Only eight days after falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1 of the 2021-22 NHL Playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off their offseason by re-signing veteran defenseman Mark Giordano to a two-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $800,000. The signing comes after the Maple Leafs added Giordano along with forward Colin Blackwell in a trade deadline deal with the Seattle Kraken.
It was a great trade for general manager, Kyle Dubas, to make, especially after their trade deadline deal for forward Nick Foligno in 2020-21. They acquired the 38-year-old Toronto native without giving up their first-round pick or any of their top prospects, and with it came the speculation that he would follow in veteran Jason Spezza’s footsteps and sign an extension with his hometown team for less than market value. On Sunday, that speculation became a reality.
However, with the extension comes questions about how the defensive corps will shape together with Giordano in the fold next season. When the Maple Leafs acquired him, it came at a perfect time as the team put young defenseman Rasmus Sandin on the injured reserve the next day. With Sandin healthy and good to go for next season, that leaves the Maple Leafs with him, Giordano, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Muzzin on the left side. I’m sure there’s a way the Maple Leafs could fit all four of these players into the defensive corps if they really wanted to, but if not, they may have to trade somebody to clear space. If they do, I believe Muzzin would be the most likely candidate.
Maple Leafs Get Great Value Out of the Giordano Extension
One note off the top before we get to the details, the Maple Leafs are getting a ton of value with this extension. For somebody like Giordano, who possesses leadership, experience, and skill despite his age, I imagine that he could have commanded at least a couple million dollars on the market. So, for the Maple Leafs to get him at less than a hundred thousand dollars shy of the league minimum is a great first step this offseason.
In his press conference announcing the signing, Dubas made a point to acknowledge that Giordano made a “tremendous sacrifice” during their contract negotiations. Although he didn’t specifically say it, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand Giordano took less money to play for his hometown team. Like Spezza, a mindset like that is one that you want your team’s veterans to have and hopefully rub off on the younger players.
The extension is important for the on-ice benefits as much as the off-ice benefits. Giordano tallied 12 points in 20 games during the rest of the regular season, and he instantly added a calming presence to the back end that had a visible effect on some of the team’s other defensemen. Most notably, Timothy Liljegren, who wasn’t even a regular player at the start of the season, ended up finishing with 22 points in 61 games and had a new sense of confidence in his game. Regardless of what moves the Maple Leafs may have to make to accommodate for Giordano, it’s worth the roster headache.
Moving Muzzin Would Come With Questions, Obstacles
It’s tough for me to write an article like this about a player who’s been a rock on the back end since he got to Toronto. Muzzin instantly gave the Maple Leafs a player they didn’t have, and one that fans had been clamouring for since the mid-2000s. He and Justin Holl were their best defensive pairing in 2020-21, and even though the 2021-22 campaign was injury-riddled and full of ups and downs for Muzzin, he still came back in the playoffs and was their best defenseman in that series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But two things are working against Muzzin in terms of the other Maple Leafs’ defensemen, and those two things are his cap hit and his long-term health. Muzzin signed an extension a year after the Maple Leafs acquired him, and while I still believe he’s worth the $5.6 million he’s making, it’s money that the Maple Leafs could use to upgrade elsewhere, especially when they have Sandin ready to step into a bigger role. While I’m not going to speculate on Muzzin’s health, I’d imagine that would have to be a conversation this summer after he suffered two concussions this season.
The other hurdle is the fact that Muzzin has a no-trade clause, meaning the Maple Leafs technically can’t move him unless he waives it. This isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but it throws a wrench into things. There are a lot of factors that will make trading Muzzin difficult, and it’s going to be a tough situation for Dubas to navigate this summer.
Maple Leafs More Likely to Promote Sandin Rather Than Trade Him
When Giordano signed his extension, I also floated the idea of moving Sandin if the Maple Leafs wanted to reward Muzzin for his strong playoff performance and stick to a defensive corps of grizzled veterans. But when I say “floated”, I meant it. I highly doubt that if it comes down to keeping Sandin or Muzzin, they’ll keep Muzzin.
Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe have been Sandin’s biggest fans from the start. He played for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)’s Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, where Dubas has roots, and he’s progressed at a much faster rate than anticipated. He’s developed a very strong hockey IQ, his defensive game is miles ahead of where it should be for somebody his age, and he’s underrated physically as well.
So if the Maple Leafs wanted to move Sandin instead of Muzzin, they could. But in that case, I believe it would have to be for a big-ticket player, whether it’s a player for the top six or an elite goaltender. He’s also a pending restricted free agent, and I can’t imagine the Maple Leafs would tender him only to trade him. So now that we’ve written off Sandin, who would they move instead of Muzzin? They just signed Rielly to an eight-year extension, and while Justin Holl could be moved this offseason as well, depleting the right side of the defensive corps doesn’t seem like the right thing to do to make room for a left-handed defenseman.
Maple Leafs Have to Consider Roles For Young Defensemen
I’ve spent a good chunk of this article analyzing what the Giordano signing means for the Maple Leafs’ defensive corps, but more than anything, the real question is what the extension means for Sandin and Liljegren. The possibility of moving Muzzin is the result that more than the extension itself. Sandin and Liljegren are both ready for regular roles on the team, and we’ve seen the impact Giordano has on players like Liljegren.
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As I said, this is pure speculation on my part. Nothing aside from the extension itself is confirmed. But with talk of the Maple Leafs making some big “summer of Kawhi” trade followed by Sunday’s news, I think moving Muzzin would make the most sense based on his injury history and his cap hit. But that move will be a complicated one to make, and as I’ve said many times before, I don’t envy Dubas’ work ahead.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.