Maple Leafs trade Ritchie to Coyotes for Lyubushkin and Dzingel
Sheldon Keefe called the Toronto Maple Leafs’ performance Saturday night against the St. Louis Blues one of their worst defensive games of the season.
Less than an hour later, Kyle Dubas was putting a plan in place to fix it.
The Maple Leafs acquired defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and forward Ryan Dzingel from the Arizona Coyotes shortly after the last honk Saturday in exchange for forward Nick Ritchie and a conditional draft pick.
Pursuant to the aforementioned terms, Arizona will have the option of choosing either Toronto’s third-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft or its second-round pick in 2025.
More importantly, it ends the Nick Ritchie saga.
Ritchie was about as sunk as an asset can get before tonight’s trade, struggling with the Toronto Marlies last week after a two-goal-in-33-game start to the season took him into the AHL.
Factor in how the Maple Leafs literally gave Ritchie every possible chance to succeed at the NHL level – starting him on the front line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, installing him on the second playing unit of power of the team out of training camp, and doing everything possible to ward off any public criticism of him amid his struggles – and there was simply nothing else they could do.
Ritchie was a $2.5 million mainstay who added next to no value to the Leafs roster or salary cap. Keeping him in the AHL would have only made the hulking winger angrier than he already was and robbed a prospect who badly needed it of valuable playing time.
So now he’s gone. And not in a simple dump either.
The Maple Leafs managed to take their sunk asset and turn it into two quality additions to their roster in Lyubushkin and Dzingel. Who could have predicted that?
Given his position and the strengths of his game, Lyubushkin is the obvious headliner here.
The 27-year-old is literally the definition of a first defensive player, as Lyubushkin provides no offense. Any. His only goal in 180 career NHL games spanning four seasons illustrates this.
But what Lyubushkin lacks in scoring his own goals, he makes up for by preventing them from his opponents.
According to data from JFresh of EP Rinkside, Lyubushkin lands in the 95th percentile among NHL forwards in even-strength defense this season. He does one thing and he does it well: limit opposing chances, which is especially remarkable considering how he’s managed to put up stellar defensive numbers on a Coyotes team whose rebuild has them one step away. to beg their opponents to score on them.
That kind of defensive-focused trench work is precisely what the Maple Leafs need right now. With Justin Holl in the midst of a nightmarish season and Timothy Liljegren looking a little over his head in a top-four role, Lyubushkin offers the Toronto blue line some short-term relief both at even strength and outnumbered.
Dzingel, though he hasn’t been particularly effective in the last couple of years or so, is still a former 25-goal player who has yet to celebrate his 30th birthday and could find some gas in the tank. now playing for a team with playoff aspirations for the first time since mankind’s pre-COVID era.
At just $1.1 million on an expiring contract, to boot, there are worse bets to be made. And, at the very least, Dzingel’s four goals this season are twice as much as Ritchie’s output despite having less ice time and playing alongside worse teammates.
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 the end of the year, combine for a salary of $2.45 million, less than Ritchie’s $2.5 million price tag, effectively handing the Leafs a cap space before the trade deadline while meeting roster needs.
The catch in the giddy is that even after clearing that extra space, the Leafs still wouldn’t be cap-compliant without making an additional roster change tomorrow. Somebody has to go.
The logistically simpler choice would be to send Liljegren to the AHL thanks to his status as the only Leaf with waiver 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 it just because you can.
What that likely means instead is the end of either of Holl’s or Travis Dermott’s time on the Leafs’ NHL roster — either via an out-of-town trade or hitting some derogations. Both players have found each other like scratches for long stretches this season, with Dermott being the odd man out on Saturday night once Liljegren returned to the lineup, and struggled to stay in the lineup.
Whoever it ends up being, someone has to go eventually.
In the meantime, however, the Maple Leafs have turned a dire situation into an advantageous one, adding depth to two key areas of their roster while freeing up space in the process.
It’s a tidy Kyle Dubas affair, even if his work is far from done.