There are more than a few big named blue liners potentially on the market who could peak the interest of the Maple Leafs, just over one month before the deadline. Among those names, one of the most interesting could be long time Blackhawk; Duncan Keith.
Keith’s lengthy resume includes Stanley Cups and gold medals and Norris Trophies, but that isn’t the Duncan Keith of today. And on top of that, he’ll be under contract for four more seasons after the current one at just over $5.5mil. Let’s have a look at some of the scenarios which could see Duncan Keith in blue and white come this March.
It’s important to remember, in acquiring Keith, that he isn’t going to play 25 minutes every night along side Morgan Rielly. Therefore there are a couple of non-starters when discussing any potential trade for the veteran defenceman. Firstly, Timothy Liljegren cannot, in any way, shape, or form be involved in the deal. Right handed defenders come at a premium in today’s NHL and letting go of a potential top pairing guy with a right handed shot is not good business. Especially one who will be cost effective for the foreseeable future. The second, is that Keith cannot be acquired strictly for futures without significant salary cap retention on the part of the Blackhawks.
So what would that look like? If the Hawks are going to retain $1.5-2mil of Keith’s contract every season for the rest of his contract, the return would likely reach its peak. With Liljegren off the table, it leaves young defenders Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin (who some now have ahead of Timmy Liljegren) and Andreas Borgman as prime candidates to be moved. All three are left handed shots, a side that could be blocked for years to come as far as playing in the Top 4 goes with the emergence of Travis Dermott and the elite play from Morgan Rielly. Up front, Jeremy Bracco, Carl Grundstrom and to a lesser extent the Pierre Engvall’s of the farm highlight the list of prospects.
With cap retention, The Leafs would no doubt be giving up some kind of high draft pick. If the featured prospect in the deal is someone like Sandin then maybe it’s a conditional pick depending on how far Toronto moves on in the playoffs, but if it’s a lower end prospect like Borgman, who through injuries has fallen off the radar, and Grundstrom, the pick would likely be a guaranteed first rounder.
I am of the opinion that this scenario, at least for someone like Keith, is unlikely. The Hawks will no doubt have their eyes set on Sandin and, while I can see Sandin being moved, it would be in a deal for a younger player who can handle those extra minutes and carry some of the workload from Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey. Names like Alex Pietrangelo and Cam Fowler come to mind.
There is also the potential of a deal happening as a precursor to a Duncan Keith trade. Underperforming forwards with sizeable cap hits could be shipped out to clear the salary brought in by Keith. Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown have all seen diminished roles this season, and while their value is likely at an all time low, they could be moved to a young team making a push now without significant salary cap concerns.
Now those are two names who are a big part of the group in maybe different ways, Kadri as a catalyst and one of Toronto’s only feisty players, and Brown a beloved teammate who runs off season workouts etc and has presence in the room. So it could effect the team’s chemistry. If let’s say Patrick Marleau is somehow moved before the completion of the 2020-21 season, it would almost no doubt have to be during this coming summer and take his full permission given his contractual clauses giving him control of any movement.
Trading Nazem Kadri sounds unlikely and unpopular perhaps, but even given his minor struggles this season would no doubt fetch a sizeable return. The biggest issue with a Kadri trade in the middle of the season is that the front runners to replace him would be Lindholm and Gauthier, neither of whom have shown any sign that they’re capable, at least at this stage of their careers, to perform as an NHL 3rd line centre. Now, if you were to complete a Kadri trade, you’d be forced to bring in another piece who would no doubt eat up a hefty portion of that new found cap space. Even if that players contract was expiring, there are no immediate cheap options to replace Kadri.
Connor Brown is a different story from Kadri and Marleau. While he doesn’t make nearly as much, he does make more than any team would like to be playing a fourth line player. While he’s shown a tendency to be a very good penalty killer, the team is not short of guys capable of playing down a man. Especially given the emergence of Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen as very good penalty killers. Going forward, Trevor Moore looks like he could be ready to step into a similar role as Brown at a fraction of the cost.
The final, and as far as I’m concerned; most beneficial scenario to Toronto is the somehow inclusion of Nikita Zaitsev. The oft goat horned Russian defender has at times, this season, been the ire of Leafs fans. His lack of poise while handling the puck in his own end has resulted in more than a few bad turnovers. Still, there is possible value in the right shooting third year pro defender.
As we’ve seen over and over, it takes time for defenceman, especially those coming from the European game, to adjust to the lack of time and space in the defensive zone. There is reason to believe that we haven’t seen the best from Zaitsev in that regard. The main issue is without question between the ears in the confidence department.
Zaitsev has decent enough size to compete hard, and certainly above average mobility. He’s shown an ability to block shots and he’s effective on the penalty kill. It’s entirely possible that a team like Chicago can look at what they would hope to be an improving player for similar money as a better option then the declining Keith given the prospects of their immediate future. And by not retaining money on the Keith contract, it would not only afford them the ability to retain on another contract, it would also give them an asset that could potentially be moved in the future should they find themselves in need of extra cap space. As mentioned earlier, there is a premium on right handed defenceman, and that’s likely a trend that will continue over the coming years.
Of course this doesn’t diminish the package of future assets the Leafs would be required to send to Chicago in any impactful way. But it does, perhaps, move Stan Bowman’s interest from a Rasmus Sandin and instead focus it on a Calle Rosen.
So, let’s say for arguments sake, that this last scenario comes to fruition. Where does that leave the Leafs defensive group for the remainder of 2019? The answer to that is one that Mike Babcock might not like. Igor Ozhiganov would become the lone right handed shot. This leaves two options. One is to make another move and bring another right handed shot in. The second is to move Travis Dermott to the right side. He’s said in the past that he’s very comfortable on his off side, it’s not something that coach Babcock likes to do.
In the end, it seems like the hurdles that need to be jumped in order to facilitate a trade which would being Keith to Toronto are stacked far too high for it to be likely. Management in Toronto has shown, over the two previous trade deadlines, that they aren’t afraid to leave the team largely untouched if the prices become too lofty.
If your thirst for deadline additions can only be quenched by the likes of Wayne Simmonds and Duncan Keith, you may be in for a disappointing day.