Ilya Lyubushkin
Ilya Lyubushkin

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Sheldon Keefe called the Toronto Maple Leafs’ performance on Saturday night versus the St. Louis Blues one of their worst defensive games of the season. 

Less than an hour later, Kyle Dubas put a plan in place to remedy it. 

The Maple Leafs acquired defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and forward Ryan Dzingel from the Arizona Coyotes shortly after the final horn sounded on Saturday in exchange for estranged forward Nick Ritchie and a conditional draft pick. 

As per those aforementioned conditions, Arizona will have the option of taking either Toronto’s third-round pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, or their second-round pick in 2025. 

More importantly, though, this brings about the end of the Nick Ritchie Saga. 

Ritchie was about as sunk as an asset can get prior to tonight’s trade, toiling away with the Toronto Marlies for the past week after a two-goals-in-33-games start to the season landed him in the AHL. 

Factor in how the Maple Leafs gave Ritchie quite literally every single possible opportunity to succeed at the NHL level — starting him on the first line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, installing him on the team’s second power-play unit out of training camp, and going out of their way to steer any public criticism away from him amidst his struggles — and there was simply nothing else they could do. 

Ritchie was a $2.5 million anchor that provided practically no value to the Leafs’ roster or salary cap. Keeping him in the AHL would’ve only made the hulking winger more disgruntled than he already was, and taken away precious playing time from a prospect that actually needed it. 

So, now he’s gone. And not in a mere cap dump, either. 

The Maple Leafs somehow managed to take their sunk asset and turn him into two quality additions to their roster in Lyubushkin and Dzingel. Who could’ve predicted that? 

Given his position and the strengths of his game, Lyubushkin is the obvious headliner here. 

The 27-year-old is quite literally the definition of a defense-first player, in that Lyubushkin provides no offense whatsoever. None. His one goal in 180 career NHL games spread across four seasons illustrates that quite well. 

But what Lyubushkin lacks in scoring goals of his own, he makes up for in preventing them from his opponents. 

According to JFresh of EP Rinkside’s data, Lyubushkin lands in the 95 percentile among NHL forward in even-strength defense this season. He does one thing and he does it well: limit opposing chances, which is particularly notable given how he managed to somehow put up stellar defensive numbers on a Coyotes team whose rebuild has them one step away from begging their opponents to score on them. 

That type of defensive-focused trench work is precisely what the Maple Leafs need at the moment. With Justin Holl in the midst of a nightmare season and Timothy Liljegren looking a tad over his head in a top-four role, Lyubushkin provides Toronto’s blueline some short-term relief both at even-strength and on the penalty kill. 

Dzingel, while not having been particularly effective over the past two-or-so years, is still a former 25-goal man who has yet to celebrate his 30th birthday and could find a little gas left in the tank now playing for a team with playoff aspirations for the first time since the pre-COVID era of humanity. 

At just $1.1 million on an expiring contract, to boot, there are worse bets to take. And, at the very least, Dzingel’s four goals this season are twice as many as Ritchie’s output despite coming in less ice time and alongside worse linemates. 

It’s a low bar. A very low bar. But at least Dzingel steps over it. 

But of course, this trade does not come without its cap implications. 

Lyubushkin and Dzingel, who are both UFAs at year’s end, combine for $2.45 million in salary that comes in lower than Ritchie’s $2.5 million price tag, actually granting the Leafs cap space ahead of the trade deadline while still addressing roster needs. 

The hitch in the giddy-up is that, even after clearing that extra space, the Leafs would still not be cap compliant without making an additional roster move tomorrow. Someone has to go. 

The easiest choice logistically would be to send Liljegren to the AHL thanks to his status as the lone Leaf with waivers exemption. But Toronto already did that earlier this week much to Keefe’s chagrin — and, frankly, Liljegren’s development. The 22-year-old is an NHL player. Don’t send him down just because you can. 

What this likely means instead is the end of one of Holl or Travis Dermott’s time on the Leafs’ NHL roster — either via a trade out of town or by hitting waivers. Both players have wound up as scratches for extended periods this season, with Dermott being the odd man out on Saturday night once Liljegren returned to the lineup, and have struggled to stay in the lineup. 

Regardless of who it ends up being, someone ultimately has to go. 

In the meantime, though, the Maple Leafs turned a disastrous situation into an advantageous one, adding depth to two key areas of their roster while clearing cap space in the process. 

That’s some tidy business from Kyle Dubas, even if his work is far from done. 

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