

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