Two things have been made abundantly clear for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are sitting ever-so pretty at the moment with the best record in the NHL through the first seven weeks of the season.
First, they are locks for the postseason.
And second, they want to add before the postseason.
Insiders on both sides of the Canadian media tug-o-war have kicked around the idea of the Leafs bolstering their roster before the deadline in the last few days. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman has been discussing the possibility of a splash for some time, most recently suggesting that they could swing for the fences as the seas part in the North Division. And the latest came from TSN's Darren Dreger, who identified Mikael Granlund as a potential candidate in an ongoing search for forward help, also mentioning that general manager Kyle Dubas has the hockey capital — prospects and picks — to make that sort of deal happen, even with salary cap concerns.
This isn't the first time we've heard Granlund's name linked to Toronto. This is a player whose reputation precedes him as a strong defensive and versatile forward. Historically, he's offered the sort of utility that falls in line with exactly what the Leafs have been aiming to accumulate as they continue to work toward building a strong defensive foundation behind their incredibly dynamic top six.
The numbers continue to bear out those facts this season. Granlund has managed to remain a positive influence on a bad Nashville Predators team, even if the goals have been hard to come by from an even-strength perspective. If there is a concern, it's that Granlund has been buoyed, at least in recent games, by the fact he's been elevated into a role that probably doesn't befit his skillset. Performing on the top line with Filip Forsberg and Eeli Tolvanen is more of a showcase than an impact that would be considered easily transferable.
Even so, it's possible, perhaps even highly likely, that Granlund is a superior option compared to what the Leafs have in house to anchor that third-line checking and energy unit that head coach Sheldon Keefe has been trying to implement from the start of the season. Alexander Kerfoot has been that default as the return asset in the Nazem Kadri trade, but the Leafs seem to prefer him as a winger. And while Pierre Engvall has impressed of late, this is an inexperienced player who could quickly find himself in over his head against stiffer competition and big games.
So case closed then? Is Granlund the guy?
The Leafs could certainly do worse than adding Granlund in their efforts to achieve optimization. But with Friedman floating the idea that the Leafs could aim higher, we should at least explore what that could entail.
What the Maple Leafs don't need at trade deadline
The best way to do that might be to eliminate the things that they don't need.
Let's tackle the easy stuff first. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander are the differentiators for this team, and unearthing an upgrade on any of them would be darn-near impossible. As skeptical as many were, Joe Thornton has established himself as a brilliant complement for Matthews and Marner, and will digest a significant portion of the top-six minutes as long as he's healthy.
That leaves one position in the top six, for which the Leafs already have several candidates but perhaps not the one they see as the best fit. Zach Hyman is probably the superior option, but the Leafs seem to really want him to drive the third line. Kerfoot has been the preferred top-six forward lately, but his inclusion could potentially "take" from the third line in the long run, or at least potentially leave it exposed. And finally, Wayne Simmonds had some success with Tavares and Nylander before suffering an injury, and could potentially be the answer in the long term.
If the Leafs were to truly sell out on the prospects of this season, they could target an impact top six player, or a winger who could perform on either the right or left side with Tavares and Nylander, allowing Hyman, Kerfoot and Simmonds to create mismatches in the bottom six.
The rich man's Jimmy Vesey, if you will.
Sounds fantastic, right? But what kind of winger would that be? Is there any more room on the power play, where that player could be most valuable? Is it more important than building the ideal third line?
As tempting as it might be to add, say, Filip Forsberg instead of Mikael Granlund, the Leafs seem focused on balance, and therefore the creation and maintenance of that third line.
Who fits the mould?
It's important, then, to identify exactly what they Leafs need from the position, and in some respects, what Kerfoot hasn't been able to provide.
Most importantly out of a third line centre, the Leafs need someone who can limit the opposition and carve into the damage that elite players often do. In Kerfoot's minutes without either Tavares or Nylander, or in other words, when he's forced to drive a line, the Leafs have been mostly caved in at even strength this season, performing at 40.6 percent expected goals.
Fo his part, Granlund's numbers do not fall off the cliff in time spent separated from other top players on the Predators. But while a lot of that could come down to coaching style and usage, the most important thing is that the Leafs have performed better when Kerfoot isn't asked to shoulder major defensive responsibilities down the middle.
There are aspects, though, that neither Kerfoot nor Granlund provide, most notably physicality. Toronto didn't need to knock around Connor McDavid to be the first team to shut him down in consecutive games this past week, but another injection of physicality wouldn't hurt this team, provided that it doesn't come at the expense of defensive performance.
Chandler Stephenson, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman are examples of tough, defensively reliable players who plugged third-line holes for Stanley Cup contenders last season, and who might better fit the mould of exactly what the Leafs should look for in a third-line centre replacement. Team toughness hasn't been the priority that team defence has been for Keefe in Toronto, but killing two birds with one stone would be nice.
The last consideration should be penalty killing. As excited as the market became when it was revealed that Matthews would see time on the kill this season, the sight of the NHL's leading goal scorer hobbling off the ice after blocking a shot should be enough to make fans think twice. In the best-case scenario, the Leafs' third-line centre kills penalties, and kills them well, while being reliable in the faceoff dot when dealing with man power disadvantages.
With the exception of one more reliable veteran defender to slot in behind Travis Dermott and Zach Bogosian, the Leafs only have one clear need.
And with the league semifinals being a distinct possibility, if not probability, the Leafs have every reason to stomach the cost, and the quarantine, and not just chase that third-line difference maker, but to be highly selective with their approach.
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