Approaching the 20-game mark in the schedule, the Toronto Maple Leafs are clinging to the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference entering Wednesday's game against the New York Islanders.
That has been a cause of grumbling in Leafs Nation. GM Kyle Dubas’ off-season moves were questioned. Some fans called for coach Mike Babcock to be fired. A few Toronto pundits asked Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Los Angeles' Drew Doughty how the Leafs could become a Stanley Cup contender. But it's still very early in this NHL season. Apart from the glaring need for an experienced backup goaltender, most of the media trade chatter involving the Leafs is on a low volume.
Nevertheless, there's no denying the Leafs aren't playing up to the heightened expectations of their followers. Trade rumblings could grow louder if things don't improve soon.
The return of Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman from off-season surgeries sparked a guessing game over which players could be waived or traded. Nic Petan and Martin Marincin were assigned to the minors but Mitch Marner's recent high-ankle sprain forced Petan's recall. Marner's month-long absence should also earn Jason Spezza an opportunity.
Prior to Marner's injury, the Toronto Star's Kevin McGran wondered if Dubas could package two or three of his spare players to get back something more meaningful than salary-cap space. Noting Petan got into the lineup against the Kings last week, McGran wondered if he was being showcased. With Marner on the shelf, the 24-year-old Petan could earn more playing time and draw more interest from rival clubs.
Michael Hutchinson's poor performance had the Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan pointing out the Leafs' need for goaltending depth. Hutchinson was placed on waivers and Kasimir Kaskisuo was called up from the Marlies. If Kaskisuo doesn't pan out, Dubas could be forced into the trade market. The Athletic's James Mirtle was asked by a reader if Detroit Red Wings starter Jimmy Howard might be worth pursuing. Mirtle cited Howard's age (36) and $4-million salary among the factors making that move unlikely.
Citing the imminent return of Dermott and Hyman, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported last week teams were checking to see if the Leafs were interested in moving a big salary. He said they want to see their full roster in action before reaching any decisions. Marner's absence will complicate that evaluation. And even if Dubas is willing to move a significant contract, it won't be Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly or Frederik Andersen. The same goes for William Nylander if Dubas is to keep his word that the winger will be a Leaf as long as Dubas is GM.
Other options include Cody Ceci ($4.5 million), Jake Muzzin ($4 million), Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million), Andreas Johnsson ($3.4 million) and Kasperi Kapanen ($3.2 million). Rival clubs could be interested in the latter three but Dubas recently re-signed them and will be reluctant to move any of them along. Muzzin is a core piece of the Leafs defense corps. Ceci probably won't fetch a great return.
The Leafs are also carrying roughly half of Tyson Barrie's $5.4 million salary-cap hit. With just five points in 19 games, the mobile rearguard is off to a slow start with his new club. Barrie might benefit from skating with a club that allows him to return to his offensive style.
HURRICANES, SABRES COULD MOVE DEFENDERS
Teams seeking additional defensive depth should contract the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres. According to TSN's Pierre LeBrun and Darren Dreger, both clubs could shop a rearguard to free up the logjam on their respective bluelines.
LeBrun said the Hurricanes would be willing to move Trevor van Riemsdyk or Haydn Fleury. Both are restricted free agents next summer with salary arbitration rights. The asking price could be a top-nine forward.
Fleury, 23, was a first-round draft pick in 2014 and an affordable pickup for most clubs. However, van Riemsdyk could attract a better return. Fleury has only 99 NHL games under his belt while van Riemsdyk, 28, has over 324 contests on his resume, including Stanley Cup experience with Chicago in 2015.
Meanwhile, Dreger believes the Sabres must move someone once Marco Scandella and Zach Bogosian return from injury. Rasmus Ristolainen was the subject of considerable off-season trade chatter but he's reportedly happy playing for first-year Sabres coach Ralph Krueger. Rasmus Dahlin and Brandon Montour aren't going anywhere and it's unlikely they'll try to move Colin Miller. Unless the Sabres intend to move Scandella or Bogosian, they could consider demoting or trading Jake McCabe or John Gilmour.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.