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Maple Leafs’ four paths to improving their defence this off-season

For Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s flex time.

With the business set back by the pandemic, scads of NHL owners will be reining in their off-season spending and imposing internal salary budgets that tighten the belt a loop or two beyond the league’s flattened salary cap of $81.5 million.

Another group of GMs will be restricted in how they’re able to structure contract offers, and there will be a hesitancy to frontload and juice those deals with signing bonuses.

Not so with cash-flush Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, which will give Dubas the green light to reload the roster by any means necessary and spend to the hilt.

And the greatest area in need of improvement to a core that has lost four straight post-season series is obvious: defence.

The path to rebuild the Leafs’ subpar blueline — a contributor to the NHL’s 26th-ranked goals against rate (3.17 per game) — is less obvious.

Let’s explore the four approaches, from daring to dull, that Dubas can take in the next few weeks.

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The big UFA swing: Bring Alex Pietrangelo home

Oct. 9 is two weeks away.

The St. Louis Blues are running out of time to come to terms with the first player in franchise history to hoist the Stanley Cup.

An eight-year, $64-million extension is reportedly on the table, but Pietrangelo is probably correct in believing he could fetch an average annual value closer to Roman Josi’s $9 million if he goes to market.

“I guess the best way to sum it up, we haven’t really made much progress,” Pietrangelo told The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford. “We just think right now, with where things are at, that maybe it’s best for both sides to see what’s going on in free agency, what the team can explore, what I can explore, and if there are better fits for each side.”

Pietrangelo, who finished fourth in Norris voting, represents everything the Maple Leafs need: a bona fide No. 1 defender, a leader, a champion, a penalty killer, a right shot, and a driver of offence from the back end.

Dubas has tools of persuasion. Brimming with star forwards, Toronto is firmly in its contention window. As they did for John Tavares, the Leafs can structure a deal to get a chunk of money into Pietrangelo’s bank account upfront. And the King City native could benefit from being close to family — not a small thing with Alex and wife Jayne raising triplets.

If Toronto is able to woo Pietrangelo away from his other suitors (Vegas and Calgary are among those expected to bid), more money must be moved from a $52-million forward group to accommodate him. (In our opinion, the idea of trading Morgan Rielly defeats the purpose.)

Essentially, signing 2020’s most prized UFA would mean trading William Nylander as he enters his prime. And the market for a 24-year-old 30-goal guy whose salary ($6 million) is lower than his cap hit ($6.97 million) should be deep enough to obtain another top-four defender or some fantastic futures.

Breaking up the Core Four he worked so hard to sign would represent the most dramatic shift of Dubas’s tenure, yet it seems all but mandatory if he wants to reel in the biggest fish in the pond.

The small UFA swing: Add without subtracting

While certainly a significant step below Pietrangelo in terms of impact, there are still several free-agent defencemen the Leafs could target at a lower price point.

Without dealing away another valuable asset, Dubas should be able to use some of the $6 million or so in cap space freed up by the Kasperi Kapanen trade and his own departing UFAs (Kyle Clifford, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci) to explore mid-term agreements with proven veterans like Chris Tanev, T.J. Brodie, Radko Gudas and Zach Bogosian.

“Certainly, I don’t think this is going to be it for us as we go along,” Dubas said upon dealing away Kapanen. “We wanted this [cap] flexibility so that we could be flexible inside the marketplace for either free agents or for trades.”

Dive into an active trade market

The lack of liquidity in the system has kicked off plenty of trade noise, and we’ve already seen some notable names (Eric Staal, Marcus Johansson) change sweaters before the Cup has been awarded. New GMs like Bill Guerin, Bill Zito and Bill Armstrong are eager to reshape their rosters, and a cluster of intriguing defencemen on reasonable contracts have been bandied about the rumour mill.

Dubas’s newly acquired 15th-overall draft pick has already been dangled as trade bait, and depending how deep he wants to cut, roster players such as Andreas Johnsson, Alexander Kerfoot and Frederik Andersen would be made available for the right return.

The price for an established right shot like Matt Dumba, Aaron Ekblad, Rasmus Ristolainen, David Savard or Brett Pesce (to name a few) won’t be cheap.

Stay the course, hope for growth, save the cap space

Dubas’s final option is the boring one: Do nothing.

Re-signing RFA defenceman Travis Dermott (no arbitration rights) to a bridge deal should only require a modest raise, and Dubas did take care of some 2020-21 blueline business months ago by extending Jake Muzzin and winning the Mikko Lehtonen sweepstakes.

The bet (prayer?) here would be on a healthy Rielly returning to 2018-19 form; late-bloomer Justin Holl continuing to improve as a shutdown guy; Dermott, 23, taking a dramatic step in both workload and execution; the highly touted Lehtonen thriving on this side of the Atlantic; and high-expectation prospects Rasmus Sandin, 20, and Timothy Liljegren, 21, playing beyond their years.

If Toronto stands pat during the upcoming blizzard of free-agent signings and trades, the lefty-heavy defence core would look something like this:


Dubas has not ruled out the patient approach.

And while it seems highly unlikely that Toronto won’t acquire at least one right-shot defender to fill the void left by Ceci and Barrie, Dubas could let his cap space accrue until the trade deadline and make his splash then.


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