The Toronto Maple Leafs made some long awaited moves to add to their defensive corps earlier this month with the trades for right-handers Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, but only have a one-year window before GM Kyle Dubas has to make some difficult choices.
Barrie, Ceci and veteran Jake Muzzin are all unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2019-20 season and Travis Dermott’s entry-level contract expires, which means that Dubas will have to figure out how many free agents he can get under contract prior to next July.
The Leafs acquired Muzzin in late January in exchange for prospects Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi and Toronto’s 2019 first round pick (Tobias Bjornfot).
The price tag was steep for the Stanley Cup winner, but the benefit was that his being signed through next season at a reasonable $4 Million salary, which provided Dubas insurance with Gardiner likely departing via free agency.
The acquisition appeared to be a point of consternation for head coach Mike Babcock, since Muzzin was not the right-handed shot he longed for. After playing a bit with Morgan Rielly, the 30-year-old settled in on the second pairing with Nikita Zaitsev and provided a stabilizing presence, experience and physical play that Toronto was looking for, but the Leafs failure to follow through with more upgrades of their blueline before the trade deadline and injuries to Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott limited the effectiveness of their defense corps down the stretch and in the first round playoff loss to Boston.
Muzzin reached the 40-point mark with the Kings on three occasions, playing at times with Drew Doughty and there is speculation that he will be partnered with the offensive-minded Barrie, which could set up the veteran for a career year heading into free agency.
The Leafs plan is likely to try to get one or more of the pending UFA’s locked up prior to next July. Muzzin is playing close to home (Woodstock, ON), is turning 31 before hitting the open market and is playing for a Stanley Cup contender, which are all factors in favor of Toronto.
The main factor may be how many years the Leafs will be willing to go on a long-term deal, because a league desperate for defensive help is more than willing to overpay when July 1st comes around.
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