Should the Leafs trade for Jake Gardiner?

The Leafs were exposed defensively against Connor McDavid’s and the Edmonton Oilers. With the playoff push intensifying and the trade deadline approaching, should the Leafs go to the well and liberate Jake Gardiner.

Personally, no. Jake Gardiner is a serviceable defenseman when you look at his career stats, but the aforementioned well is now poisoned for the Brian Burke signee. I don’t know why he’d want to come back, either. The fanfare in Toronto is unparalleled for success, but Gardiner knows how crushing it can be when you’re the epicenter of the failure.

His atrocious playoff performances only bolster the “no” opinion on this potential trade, too. Gardiner was, as mentioned, at the center of the awful game seven performance by the Leafs against Boston. He was -3 on the game and actively contributed to the Bruin’s dominant offensive zone possession and freedom to dictate play in the Leafs zone.

If the Leafs are considering a move for a defenseman, it should be one with a stout defensive playoff record and not a gambling pseudo-offensive defenseman who doesn’t prioritize defense first. We have that in Cody Ceci and if the Leafs are looking to add a defenseman it’ll be at his sacrifice.

A few names to circle that fit the mold of veteran, NHL proven, playoff performers are Sami Vatanen in New Jersey (last year on deal; more offensive option), Alec Martinez from LA (year and a half on contract), and Josh Manson from Anaheim (signed through 2022, has modified NTC).

Any package the Leafs would put together for these players, specifically those with term on their deal, would have to be substantial and would also likely have to include Cody Ceci to make back the cap hit of these players. More importantly, it would be prospects and picks headed in the other direction.

Jeremy Bracco is the name many people have circled as the first to go. He is seemingly the Leafs best prospect on the Marlies right now, but has regressed this season in his ppg compared to his breakout season last year. He is a skilled winger which makes him expendable for the Leafs and has the potential to be a lethal scorer in the NHL. Nick Robertson’s emergence and development should make Bracco movable, too.

There is no pressure to panic into a move now, but Kyle Dubas did get out in front of the defensive issues of the Leafs last season by buying Jake Muzzin from LA in January, so an early move could be expected to avoid other teams setting the market. Of the names mentioned here, the right-shot 6’3″ Josh Manson is my pick. He would be an impact signing now, is controllable, and is a build-around piece for the future as well!

It makes no sense for Jeremy Bracco to be an opening day Maple Leaf

Tis the season for mock lineups and projected units for NHL teams. Free agency is well underway, draft picks are joining up with their teams, and fans are ready to try and predict the future. That being said, all these Leafs lineups with Jeremy Bracco in them need to relax a bit.

The Toronto Marlies best forward last season shouldn’t be getting a sniff at the opening day roster this season. Yes, Jeremy Bracco is the Leafs top offensive prospect and their best player outside of the NHL currently, but that’s not good enough in the salary cap world.

First things first, we need to give credit where credit is due. For Bracco, he’s scored goals and produced points at every level. The only season where he was under a point a game was 2017/18 with the Marlies, his first jaunt against grown men. He followed up his 32 point (in 50gp) season with a 79 point campaign (75gp), plus a 16 point (13gp) playoff run.

All signs are pointing to Bracco stepping up and getting in on the Leafs high octane offense, right? Wrong. With the salary cap’s minimal increase and the Leafs need for sustainable, long-term solutions for their cap-crunched issues, Bracco must overcook in the incubator.

Why not now?

Let me state again, as I feel like I need to be completely clear here, he is likely NHL ready and there is certainly a position for him on the Leafs this season. Now, let’s get into why he isn’t going to be in the lineup on October 2nd.

It’s not romantic and it is a little boring, but it’s a finance issue. Bracco would only cost the Leafs $842,500 this season, but to keep him in the minors and use new international signing Ilya Mikheyev ($925,000) instead, the Leafs can keep Bracco on his cheap deal without exposing him to the NHL and thus giving him an opportunity to earn a big pay bump on his next deal, which will need to be negotiated after this season.

At 22, Bracco is young but not unproven. His age and his RFA status make him a solid sleeper option for the Leafs front office, but only after next season. I think if the team need a boost we could see Bracco be used as an offensive jolt, but let’s be honest this team likely won’t struggle to score goals.

Lastly, Bracco’s predicted usage would be as a bottom-six RW, and frankly, that isn’t going to do him any favors as a developing playmaker. When Bracco comes into this team he should get a look at middle-six ice time and second unit powerplay time as well. He’s a skill player so he needs these opportunity to flourish and grow. Let big bodied Mikheyev soak up the hard bottom-six minutes and allow Bracco to overcook into a homegrown offensive missile to be used in a few seasons time.

Who’s making the Leafs next season? Prospects and new free agents

As discussed on the latest episode of The Rival Sports Podcast, the Leafs have a solid group of prospects who could impact the big league team. As Chicago showed us through their dynastic cup runs, the big boys getting paid means you have to have stocked cupboards of discount players to fill out your roster.

You can listen here:

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Here are our top two picks each on who we think will crack the Leafs opening day roster:

Al’s Picks

Jeremy Bracco

The most dynamic forward on the Marlies right now, Jeremy Bracco was an obvious but needed pick for this list. The American winger fits in with what the Leafs need on their current roster as the skillful winger tends to set up more goals than he finishes. With the Leafs current star center depth, this is a big positive.

The critics will say he is too small, or that the Leafs, in general, are too small and Bracco just adds to this problem. Mitch Marner has proved how moot a point this is with his ridiculous start to his career at a measly 6′ (yeah, okay), 175 lbs. At 5′ 11″ and 181 lbs, Bracco is essentially a carbon copy of Marner physically.

Bracco is basically Marner-lite; a newer, younger copy of the original albeit probably not as elite offensively (it’s a high bar!). The 22-year-old is seemingly ready for the NHL after two seasons with the Marlies. He smashed his first season’s point total, 32 points in 50 games, with 79 points in 75 games this season. After his two seasons and two playoff runs with the Marlies, isn’t it time to plug some Leafs roster holes with this gem?

Prediction: Top-9 winger

Timothy Lijegren

The equivalent to Jeremy Bracco, as far as positional prospect rankings, Timothy Lijegren appears to be knocking on the NHL’s door. The 6’0, 200lb Swedish, RIGHT SHOT defenseman has put up two solid seasons with the Marlies after being drafted and could make the jump this offseason to the Leafs.

The Leafs scooped up the fallen draftee in 2017 after illness marred his draft year. His development was a little stunted due to this, however, it has forced the once offensive-minded defender to focus more on the defensive side of his game and develop into a two-way player. Playing alongside 2018 first-round pick, Rasmus Sandin, an elite scoring defenseman has also reigned in his play, too!

Liljegren’s solid play last season after a bad start to the season should get him consideration come training camp time this fall. That being said, the Leafs need for right-shot defenseman should also see his name shoot up the list of breakout candidates.

Prediction: bottom pairing defenseman

Adam’s Picks

Ilya Mikheyev

They must have signed him for some reason, right? The Leafs first international signee during the World Hockey Championships was this scoring winger out of the KHL. Ilya Mikheyev, 24, has played four regular seasons with Omsk Avangard of the KHL, growing in offensive production along the way. With a total of 45 points in 62 games last season split with 23 goals and 22 assists, Mikheyev‘s scoring prowess is shared across goals and assists.

At 6’ 2″ and 190lbs Mikheyev also adds a size dimension to a shorter Leafs roster. People are forecasting him as a replacement for Auston Matthews rightwing should one or both of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen be moved. With Matthews elite shot and Mikheyev‘s (reportedly) silky passing, the fit could work.

I revert back to my first sentence on Mikheyev. Dubas, Shanahan, and Babcock must have signed this player for a reason. At 24 (much like Zaitsev) the Leafs would be banking on him to hit the ground running as he isn’t a young prospect anymore. Surely he’ll get a look to start the season, no?

Prediction: top-9 forward

Teemu Kivihalme

Let me say it again, they must have signed him for a reason. To be fair, Teemu Kivihalme is probably going to be a depth player, but the lack of defensive depth currently on the team could see him play a more important role and originally believed.

Despite him being a left shot defenseman, and the Leafs already having Rielly, Muzzin, and Rosen filling their top-3 left shot D positions, Kivihalme could see some platoon work. Rosen has just 8 games of NHL experience over two different stints with the team; his headstart on Kivihalme is minimal. Rather than overwhelming Rosen and Kivihalme, Babcock could use both and create a battle for that bottom pairing spot.

With Travis Dermott also in the left D mix, despite his shoulder injury which will keep him out for the beginning of the season, Kivihalme still has a potential position. Left shot/right shot is a bit overanalyzed and if both Rosen and Kivihalme show they can play, why not stick them together?

Prediction: 7th defenceman-bottom pairing

We want to know: Who do you agree with, Al or Adam? Did we miss out on anyone else? Let us know on Social Media or in the comments below!

Fill your woeful Leaf-less schedule with Marlies appreciation

Forget the team that seemingly always lets you down and breaks your heart with the playoffs on the line. It’s time to focus on Toronto’s real team – the Toronto Marlies. But seriously, these kids are good…

The next generation of Maple Leafs talent is excelling in the Calder Cup playoffs. And, while there may not be an Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner in that group, there are a few gems who will make an impact on the Leafs in the future.

On Defense

There is nowhere else to logically begin other than with Rasmus Sandin. The AHL rookie out of the Soo Greyhounds has had a lights-out season with the Marlies. 28 points in 44 games played is remarkable for a defenseman, let alone a 19-year-old in his first season.

With the playoffs well underway, Sandin has kept the pace with his 7 points in 5 games. At 5’11”, 183lbs. Sandin isn’t going to bowl anyone over with physical play. Instead, his vision and ability to pick a pass opens up the game for his teammates. This kid is serious.

The Leafs added wisely with the signing of NCAA defenseman Joseph Duszak. Like Sandin, Duszak brings skill and speed over size on the back end and elite level production at the college level. In three seasons with Mercyhurst College, he had 79 points in 103 games played, including this season where he scored 47 points in 37 games played.

Lastly we’ll focus on Timothy Liljegren, the Leafs first round pick in 2017. While he hasn’t taken off offensively like many would have hoped (15 points in 43 games this season), Liljegren has been the perfect defensive partner for Sandin. More of a stay-at-home defender, there is a lot to like about Liljegren and his potential impact on the Leafs in the near future.

Forwards

It’s Jeremy Bracco’s world, and we’re all just living in it right now. The dynamic playmaking winger has a Calder Cup playoff leading 10 points through just five playoff games so far. This matches his regular season production where he put up 79 points in 75 games this year.

While technically “undersized”, Bracco is as close to elite as you can get for an AHL prospect. The right winger is as adept at scoring goals as he is creating them. He will be a Maple Leaf sooner rather than later, but as for now, enjoy the Calder Cup run with what may be the best player in the league.

Don’t tell him his age, but Chris Mueller is 33 years old and is producing like he’s chasing an ELC in the NHL. The journeyman center has been imperative in the Marlies sustained AHL success and this year has been no different. He centers the first line with the likes of Bracco on the wing and benefits from his line-mates’ skill but also makes the most of his chances with his experience.

Lastly, we need to talk about Dmytro Timashov. The 22-year-old has seemingly always been on the precipice of taking the next step. He was eventually passed by Nylander, Johnsson, and Kapanen to the big club. I have complete faith that he’ll eventually be an effective depth winger for the Leafs, but when? Anyways, Timashov looked great this season with 49 points, and he’s added 4 points in 5 playoff games, too.

If the Leafs trade Trevor Moore or Jeremy Bracco they’re gambling A LOT

The Leafs are at a crossroads here – commit to the team and minor league development process that’s gotten them this far, or say “fuck it” and blow their load by trading away their best forward prospects.

I don’t know what they’ll do, but Kyle Dubas has already put his balls on the table with the Jake Muzzin trade. He sacrificed impressive power forward prospect Carl Grundstrom, the rights to second-round pick defense-man Sean Durzi, and the Leafs first-round pick this season.

That substantial haul secured Muzzin for this year’s run, next year’s run, and possibly an extension after that. It also slapped Jake Gardiner across the face by handing his proposed money to the new heir-apparent the the “second-best defender on the team” throne.

So why does a Bracco or Moore trade potential screw over the Leafs? Because they’re gambling that Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson will resign with the Leafs for anything less than $3.5 million each.

Patrick Marleau’s fatherly presence to the team’s superstars may be an intangible that money can’t buy, but his $6-mill cap hit has ramifications on this team, specifically when it comes to paying Kap and Johnsson.

So, with Bracco’s 53 points in 52 games with the Marlies, and Trevor Moore‘s 38 points in 43 AHL games plus his 4 in 7 NHL games, the Leafs have prospects that are attractive to rebuilding or retooling teams. But if they’re developed stars don’t resign for hometown discounts, trading these two players in particular catapults the team into a free-agent focused nightmare (see Dave Bolland, David Clarkson).

With no GM credentials or experience let me put forward a probably too easy to deflate solution – move out the second tier players. We know Liljegren and Sandin aren’t on the table, we know the 1st rd. pick from 2019 is already gone, and we know Bracco and Moore could be valuable players next year. So, why not move the likes of Dymtro Timashov and Adam Brooks?

Prospects are going to be moved, so my suggestion would be not to get too attached to middling, “still needs time” players like Timashov and Brooks, instead get excited about what Moore can do with an extended look, or where Bracco will fit into the team when he breaks in. No more Tyler Biggs mentality here.