The Toronto Maple Leafs are undoubtedly one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup this season, but many would agree that they face an uphill battle if they don’t improve their defense corps. For years, the right side of the defense has been an issue in Toronto and nothing has changed. Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov are the only right-shot defenders that play regularly for the Maple Leafs and the former has struggled all season long – to the point that the team is actively shopping him and his lengthy contract – and the latter is still adjusting to an NHL pace of play. The only other righty on the blue line is Justin Holl, who is scoreless in two games so far this season as a total non-factor. Toronto needs more production, better checking, and all around more cohesion among their defensemen and it all starts with fixing the right side.
It comes as no surprise then that Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reports that the team is still actively scouring the market for a solution on the right side, preferably a top-four caliber defender. Kypreos again mentions the St. Louis Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo, a player that the Maple Leafs were linked to earlier this season, as a possibility, but questions his availability. Colleague Elliotte Friedman also mentions Los Angeles Kings’ off-side lefty Jake Muzzin and Philadelphia Flyers’ bruiser Radko Gudas as options. The problem, and one addressed by Kypreos, is that the prices are high on these top right-side defensemen with term remaining on their contracts and he believes that the Maple Leafs are unwilling to part with young roster forwards like Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson or top blue line prospect Rasmus Sandin to get a deal done. Kypreos lists the team’s first-round pick and AHL defensemen Timothy Liljegren and Calle Rosen as their top bargaining chips, but that likely will not be enough to land one of the top long-term defensemen on the market.
The prices will be lower on the rental market, but the options are also less appealing. The best right-handed defensemen who are impending free agents all belong to top contenders – Erik Karlsson, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, Tyler Myers – and even some of the more moderate options play for teams not looking to sell, such as the Golden Knights’ Deryk Engelland and the Bruins’ Steven Kampfer. If the Leafs feel adding a solid, stay-at-home righty would give them the boost they desire, the New Jersey Devils’ Ben Lovejoy or the New York Rangers’ Adam McQuaid would both be serviceable options. If they instead want a puck-mover, they could try to pry Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings or Taylor Fedun from the Dallas Stars, but neither are guaranteed to be available. There simply isn’t a great market right now at right-shot defense, typical of the position that has become one of the most valuable in hockey due to scarcity. It may be the one piece that the Maple Leafs need to put them over the top, but making a deal is going to be easier said than done.