Why Kyle Dubas addressed the Maple Leafs’ defense first at a trade deadline that could’ve gone many different directions

A few months ago, the Maple Leafs might have taken a very different approach to the 2022 trade deadline.

Their defense was inconsistent but largely in place with their veteran pieces, who they were banking on rounding into form. The goaltending was generally holding up, while their second line struggled at 5v5. The stars were aligning to target a forward to help their unit as a whole reach its full potential.

But then Jake Muzzin sustained multiple injures, and Jack Campbell and the Leafs started making glaring errors with some form of regularity, while their goaltending in general didn’t hold up at all. Heading into trade deadline day, you could argue that the Leafs had needs at basically every position – goalie, second-line left wing, and defense.

When we really boil it down, though, Jake Muzzin’s play and injury were simply too difficult to look past.

Kyle Dubas made this clear a few weeks ago when he publicly indicated he was pursuing a defenseman. On Sunday afternoon, he delivered. Some wondered if Dubas was putting up some sort of smokescreen, but that has never been the way he conducts business. When he is forthcoming with information, he has generally been genuine as much as possible.

Even though Muzzin largely struggled this season, since he fell injured, the Leafs have tried all sorts of combinations to try to make up for the loss. Rasmus Sandin shifted to the right side, Timothy Liljegren was promoted for a spell, and they split up their one functioning pairing at one point (Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie). They traded for Ilya Lyubushkin, who has fared well to start his Toronto tenure.

In that time, the Leafs experienced an increase in tipped goals against. Sheldon Keefe lamented the loss of Muzzin – unprompted – after a 6-4 loss to the Vancouver Canucks:

…We have to do a better job of blocking more shots, tying up sticks, and pushing people out of the way. Those are things we need to do better.

That is an area where I think we are really missing Muzz. He is the best guy we have in that area of ​​the game. The guys that we have in have to do a better job of that…

Prior to trading for Mark Giordano, there were only three defensemen the Leafs could reasonably trust to play 20+ minutes per night, without a top-tier stud to soak up massive minutes or the type of goaltending that allows them to get away with mistakes. The Leafs defense is set up to function with a tough-matchup pairing. That allows the Morgan Rielly pairing to roam a bit more offensively, and then the Leafs can pick and choose between their collection of legitimate NHL defensemen for the third pairing.

That is likely why they felt the need to move TJ Brodie to play with Justin Holl in a more defensive pairing for the time being. It has been solid, but it’s not ideal. When the Leafs are looking at potential playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers – eighth and first in goals per game, respectively – it was not a recipe for success to have the Brodie – Holl matchup pairing and Rielly with a young defender in the top four.

A healthy and rolling Muzzin would be a significant upgrade to the team as-is. Banking on it happening, however, is bordering on reckless. He largely struggled this season and has been knocked out of the lineup not once but twice with concussions. In each of his first two playoffs with the Leafs, he was injured and missed the conclusion of the series. Everyone would love a healthy Muzzin on the blue line, but counting on a healthy return, Muzzin finding his form from last season, then on him staying healthy throughout the playoffs was simply not palatable.

It’s possible that a goalie addition would have shored up the defense. There are some underlying metrics that suggest the team is playing well defensively, and the rise in goals against is squarely on the goaltending. We covered that here and discussed why netminding is not the only issue at play; to look at the potentially available goalies and believe that they will fix the greater issues with the team seems like falling for a red herring.

The best bet is to bank on the goaltending rebounding, provided the team has confidence in Jack Campbell fully recovering from a rib injury we know little about. If it is an injury they are really unsure of, they absolutely should go get another goalie. We likely won’t know the truth about that injury until the offseason (if ever).

If the options are either a healthy Campbell returning to some level of normalcy, or having to convince Marc Andre Fleury to waive his no-trade clause (to come to Toronto from Chicago!) and give up a first-round draft pick to acquire him — and then hope he plays better than the incumbents — the decision seems obvious. Still, it makes sense that the Leafs either inquired about it or at least considered it.

I suspect the forward market was more of the same. The Leafs were reportedly interested in Brandon Hagel. He is a nice player, but he ended up moving for an absolute haul. The Leafs have been drafted in the first round once in the past three years. They couldn’t possibly justify pushing it to once in a five-year span in order to acquire Hagel.

Who are/were the other available forwards? Claude Giroux was only going to one team. Vancouver seems to be playing a game of chicken with JT Miller. There are still other forwards available as of this writing, but few are worthy of using up the bullets in the chamber compared to acquiring a legitimate top-four defenseman.

At the same time, the Leafs also knew that their fourth line is largely a wasteland. Jason Spezza’s offense has dried up and Wayne Simmonds, after a hot start, has looked below replacement level for months. It has been a revolving door of options rounding out the trio — whether it’s Alex Kerfoot, Ondrej Kase, Nick Robertson, or Kyle Clifford, it hasn’t been great. Part of the problem is that, as we have said for quite some time in this space, Spezza is best suited on the right wing at this point in his career.

In this trade, the Leafs managed to fill two needs.

Mark Giordano isn’t just merely a passable backup plan for Jake Muzzin; he’s full coverage. If Muzzin returns and plays well? Great. The Leafs defense will be as deep and versatile as it has ever been.

If he is unable to return/play well/stay healthy? They have a top four in place and a number of interesting options beyond it depending on the situation.

Colin Blackwell gives them an option for the fourth line and has the potential to move up the lineup a little – he is fairly similar to Alex Kerfoot in that he can play a bit of a center, but to this point, he has been best suited on the wing (he has played primarily with center Yanni Gourde this season, and center Ryan Strome last season).

Looking forward, ideally, you would like to see the Leafs add another forward given Ondrej Kase left the last game with an apparent concussion. Depending on how long he is out (and let’s face it — the next injury always seems just around the corner), losing Kase and adding Blackwell is a net loss. If Dubas is unable to make another forward addition, at least he recouped some depth up front while solidifying the defense.

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