At any given time, there will be two main subsections of teams in the NHL — those poised to contend and the rest. Case in point, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks. As one continues fine-tuning its current core with the ultimate prize in mind, the other has finally accepted its reality as a rebuild. It’s being at either extreme that makes it easy to find mutual benefit when it comes to doing business together.
Each club has had its share of names hit the rumour mill in recent months, so it poses the question of whether or not those mentioned could find themselves as part of a package rather than an individual offering.
That said, this is less a claim that these specific athletes are all currently linked together and more so an exploration of why these pieces are attractive to the other side. Could the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks orchestrate this offseason’s biggest blockbuster trade? If that’s their goal, these are the names that would have to be involved.
Blackhawks Have Talent to Spare
Kyle Davidson has made it abundantly clear that his Blackhawks are now officially in rebuild mode. The fog surrounding the franchise from its lacklustre efforts to slap together a contender, reaching for ingredients that created a recipe better than the result, has cleared.
As such, rather than trying to force characters into a story that’s simply not close to being complete, Chicago has to shift their strategy toward extracting what it can out of its present to formulate a more fruitful future. That could mean leveraging some of their most recognizable stars, since their skill sets might be better suited elsewhere at the moment.
Easily one of the biggest names to be dropped within trade discussion thus far this offseason, Alex DeBrincat is an all-star who has already racked up multiple 41-goal campaigns in his first five years in the league and he’s still not even 25 years old. Safe to say, he’s among the NHL’s elite.
He’s taken on a leadership role, managed increased minutes, and influenced chemistry with every linemate. Simply stated, he continues to improve year-over-year with no signs of having neared his ceiling.
DeBrincat is the type of talent that could become the face of any franchise and his attributes would certainly be welcomed in Toronto’s top-six. Given that it’s already one of the league’s most potent offenses, adding another proven goal scorer would only sharpen that edge.
DeBrincat has not only increased his average shot count every season, averaging 3.29 per game in 2021-22, but he also converts on the opportunities created. That he’s scored as much as he has on a lowly Blackhawks squad suggests he could do a lot more damage with added firepower surrounding him.
Signed for $6.4 million through 2022-23, the Blackhawks might have to bite some of that salary if they want to attract Toronto’s attention. It’s not that DeBrincat isn’t worth every penny, but salary cap implications could get in the way.
For those that then debate the fact that Dubas won’t be able to afford DeBrincat past next season, making the spend too short-sighted, he might not care. If having DeBrincat as a Maple Leaf for only one year leads to their next Stanley Cup, that’s a justifiable cost of doing business.
Once one of Chicago’s most beloved prospects, things turned rather sour for Kirby Dach last season. He just hasn’t panned out to be the type of player most were expecting he would, given that the narrative seemed to suggest that Dach would inevitably take over as Chicago’s next top-line centre.
Failing to progress in the most important areas for his role, Dach’s faceoff win percentage through 2021-22 was the worst of his career thus far. While he’s only entered 152 games through a three-season span, that he’s not improving in certain ways is concerning to a Chicago team that anticipated a much more meaningful impact out of him.
One could look to the wrist injury he suffered prior to the 2021 World Junior Championship as being the setback he’s been unable to overcome. Yet, it’s not as though the talent isn’t there. He may just need to deploy it in a different city.
Currently a restricted free agent (RFA), the Blackhawks would be trading his rights to a Maple Leafs team that could then take advantage of his downward trend when negotiating his next deal.
At only 21 years old, Dach still has lots of time to prove skeptics wrong. Taking this type of low-risk chance could turn into a move that propels Toronto even further ahead in its plan.
Connor Murphy has been one of the few positives on an otherwise underwhelming Blackhawks roster of late. Not known for forcing his name onto the score sheet as often as his more offensively minded defensive partners, the impact he provides on the blue line is an valuable one. That said, he still chips in whenever he’s in a position to do so, having accumulated 71 points in five seasons as a Blackhawk.
Murphy has taken on increased responsibility since joining the organization in 2017-18. Now averaging over 21:00 per night, he continually ranks among the team’s best in hits and blocks. He’s also owned the role as an assistant captain in every regard, helping to lead by example both on and off the ice.
“We do tend to get a good amount of appearances in throughout the year and offseason,” Murphy said of his community efforts during a March appearance on the Blackhawks Insider podcast. “This year, not having that, we were able to improvise where we could and do Zoom calls and do calls with whoever it is — whether it’s kids or groups of staff or workers.”
Signed for a reasonable $4.4 million through 2025-26, Murphy’s is the type of contract that works for all involved. For teams ready to contend sooner than the Blackhawks, it would be irresponsible if they weren’t at least considering what it would take to acquire him.
Similar to DeBrincat, though, it’s not far-fetched to presume that Chicago might have to continue paying some of Murphy’s upcoming salary for Toronto to be in a position to afford him.
Although the Maple Leafs have taken great strides with their defense in recent seasons, it’s still obvious that there is room to improve. As their window to win continues to close, time is not on their side when it comes to hoping that a prospect develops into exactly what they need at the moment.
Whereas Murphy could be relied upon for the type of consistent performances that Toronto has to be able to anticipate night in and night out. Having already proven that in Chicago, it’s time to let the 29-year-old get a chance to play through the remainder of his peak in a place where his value will be utilized accordingly.
Maple Leafs to Spend Strategically
Don’t let Toronto’s perennial First Round losses fool you. This team is on the cusp, but it’s ultimately up to Kyle Dubas to do more. Not shying away from the big moves and important signings that he surely hoped would have translated to greater success by this point in his tenure, Dubas has been liberal with his spending.
Rightfully so, though as there is often a correlation between the lineups that perform the best and the extent to which they’ve stretched their salary cap. With the Maple Leafs up against theirs, freeing up some finances while spending as strategically as possible are both paramount. They still want to improve and being creative with their cap can help.
It’s no secret that the Petr Mrázek experiment in Toronto hasn’t gone to plan. Signed to a three-year contract in July 2021, his cap hit of $3.8 million per suggested he was set to be the perfect starting partner alongside Jack Campbell. Unfortunately, that’s been far from Toronto’s reality thus far.
Mrázek was only able to find his way into 20 games as a Maple Leaf in 2021-22. Mostly due to the fact that his injury troubles followed him into town, but his lacklustre play didn’t help infuse any confidence within the team’s decision-makers either. He was eventually placed on waivers in May 2022 and went unclaimed.
The fact is, there’s a reason Dubas signed Mrázek in the first place. He has a decent track record of success, even if only individually, throughout his 10-year career. Sometimes, things just don’t align as would be ideal and a change of scenery helps everyone involved.
More specifically, it’s to Toronto’s benefit to rid themselves of paying that $3.8 million for any longer than they already have. Chicago, on the other hand, is in a position where they can take on extra spending if the respective transaction influences their future for the better.
It’s not to say that Mrázek should become what Marc-André Fleury was for the Blackhawks, in terms of showing up and taking over the starter’s role. That job should belong to Kevin Lankinen, so that his development can align with the rest of that rebuilding roster.
However, with a .909 save percentage (SV%), 2.64 goals-against average (GAA), and 24 shutouts through nearly 300 NHL games played, having Mrázek in Lankinen’s corner wouldn’t be a bad thing for the team’s goaltending development.
Carrying a price tag of $5.625 million for the next couple of campaigns, the Maple Leafs may have put themselves in a position where keeping Jake Muzzin around just isn’t as feasible as it once seemed.
Far from being performance-related, as Muzzin has done what’s been asked of him in Toronto. Since joining the team mid-way through 2018-19, he’s averaged 21:17 of ice time, racked up over 300 blocks, landed nearly 400 hits, and added 80 points along the way.
The grit that Toronto lacked prior to his arrival is in place every time Muzzin hits the ice. His will to win has been second to none and he’s elevated the level of competition present during every game he’s been part of. Sound like a familiar type of impact?
Not only are the parallels between Muzzin and Murphy too obvious to ignore, but so are the meaningful differences. For one, Murphy is a more economical spend and would provide savings to the Maple Leafs. Second, Muzzin being four years older doesn’t do him any favours when it comes to the trendline of his career. Yet, on the flip side, that mentorship could be invaluable to Chicago’s younger defensive prospects.
While there’s no denying that losing Muzzin would mean the leadership he brought forth would also depart, including the experience of having won a Stanley Cup, being more tactical in their defensive deployment wouldn’t be a bad thing. Plus, Murphy’s never played for a team that’s ready to win. Having that opportunity could see him influence Toronto’s results in a way that Muzzin never did.
Toronto hasn’t been shy when it’s come to risking its future for present gains. Having traded so many of their upcoming draft picks, the strategy screams that they are in it to win it now. So, parting with even more potential shouldn’t be all that difficult to contemplate.
Dubas currently has one first-round pick for the upcoming 2022 NHL Entry Draft. That might be the sweetener necessary to not only make the Blackhawks more comfortable with losing fan favourites like DeBrincat and Murphy, but to also maintain part of their respective payroll after the fact.
The return has to align and a more prominent pick would make that proposition easier to digest. Then, while the Maple Leafs look to extract all they can from what they acquire, the Blackhawks can rest assured that they’re putting the right type of focus into their future.
This would offer the Maple Leafs even less to look forward to when it comes to the upcoming draft. However, for a team that is essentially at their desperation point when it comes to going all-in, worrying about the next era of the organization can’t get in the way of that approach.
Toronto & Chicago Both Benefit
These franchises are trending in drastically different directions and their offseason plans have to align accordingly. Toronto needs to ignite more immediate results, while Chicago is hoping to elicit meaningful progress. Also, one has money to spend and the other needs to find some.
Creating a scenario wherein these two organizations are perfect trade partners, to the point that their current goals from any such transaction don’t even compete. As such, they can be that much more transparent in their approach, encouraging a more open and creative negotiation.
It may seem counterproductive for Toronto to be adding more than they’re shaving off of their payroll, by taking on DeBrincat, Murphy, and Dach. Meanwhile, Chicago acquiring two veterans in Mrázek and Muzzin doesn’t seem to support their rebuild. Yet, the complete picture matters.
To reiterate, this conversation is only being had if the Blackhawks agree to continue paying at least some of the salary they are trading away, in exchange for a package that includes the Maple Leafs’ first-round pick.
Simply stated, this is the type of trade that would immediately improve the Maple Leafs while helping the Blackhawks to pave a more positive path. It’s a win-win.
Freelance thinker, paying too much attention to digital aesthetic. Oxford comma enthusiast. Spider-Man supporter. Sports fan, with two favourite hockey teams. If the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs ever meet in the Stanley Cup Final, you can find me wherever they’re playing that night.