If it isn’t already, the Toronto Maple Leafs front office will inevitably start looking for help on defence. And there’s no more obvious place to start, potentially, for GM Brad Treliving than his former team in Calgary.
The Flames boast three defenders, all pending UFAs, who look like fits for the Leafs in Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, and Nikita Zadorov.
All three were brought to Calgary by Treliving: Hanifin in the Dougie Hamilton blockbuster, Tanev and Zadorov in free agency.
Who fits best? Each has appeal.
Hanifin would be the biggest boon in the short and, maybe, the long term. He’s 26 going on 27 (in January), with the most all-around ability of the three.
The Leafs could slot Hanifin onto the left side of their second pair and play him and Timothy Liljegren (?) against the second wave of tough competition each night. That would help ease the burden on the top pair of Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie — a twosome that’s been effectively countering top lines this season (with little help) while getting buried in the defensive zone (38 percent offensive zone faceoff percentage).
It would also allow the Leafs to move Jake McCabe (struggling before his groin injury) down the depth chart and onto the third pair, where, I would argue, he’s better suited. And that, finally, would make 40-year-old Mark Giordano more of a playoff option than a necessity.
Another option: Play Hanifin with Brodie and free up Rielly for more offensive opportunities.
A 1-2-3 of Rielly, Hanifin, and McCabe down the left side would be solid, and might even be a combination the Leafs could keep together beyond this season. (More on that in a second.)
Hanifin could do a little bit of everything for the Leafs: skate the puck out of danger; move the puck efficiently (miscues against the Leafs on a rough Friday night notwithstanding); bring some offence to a D core that mostly lacks it; defend late leads; kill some penalties in a depth role; and even slide onto the No. 2 power-play unit if needed.
Of course, there’s a rub and it’s twofold.
For one thing, the Flames may still want to hang on to Hanifin and were in talks to extend his contract not all that long ago. To trade him would mean giving up on that possibility with the eye on getting a lot back in return.
The Leafs don’t have a ton of attractive/tradeable assets, especially ones — i.e. Matthew Knies — that won’t detract from the current roster.
A first-round pick in 2024, Fraser Minten, Topi Niemela, and Easton Cowan arguably top the list. Do the Leafs want to part with any of that, especially absent a ton of clear-cut substance coming down the pipeline?
The Leafs have already dealt their first- and second-round picks in 2025 along with their second-rounder next summer.
Maybe they would part with more good stuff if they knew they could agree on an extension with Hanifin.
There’s the question of a) whether Hanifin, an American who has an eight-team no-trade list, wants to play here now or long term, and b) what it would take for him to consider staying.
Hanifin’s current deal came with a $4.95 million cap hit. Is he looking for more than $7 million annually on the next one? Should the Leafs commit that kind of money for the long haul to a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none defenceman who’s eclipsed 40 points only once and won’t play on a first unit of either special teams unit (not unlike Rielly at times)?
Brodie will be a UFA next summer, which frees up $5 million in cap space. John Klingberg’s $4.15 million will also come off the books by then, if not sooner (maybe even as part of a deal that sends futures to Calgary). The Leafs will need to incorporate a raise for Liljegren, a pending RFA, but a pricey new Hanifin deal still feels manageable (I think?) as the cap rises and would give the Leafs a D core beyond this season of Rielly, Hanifin, McCabe, Liljegren, and Conor Timmins. (Is that good enough?)
Brodie could even return at a reduced number to round out the group.
Tanev could eat defensive innings for head coach Sheldon Keefe on the right side and bring the kind of defensive ruggedness this team has mostly lacked since Jake Muzzin’s career came to an end. He deftly shut down a Mitch Marner rush Friday night with relative ease. He would help stand guard against first and second lines, block a million shots and instantly upgrade the Leafs’ ailing penalty kill.
He remains expert at defending his own net and limiting the kind of chances the Leafs’ defence (especially McCabe and Klingberg) has allowed far too many of this season.
Keefe would have some more optionality on defence with Tanev in the mix. He could play Tanev with Rielly, leaving Brodie to hook back up with McCabe on a No. 2 combo. That would allow Liljegren to reconnect with Giordano on the third pair. (Klingberg feels like such a question mark at this point that I’m not including him in pair projections here.)
Rielly – Tanev
McCabe – Brodie
Giordano – Liljegren
Keefe could keep Rielly and Brodie as is, which makes sense with how well they’ve played this season, and use Tanev alongside McCabe. Is there enough puck-moving and mobility on a twosome like that? Maybe not.
Another option: Slide Brodie to the left and play him with Tanev. Then, move Liljegren up to play with Rielly. The Rielly-Liljegren combo has never really worked, but Liljegren looked like a different player before he suffered a high ankle sprain.
That would allow Keefe to play McCabe on the third pair.
Rielly – Liljegren
Brodie – Tanev
Giordano – McCabe
The big issue with Tanev for years in Vancouver was health. That’s not been a huge issue in Calgary: Tanev played in 65 games last season and all 82 the year before that.
He will turn 34 in December, and the Leafs are already counting on a 33-year-old Brodie to stay healthy and play big minutes when it matters. That’s not to mention McCabe, who turned 30 last month and has already missed time this season.
Adding Tanev carries some risk that way. Can he and Brodie hold up playing hard and heavy minutes into the spring? Tanev is averaging only 18.5 minutes this season for the Flames, his fewest since his early days in Vancouver.
He is a Toronto native. Maybe he’ll be willing to stick around on a Giordano-like deal beyond this season.
At a monster 6-foot-6 and 248 pounds, meanwhile, Zadorov would give the Leafs the kind of beef and length that’s badly lacking on this particular defence — and that Treliving, in particular, covets. That and a layer of physicality that was on display against Tyler Bertuzzi in particular Friday.
He also might be looking for a way out of Calgary.
**Breaking News 🚨 📰**
Fresh off a goal and big hit tonight against the @MapleLeafs , I’m told that D Zadorov through his agent @GoldStarHockey Dan Milstein has requested a trade from the @NHLFlames . #HockeyTwitter pic.twitter.com/TRZqwcgyd5
— Kevin Weekes (@KevinWeekes) November 11, 2023
Zadorov gets around well, too, for someone so humongous and can play both the left and right sides. Keefe could conceivably pair him with just about anyone and slot him onto the No. 2 penalty-killing unit straight away.
The cost for him and Tanev will be lighter than for Hanifin.
Luke Schenn, another defence-first pending UFA, cost the Leafs a third-round pick last season. That feels like the right price for either Tanev or Zadorov.
Why not trade for two from among Hanifin, Tanev and Zadorov if the Flames decide to sell?
That will require many assets, especially if a third team is involved for salary retention purposes. Klingberg might have to go the other way in such a deal to make the money work.
Acquiring the Flames’ entire No. 2 pair would leave the Leafs with a defence that could look something like this:
Rielly – Brodie
Hanifin – Tanev
McCabe – Liljegren
Can the Leafs afford the haul for Hanifin and either Tanev or Zadorov? Maybe not.
A trade for one or more of the Calgary defenders is dependent on the Flames’ fortunes slip-sliding away. In that case, the Leafs might also want to look at another pending UFA up front, Elias Lindholm.
Like for Hanifin, the acquisition cost for Lindholm would be enormous. (Is shooting for Lindholm and one from among Tanev, Hanifin, or Zadorov too over the top?) He would give the Leafs the kind of second/third option in the middle they so desperately need (Max Domi improvement at 3C notwithstanding).
Other options for upgrading the defence will obviously emerge as the season rolls along. But for Treliving, there may be no better place than home or, rather, where home used to be.
— Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.
(Top photo of John Tavares playing the puck against Noah Hanifin: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)