Ranking the Maple Leafs’ top assets ahead of the NHL trade deadline
The trade season finally seems to have arrived and the Toronto Maple Leafs are once again in the thick of the action.
Monday’s blockbuster trade involving Bo Horvat took the most notable trade target out of the market as the All-Star center was traded to the New York Islanders in a three-man deal. Even so, with the March 3 trade deadline fast approaching, the hot stove will likely remain hot for the next few weeks.
The Maple Leafs are expected to be one of the busiest teams in the National Hockey League heading into the deadline. While general manager Kyle Dubas doesn’t have much cap space — just $1.13 million in the LTIR relief pool — he will be looking to provide help up front and back for his club.
Even though Horvat is no longer available, there are still a handful of intriguing skaters available, with the Maple Leafs reportedly linked with forwards Ivan Barbashev, Ryan O’Reilly, Timo Meier, Max Domi and defensemen Jake McCabe and Vladislav Gavrikov.
The Maple Leafs are poised to make waves in the playoffs, but are their trade assets valuable enough to cause a stir at the trade deadline? (Getty Images)
Acquiring any of these players will come at a price – some higher than others – and may test Dubas’ willingness to give up his most valuable trade tokens. So, with that in mind, let’s rank Toronto’s top five assets ahead of next month’s trade deadline.
1. Matthew Knies, L.A.
2022-23 stats: 17 goals, 30 points (28 NCAA games)
Knies, a second-round pick by the Maple Leafs in 2021, is widely considered the franchise’s top prospect and has garnered a lot of attention across the league in recent seasons. But could the 20-year-old be available for the right price?
Toronto was reluctant to include Knies in any potential trade proposals a season ago, and that’s understandable, as he scored 15 goals and 33 points in 33 games in his first campaign with the University of Minnesota, winning BIG10 All -Rookie Team and Second All-Star Team Honors.
As impressive as the southpaw is in 2021-22, he’s been even better this season, scoring 17 goals and 30 points in 28 games while skating alongside top prospects Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud on the Gophers front row.
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At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, Knies is the most NHL-ready prospect in Toronto’s pipeline, but he’s also the player everyone wants. That doesn’t mean Dubas should be in a rush to trade him, though.
Phoenix native Ari., who is still unsigned, looks set to make a significant contribution at the highest level of competition, perhaps as early as this season. And for a cap-short team like the Maple Leafs, adding a player of his caliber to their roster would be invaluable.
But if the front office has the opportunity to acquire a top-six striker, one who is not a hire, parting ways with Knies may become necessary.
2. Topi Niemelä, D
Statistics 2022-23: 6 goals, 12 points (42 Liiga games)
The Maple Leafs are extremely thin on defense in the minors, with the top tier of their prospect system made up of talented forwards. There is, however, one star among the group: Topi Niemelä, a 2020 third-round selection.
Niemelä was considered a marginal first-rounder before slipping to Toronto at 64th overall and moved up the organization’s prospect board as a promising two-way defender. He burst offensively at the 2020-21 World Juniors, scoring two goals and eight points en route to winning a bronze medal and being named the tournament’s top defenseman.
The 5ft 11in right-hander continued his attacking dominance with Kärpät last season, posting 10 goals and 32 points in 48 games, setting a new Liiga record for most points in a season by a defender under 20 years old. Best of all, his goalscoring prowess didn’t compromise his defensive impact.
The now 20-year-old hasn’t been as effective in 2022-23, with six goals and 12 points in 42 games, but was relegated to the depth chart after some off-season veteran additions. However, he remains a difference maker in defense.
Similar to Knies, the Maple Leafs likely won’t be willing to trade Niemelä at the deadline unless it’s for an impact player who’s under contract beyond this season.
3. 2023 first-round pick
Are the Maple Leafs ready to part ways with another first-round selection, especially with only five picks — four if Arizona uses their pick trade — available this season? May be. After all, they haven’t been shy about doing it in the past.
Toronto has made eight total draft selections in the previous two seasons, with their most recent 2020 first-round pick (Rodion Amirov) courtesy of Kasperi Kapanen’s trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Prior to that, the management traded first-rounders in back-to-back campaigns.
Dubas dropped out of the first round in last summer’s draft, tying his selection to Petr Mrázek ($3.8 million touchdown), dropping 13 spots to select Fraser Minten, who is already considered one of the top five prospects in the Toronto crop.
Nick Foligno’s 2021 trade, however, exploded in the worst possible way as Toronto traded a first and two quarterbacks in exchange for Foligno’s 11 games before suffering a season-ending injury and eventually signing with the Bruins from Boston the following offseason.
The team also traded its 2020 first-rounder to Carolina as part of the salary swap with Patrick Marleau and its 2019 first-rounder to Los Angeles as part of the Jake Muzzin deal. Given their poor track record, they’ll likely aim to be more cautious with this year’s first-round pick.
4. Holmberg Bridge, C
2022-23 stats: Five goals, 13 points (32 NHL games)
Now is the time to dive into some of Toronto’s big league assets, starting with Holmberg, who impressed during his rookie campaign with the Buds.
At 23, the 5-foot-10 southpaw has performed the little things while providing effective defense, earning the respect of head coach Sheldon Keefe. He doesn’t make flashy plays, although he was rarely a liability on the ice and acted as a reliable playmaker, creating plenty of scoring opportunities for his teammates.
The problem, however, is that Holmberg will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer, joining Ilya Samsonov and Joey Anderson. And with less than $12 million in cap space slated for next season, the Maple Leafs could be in a tough spot to retain the young center.
In an ideal world, Holmberg signs an extension with Toronto this summer and opens the 2023-24 campaign as a top forward in the last six. There is no doubt that he would receive considerable commercial interest from across the league, however.
As someone who could help a team in the present and the future, Dubas may have to seriously consider trading the sixth-round selection from 2018.
2022-23 stats: 10 goals, 18 points (49 NHL games)
Engvall, a future unrestricted free agent, is expected to get a raise from this season’s $2.25 million cap reached next summer and could potentially pull out of Toronto. Even so, the 26-year-old could be a valuable acquisition for someone who can afford his next deal.
The 6-foot-5, 214-pound winger has developed his craft since his 2019-20 debut, scoring 10 or more goals in consecutive seasons, including this one. He’s also taken on increased equal strength and power play responsibilities, averaging 13:10 of ice time since last season compared to 11:56 in his first two seasons.
Progress has also been made on the face-off spot, with Engvall earning a career-high 51.9% of his attempts this season, a nearly 10% increase from 2021-22.
More importantly, taking Engvall’s contract off Toronto’s payroll would create additional financial flexibility for Dubas, likely allowing him to pursue multiple second-tier players or a high-profile target at the deadline.
Honorable Mention Nick Robertson, LW
2022-23: Two goals, five points (15 NHL games)
Robertson probably would have been one of the Maple Leafs’ most valuable trade chips this season had he not been injured at the end of the season.
The 21-year-old, plagued by numerous injuries during his young career, made an impact at the NHL level earlier in the campaign and showed his offensive potential every night. His most notable moment, of course, came when he netted the game-winner in overtime against his brother, Jason, and the Dallas Stars.
Teams are allowed to trade injured players, although that rarely happens these days, meaning it’s a safe bet that Robertson will still be a Leaf when he arrives at training camp in the fall. next.
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