Could the Blackhawks Help Solve Toronto's Blue Line Problem?

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Could the Blackhawks Help Solve Toronto’s Blue Line Problem?

Chicago Blackhawks

On Tuesday morning, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced another potentially catastrophic injury to their defensive group.

Reilly joins Jake Muzzin on LTIR, and Toronto also has TJ Brodie on IR. Right now, their highest paid, healthy defenseman is Justin Holl, who was drafted by the Blackhawks in 2010. His cap hit is $2 million this season.

This is a huge problem for a Leafs team that is supposed to win right now. This is supposed to be their championship window, and they’re playing well enough to be in second place in their division behind the ridiculous Boston Bruins. But that could change with Reilly missing the reported 4-6 weeks. Their defensive group wasn’t that strong to begin with, and now they’re missing their two best (and most expensive) defensemen.

Which begs the question: could the Blackhawks help them fix their blue line situation?

I wrote last week that the Blackhawks have a logjam on the blue line in both Chicago and Rockford, and yesterday’s call-up in Rockford adds more intrigue to the roster(s) in the NHL and AHL. The Blackhawks have seven healthy defensemen (not including Seth Jones) and the IceHogs now have eight defensemen on their roster.

But there are two significant issues we need to consider.

First, the Leafs have zero cap space. They’re already dipping into LTIR money for more than $5 million, trying desperately to stay in the playoff picture long enough for some of their injured players to get healthy. Their roster is also incredibly top-heavy financially, with three players — Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitchell Marner — hitting the cap for more than $10 million this year.

So if the Blackhawks were to make a deal with Toronto, they would likely need to bring back a contract and retain salary if one of Jake McCabe or Connor Murphy was the player involved. Toronto would need to determine which player (likely a forward because their defense doesn’t exist) would need to leave and how that would impact their chemistry moving forward, and then still need to make the money work.

The Leafs would also need to be willing to accept the term left on either of those contracts if they were involved. McCabe has two more years at $4 million after this, while Murphy has three more at $4.4 million.

Chicago’s front office would probably need to eat salary on either of those deals to make it work financially for Toronto, which is another headache. NHL teams can only retain salary on three deals per season, and if/when the Blackhawks ever get to the point that one/both of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are on the market, the likelihood is that Chicago will need to eat salary on both of those players as well.

More than that, Kyle Davidson would need to be willing to have dead money on the books for the remainder of the term on either deal if he retained on them, which complicates the deal further from Chicago’s perspective. Kane and Toews are UFAs after this season.

Which brings us back to the right defenseman for Chicago to consider moving if they were to engage Toronto in negotiations. It might not be McCabe or Murphy, though they are better fits for what Toronto is trying to accomplish. Caleb Jones isn’t playing well right now, so it doesn’t seem likely the Leafs would want to add him to a blue line that is garnering its share of complaints (especially Holl, if you’re on Twitter during Leafs games).

Would Toronto have interest in Jack Johnson? And would he be open to a move to a contender on a one-year deal? His cap his is much more attractive ($950,000) and he’s been playing heavy enough minutes (20:11 per night) in Chicago that he could prove a valuable option with limited financial exposure to the Leafs. And he wouldn’t cost the Leafs much in a trade, though the returning asset would impact that issue.

And that’s the second significant question that needs to be answered if Chicago engaged Toronto in a trade discussion. The Leafs don’t have a second- or fourth-round pick in the 2023 draft. They do have their own and Ottawa’s pick in the third round this year, however.

Would those picks be enough for Davidson to bring back salary in a deal? And how would the player coming back work on the Blackhawks’ current roster? Davidson has said all along that he’s willing to bring in a contract so long as it doesn’t hurt the Blackhawks’ system; the player needs to fit what Luke Richardson is doing. And, remember, the Blackhawks also have too many forwards on their NHL roster at the moment as well.

Add to all of that the returns of Tyler Johnson (soon, hopefully) and Seth Jones at some point, and the Blackhawks have enough bodies that they could stand to move one or two out… but at least one would likely be coming back in a trade with the Leafs.

So the question becomes: would a package of Jack Johnson and an inexpensive forward (Boris Katchouk?) for a player like Pierre Engvall ($2.25M cap hit, UFA in 2023) and a couple third-round picks in the 2023 draft make sense for the two sides?

If that makes sense, I’m sure we’ll find out soon.

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Author: Tab Bamford

Tab is the Lead Blackhawks voice for BN. He is the author of two books about the Blackhawks, most recently "Chicago Blackhawks: An Illustrated Timeline" (Reedy Press, 2021). Find him on Twitter at @The1Tab