January 22, 2018 | 10:40pm ET
BY DAVID PAGNOTTA, The Fourth Period
WEAKNESSES EVIDENT IN MAPLE LEAFS PLAY OF LATE
TORONTO, ON -- It was a “hell yeah” moment, stemmed from a combination of frustration, emotion and satisfaction. At 9:17 of the second period in Monday night’s 4-2 loss over the Colorado Avalanche, Auston Matthews scored his 21st goal of the season and passionately pointed to the Colorado net to mimic a referee confirming the goal moments after his initial 21st marker of the season was nixed due to an after-the-fact goaltender interference call.
The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t played well of late. Following a nice come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, Monday night’s loss may not further boost the confidence inside the Toronto dressing room.
“I think it was time,” Patrick Marleau, who spoke out to his teammates during the second intermission of Saturday’s game, said after Saturday’s win. “We have been going through a little bit of a skid here, but just working our way out of it. We needed everybody and everybody bought in, which is good.”
It was good, at the time. But now the Leafs need to return to playing better consistently.
This team is loaded with talent, especially up front, but they are, for the most part, a young team, and as deep as they are in some areas, there are holes in others. Defensively, the Maple Leafs are decent, not great.
Morgan Rielly, on the injured reserve with an upper body injury, is finally coming into his own, but he holds just one position. Jake Gardiner, the injured Nikita Zaitsev and veteran Ron Hainsey, for one more season, secure three more spots. As good as the team is lines one through four, their defensive corps isn’t overly deep, and the likes of Connor Carrick, Roman Polak and Andreas Borgman are placeholders, for now, though youngster Travis Dermott has impressed in his short stint this year and could take on a full time role next season – and 2017 first-round pick Timothy Liljegren, likely a couple of years away, will battle for a spot, too.
With the trade deadline five weeks away, the Maple Leafs will look to add a veteran blueliner to the roster. They aren’t overly interested in overpaying for a rental, like Detroit Red Wings rearguard Mike Green, and if they can find a long-term fit and acquire a mid-20s defenceman with term left on his contract, that would be management’s ideal move. But that’s more likely to occur in June than in February.
The Leafs need to be better in their own zone, that’s no secret. Goaltender Frederik Andersen has been stellar this season, but his numbers would be that much more impressive if he had a little extra help in front of him.
In the short-term, Toronto could go after Erik Gudbranson of the Vancouver Canucks, though his foot-speed doesn’t match up with the rest of the roster – then again, neither does Hainsey’s and he would be an upgrade.
Jack Johnson is also available, but the asking price isn’t cheap and I can’t imagine the Columbus Blue Jackets are too interested in helping out another Eastern Conference club.
Buffalo Sabres veteran Josh Gorges, New York Rangers blueliner Nick Holden, and Ottawa Senators defenceman Johnny Oduya are among those also up for grabs, but you have to wonder if the Leafs are better off with their own crew than adding one of these players.
Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello isn’t afraid of being creative, if he has to be, but it may be in his best interest to wait until the off-season beyond truly tinkering with his defence.
The Leafs have been linked to having significant interest in Avalanche defenceman Tyson Barrie and Arizona Coyotes star Oliver “don’t look at my +/-” Ekman-Larsson. Acquiring either player would result in the good old hockey trade being consummated, and with the Avs in the thick of things in the Western Conference playoff race, they may pump the breaks on Barrie trade talks until the off-season, where he’s more likely to be moved, especially given the young stud defencemen the Avs have in the system.
So, what about Ekman-Larsson? Coyotes GM John Chayka has been fairly quiet on the subject lately, at least publicly, and given Arizona’s position in the standings and their strong chances of drafting first-overall in Dallas on June 22, it’s likely in his best interest to start entertaining trade calls.
Ekman-Larsson isn’t the only Coyotes defenceman in play, as Jason Demers, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Luke Schenn are believed to be on the block, but he’ll command the highest return by a mile.
The Leafs could utilize their young forward talent to package up a deal for Ekman-Larsson, with the likes of Connor Brown, currently on pace for the second 20-goal season of his two-season NHL career, Kasperi Kapanen, Frederik Gauthier and Zach Hyman potentially available. Could Brown, Kapanen, a top prospect and a first-round draft pick, get things percolating?
RETOOL IN MONTREAL
The Montreal Canadiens are 27th in the NHL and it just doesn’t look like they’re going to pick up any significant ground on the playoffs this season, and that means it’s time to focus on next season.
As Andrew Sarrazin wrote earlier today, it’s time for the Habs to press the reset button. It’s time for the Habs to shift their focus on the 2018-19 campaign.
Now, this doesn’t mean they’re going to trade captain Max Pacioretty by the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Heck, it doesn’t mean they’re going to trade him, at all. A lot of the perceive plan in Montreal, at this point in the year, is geared towards what they can accomplish in the off-season.
If John Tavares hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent July 1, as is his right, though I, like most, fully expect him to sign an eight-year extension with the New York Islanders at some point, you can be sure the Habs are going to be all-in. What does that mean? Probably an $11 million salary. I don’t buy this $15 million salary talk being bandied about. Tavares’ salary will likely fall within $10.5 million to $12 million, wherever he signs.
But those holding out hope Tavares become a legitimate option for their team, it’s fun to dream.
Outside of Tavares, Montreal’s options up the middle are limited. Could they target pending free agents Mikael Backlund, Tyler Bozak or Paul Stastny, should any of them hit the open market July 1, though I get the sense Backlund may be their only legitimate option – he’s also the youngest of the three.
The trade route is also a strong option for the Canadiens, as I believe they’ll be targeting Edmonton Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and his $6 million salary. RNH has three-years left on his contract after this season, and the Oilers’ upcoming retool may make him more available than he’s been in the past. The effort will certainly be made by Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. Whether it’s enough to convince the Oilers to pull the trigger is another story.
With all the salary cap space the Habs have this season, they have that much more of it next season – even with Carey Price’s $10.5 million cap hit.
If the salary cap goes up to $78 million, let’s say, Bergevin will have roughly $19 million in cap space to play with. Of the Canadiens’ regulars, centre Philip Danault will see his salary rise from the $950,000 he’s earning this season, but it won’t come anywhere near breaking the bank, while Jakub Jerabek, a potential UFA, and Joe Morrow, a pending RFA, will see slight raises.
Bottom line, the Canadiens have a lot of flexibility to work with this off-season, but they’ll try to get a headstart on their reset over these next five weeks.
If the right offer comes along, they’re reluctantly willing to move Pacioretty – but the asking price is extremely high and it only happens if an offer forces Bergevin’s hand. Forwards Andrew Shaw, Tomas Plekanec and Paul Byron are attractive assets to other teams – the Habs would need to eat a big chunk of Plekanec’s $6 million cap hit in order to facilitate a trade – and defencemen David Schlemko, Jerabek, Morrow and Jordin Benn could be move if the right deal presented itself.
And as for all the Alex Galchenyuk talk, there’s not much to it. As we’ve reported last summer and at the start of the season, teams like Pittsburgh, Columbus, Anaheim, Carolina and the New York Rangers have expressed interest in the past, but nothing is on the horizon. Galchenyuk prefers to stay in Montreal, his role is slowly expanding, and the team seems him as a part of their future. He’s farther down the Pacioretty boat, as the reservations of trading him are greater than the reluctance to move the captain.
SENSITIVE TIME FOR SENS
The Ottawa Senators, like Montreal, are having a crappy season. For whatever the reason, things haven’t clicked, the team has played poorly, and even though on paper they’re a much better team than the standings illustrate, they are also in reset mode.
Senators GM Pierre Dorion likes the makeup of his team. He’d like it even more if the goaltender was a lot better, Matt Duchene had an 80-point season, and captain Erik Karlsson was fully healthy, but it is what it is.
Teams are calling, as Dorion has openly admitted, and the team will tinker with its roster before the 2018-19 season. There are no guarantees they made bold trades by Feb. 26, as they have the off-season to hammer out better player-for-player trades, but there are growing whispers the team’s overall financial state may push them into making a move during the season.
Speculation over Ottawa’s financial stability has been present for the last couple of years. Some of that speculation is unfounded, while some of it is most definitely warranted. But most of the more accurate speculation hasn’t affected the on-ice product, and it’s unclear if it really will.
Dion Phaneuf’s $7 million salary cap hit and Mike Hoffman’s $5.65 million annual salary for the duration of his contract – his cap hit is just over $5.18 million – have played a role in the trade banter. Freeing up some cash for the rest of the season could help other areas of the organization, yes, but will owner Eugene Melnyk push for it? My sense is if the right hockey trade presents itself, Dorion is willing to bite.
As for Karlsson’s future... well, we’ll cross that bridge when the time comes.