Mirtle: Why the Maple Leafs might need a trade to end their latest slump

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It’s hard to believe we’re back here in panic land so soon in Toronto.

Although maybe it shouldn’t be.

At the start of the season, some tended to view the Maple Leafs’ struggles as a redux version of what happened last year, when they started slow, then played at a 119-point pace at from November 1.

Only Colorado was better on this stretch.

However, there are a number of differences between this slow start and this one. For one thing, Auston Matthews hasn’t just had major surgery. On the other hand, goalkeepers haven’t really been the problem like it was a year ago when Michael Hutchinson was still starting games for some reason.

More importantly, I would say the Leafs have faced a very weak schedule – one of the easiest in the league so far – and their underlying results in terms of puck possession and expected goals. were extremely poor.

They don’t score. They don’t defend well. They don’t control the game and are simply unlucky. They’re just really, to put it charitably, meh right now.

The easy part of the Leafs’ schedule is effectively over as of this weekend as well, with a back-to-back game against Boston and Carolina looming. The rest of the way, the Leafs have one of the toughest runs of any team.

If they can’t fix some of their ailments fast enough, major changes will be needed.

That’s not really news if you’re following the latest firestorms here in the city. Various media outlets and betting sites have had Sheldon Keefe in the hot seat since the start of the campaign, and this latest four-game losing streak has only dialed that talk up to 11.

And I understand. The coach is often the first to go in situations like this. They’re more disposable than big-money stars, especially in a tight-cap environment where roughly two-thirds of the league is either in long-term injured reserve or less than half a million from the ceiling of $82.5 million.

Keefe hasn’t been perfect in his tenure with the Leafs, but he has a 0.669 point percentage – one of the highest in league history – and led them to a 115-point campaign there. a year. He’s also not responsible for much of the mess on the roster, including the lack of scoring options in the back six and the lack of defensive depth with Jake Muzzin, Timothy Liljegren and Jordie Benn all.

I think they should give him more time to right the ship. And they should also give him more to work with.

This brings us to the main alternative to the manager’s dismissal in early November – a swap deal.

Although the start of the season isn’t the best time to browse the NHL’s trade market and the Leafs are in a weak position given their losing slip, general manager Kyle Dubas has one thing in his favor. With Muzzin on LTIR — most likely for the rest of the season from what I hear — Toronto can put a lot of their $5.625 million salary to work in the open market.

Part of that will have to be credited to Liljegren, who just played a few games for the Marlies this weekend as part of a rehab assignment. But even in the worst-case scenario, the Leafs will have $4 million in additional financial flexibility, which the vast majority of teams potentially in the playoff race simply don’t have.

In the best-case scenario, Dubas could look to trade some of his underperforming players as part of any move, freeing up even more wage room.

Some of the top candidates to shake things up could include Justin Holl ($2 million), Pierre Engvall ($2.25 million), Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million), or Nicolas Aube-Kubel ($1 million). dollars).

If they keep losing, maybe even bigger names are in the game.

Even without subtracting a major roster item, however, the Leafs are now in a position to be players for a factor of difference in a deal – assuming some of what they give up is made up of prospects or choice.

(D. Ross Cameron/USA Today)

Jakob Chychrun is a name there, although given he’s played almost exclusively on the left side and with his recent injury history there are some warning factors for buyers. (The Coyotes’ asking price is also very high.)

John Klingberg is an interesting idea, with the Ducks in free fall. He only has a one-year contract and could help with Toronto’s puck-traveling issues on the right side.

Any other types of pending UFAs the Leafs could target? Vladislav Gavrikov in Columbus is very intriguing, given his defensive strength. Damon Severson, Scott Mayfield, Shayne Gostisbehere, Dmitry Kulikov, Justin Braun, Kevin Shattenkirk and Troy Stecher are also all potential tenants, and everything of them can play the right side.

Defense is a priority with the seriousness of some of the Leafs defenders, but they could also deploy their cap space to find scoring help for the bottom six attacking group or try to add another goalie for upgrade third tailpiece Erik Kallgren.

With the injuries they had early on, the Leafs iced a roster that earns around $10 million under the cap on some nights. Recouping at least some of that by spending Muzzin’s salary is going to be vital in the months to come.

The Leafs have been lucky to complete those midseason deals and get a shot in the arm, since adding Muzzin nearly four years ago. They also acquired Jack Campbell in an equally delicate situation and strengthened their blue line two years ago by bringing in Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano.

It can be done.

But aside from improving the roster, the other positive of going the trade route is the message it sends, especially if it’s sending a longtime teammate, even someone who downplays alignment. The message is, in part, that the Leafs aren’t just going to fire the coach at the first sign of trouble.

It’s also a message that more deals could come, if they continue to falter.

Because, frankly, it looks a lot like a group of players who could use some of that outside motivation.

(Leafs top sadness photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

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