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Meet the Buyers: The Leafs and Flames are ideal trade partners, but Toronto’s cap situation makes a deal difficult
21 days ago
This team will need a defenceman.
This is Meet the Buyers, where we look at teams that are contenders for the Stanley Cup, and what they need to improve their chances. The Calgary Flames have three players – Chris Tanev, Elias Lindholm, and Noah Hanifin – set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, and the chances the Flames move at least one of them are increasing as we head towards the March 8 deadline.
In this edition, we’ll take a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with their needs, their assets, and the cap situation of both teams.
The needs of the Toronto Maple Leafs
According to Frank Seravalli’s article from Daily Faceoff on Jan. 12, the Leafs will need to upgrade their defence. In fact, they’ll need multiple upgrades to their defence
The Leafs first pairing, according to Daily Faceoff’s lines, is Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie, which is set in stone… maybe. However, their second pairing is where the team starts to struggle, as on the left side it’s Simon Benoit, with Jake McCabe on the right side. If they have Stanley Cup aspirations, they’ll need to make a move at the deadline to improve this second pairing. Enter Chris Tanev.
The 34-year-old right-shot defenceman has played 309.2 minutes against elite competition, or 41.3% of his ice time according to Woodmoney. On top of that, Tanev has a 50.82% goal share and 51.07% expected goal share during five-on-five play this season. Against elite competition, Tanev has a 69.60% goal share.
It’s likely Tanev would replace McCabe, who’d move down to the third pairing. McCabe has a similar goal share to Tanev, as it sits at 50% during five on five play, with a 52.03% expected goal share. McCabe also plays a significant amount against elite competition according to Woodmoney, as he has 237.3 minutes against elites, which is 34.1% of his ice time. However, compared to Tanev, his goal share of 44.40% is awful.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Leafs had interest in Tanev earlier in the season, as they were looking for the Flames to package him and Nikita Zadarov in an early-season trade according to Seravalli’s article.
Of course, Hanifin is also going to be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. He’d be a massive upgrade over Benoit, but Hanifin’s acquisition cost is likely significantly higher than Tanev’s, and the Leafs may already struggle to make a trade for Tanev.
Not just that, but the Leafs goaltending is… shaky, at best. This season, the Leafs have had three goaltenders play 15 or more games, with Ilya Samsonov playing 19, Martin Jones playing 17, and the injured Joseph Woll playing 15.
Samsonov has an .878 save percentage and a 3.36 goals-against average, along with a 8-3-6 record. He was sent down towards the end of 2023, and has been much better since he was recalled, as he has a .939 save percentage and a 3-1-0 record in four games.
Jones is having a great bounce back season after an .887 save percentage and a 2.95 goals-against average in 48 games with Seattle last season. With the Leafs, Jones has a .911 save percentage and a 2.64 goals-against average, and has helped keep them in the playoff race.
Woll took over the starting role early in the season and had a .916 save percentage and 2.80 goals-against average, but has been out since Dec. 7 with a high ankle sprain but could be a few weeks away.
The Leafs need a goaltender like Jacob Markström, who has a .912 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average in 29 games played this season with Calgary. However, he has a cap hit of $6 million until the end of the 2025-26 season, which makes a move nearly impossible, at least until the off-season.
What assets do the Toronto Maple Leafs have to offer
The Maple Leafs have a need, but they don’t have a lot to offer. Their farm system ranks 23rd in The Hockey Writers’ latest update, with Fraser Minten, Topi Niemelä, Nikitia Grebyonkin, Dennis Hildeby, and Easton Cowen ranking as their top five prospects.
Minten was the Leafs’ second-round pick in the 2022 draft and has 11 goals and 28 points in 22 games played between the Kamloops Blazers and Saskatoon Blades in the Western Hockey League. The 19-year-old centre was the captain of Team Canada at the 2024 World Juniors, but scored just a goal and three points in five games.
Niemelä was the Leafs third-round pick in the 2020 draft, and has had a successful first season in the American Hockey League. The 21-year-old right-shot defenceman has six goals and 22 points in 36 games. He’s probably the closest skater to being NHL ready.
Grebenkin was the Leafs’ fifth-round pick in 2022 and he has 16 goals and 34 points as a 20-year-old in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Obviously, those are pretty impressive numbers for the winger. It’s still to be seen if he flies across the pond and plays in North America.
Hildeby was the Leafs’ fourth-round pick in 2022, and he had a .918 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average in his final season in Sweden’s top tier. His move to North America has been okay, as he has a .907 save percentage and a 2.49 goals-against average in 20 games played with the Leafs’ AHL team. Still, the Flames have one of the best goaltending prospects in the NHL in Dustin Wolf.
Cowen is ranked as The Hockey Writers’ fifth-best Leafs prospect, but he’s tearing up the Ontario Hockey League with the London Knights. The 18-year-old was the Leafs’ first-round pick in 2023-24 and has 20 goals and 59 points in 32 games, already surpassing his career-high in points (53) which was done in 68 games last season. He’s still pretty far away from an NHL debut, though.
According to Puckpedia, the Leafs have their 2024 first-round pick and their 2026 first-round pick. They moved their second-round pick at the 2023 deadline and are missing their 2025 first-round pick, which was also moved at the 2023 trade deadline.
The cap situation of both teams
This is where everything falls apart. According to Puckpedia, the Leafs have just $34,999 in current cap space as of the morning of Jan. 31. What’s worse is that they have nearly $14.5 million on the long-term injured list, featuring Jake Muzzin, John Klingberg, and Matt Murray.
To make a trade work to fit Tanev’s $4.5 million salary, the Leafs would have to get really creative by getting the Flames to retain 50%, while also getting a third team to eat some salary, which would cost significant assets. Alternatively, they could move expiring free agent T.J. Brodie, who has a $5 million cap hit, but will once again have to add additional assets.
While the Flames and the Leafs seem like ideal trading partners, the Leafs assets are subpar and the contender has very little cap space remaining. It would take some serious creativity for the Leafs to get Tanev, something that may cost more than they’re willing to move.
Still, the Leafs have shown interest in Tanev in the past, so maybe they’re desperate enough to get something done.
Thanks for reading! You can follow me on Twitter @Brennan_L_D.
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