3 forwards Maple Leafs should target at NHL trade deadline

The Maple Leafs don't have much cap space, but they still have options to improve their roster by the NHL trade deadline.

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With the March 3 trade deadline fast approaching, the Toronto Maple Leafs have just over a month to fortify their roster ahead of another pivotal playoff run, where they’ll attempt to extinguish their postseason demons.

There isn’t much financial flexibility to work with, though, meaning general manager Kyle Dubas will likely be limited to one notable acquisition this year.

The Maple Leafs, like several other NHL clubs, are strapped for cash this season and currently sit well above the $82.5 million salary cap. But with Jake Muzzin ($5.625 million), Nick Robertson ($796,667) and Victor Mete ($750,000) residing on long-term injured reserve, management’s relief pool includes approximately $7.17 million.

Toronto is already using just over $6 million of that figure, leaving them $1.135 million in spending with a 23-skater roster. That amount can be increased by sending a few players to the minors — like Bobby McMann and Joey Anderson, perhaps — and operating with 21 players.

So, how should Dubas spend his team’s remaining cap space? Will he add another blueliner on the back end? Or improve his top-six forward group with a reliable scorer?

As depleted as the Maple Leafs defence has been this season, the current group has performed well thus far, sitting sixth in goals against per game, sixth in shots allowed per game, 11th in expected goals against and 10th in scoring chances against. Up front, however, it might make more sense to acquire a new linemate for John Tavares and Mitch Marner, preferably a left-hander.

And with multiple top-six forwards reportedly available, there likely won’t be any shortage of potential targets for Toronto. So let’s take a peek at a few of them.

Max Domi, C/W, Chicago Blackhawks

Cap hit: $3 million, UFA after 2022-23

The son of Tie Domi, who played 12 seasons with the Maple Leafs from 1994-2006, Max Domi has been wasting away with the Chicago Blackhawks this season.

The 27-year-old impending UFA leads his club in goals (14) and points (32) across 45 games while ranking second among forwards in average ice time (18:22). He also sits tied for first in power-play points (14) and fourth in expected goals (six) at 5-on-5, according to MoneyPuck.

Unlike previous seasons, Domi has been firing pucks at a much higher rate in 2022-23 and converting at the second-highest shooting percentage (13.5 percent) of his career. In comparison, the left-hander’s 13.8 percentage in 2018-19 resulted in career highs in goals (28) and points (72) during his inaugural campaign with the Montreal Canadiens.

The 5-foot-10 forward tallied three goals and six points — including an overtime winner — in 14 playoff games with the Carolina Hurricanes last season following a deadline trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Domi has only dished out 11 hits so far — which would rank last among Toronto's regular forwards, one back of William Nylander — but has been known for his physicality and post-whistle dust-ups. So for a team lacking grit, particularly at forward, the 12th overall selection from 2013 would make the Maple Leafs a tougher opponent.

There probably wouldn’t be room for the Winnipeg, Man., native on Toronto’s top power-play unit, though he could improve the secondary group’s offensive ceiling. And he’d act as another net-front presence, joining Michael Bunting in that regard.

The Maple Leafs could fit Domi’s team-friendly cap hit onto their roster without the Blackhawks retaining 50 percent, limiting his acquisition cost. But if Chicago halved his cap figure, that could allow Dubas to make another move elsewhere.

Gustav Nyquist

Cap hit: $5.5 million, UFA after 2022-23

Like Chicago, Columbus will also attempt to sell off pieces to improve their lottery odds in search of the first overall selection in next summer’s draft, which will likely see Nyquist traded for a second time in his career.

The 33-year-old, dealt from the Detroit Red Wings to the San Jose Sharks in February 2019, is in the final season of his four-year contract with the Blue Jackets and has been a consistent half-point-per-game player during his tenure with the franchise.

Nyquist is a four-time 20-goal scorer and fell just short of that mark last season, finishing with 18 goals in 82 games. This season, the 5-foot-11 lefty sits tied for fourth in goals (10) on the team, tied for third in even-strength goals (eight) and third in expected goals (7.3) at 5-on-5.

Despite notching four goals and 10 points with the man advantage in 2021-22, the veteran forward is without a point during those situations this season. He has been effective on the penalty kill, though, potting a pair of shorthanded markers, tied for the team lead.

At this stage of his career, Nyquist still logs significant minutes each night, earning a career-high 18:06 in average ice time. And thanks to his versatility, he would likely play a reliable role in Toronto’s top or bottom-six group.

Though Nyquist hasn’t made the playoffs since 2020, he would come with seven seasons of postseason experience, including a Western Conference final berth with San Jose in 2019. During that run, he registered one goal and 11 points over 20 contests.

The Maple Leafs would require the Blue Jackets to retain 50 percent of Nyquist’s cap hit, but as a second-tier winger, he could serve as another scoring threat alongside Tavares and Marner.

Nino Niederreiter

Cap hit: $4 million, UFA after 2023-24

Following three and a half seasons in Carolina, Niederreiter inked a two-year deal worth $8 million with the Nashville Predators over the offseason. But with his team underperforming and likely to miss the playoffs, he could be made available via trade.

The 30-year-old has enjoyed a productive inaugural campaign with the Preds, posting 13 goals and 23 points in 47 games. He ranks tied for second in goals, second in even-strength goals (11), second in expected goals (9.5) at 5-on-5 and fifth in points (23) among Nashville skaters.

Niederreiter produced consecutive 20-goal seasons with the Hurricanes from 2020-22 and is poised to extend that streak to three straight this season, accomplishing the feat for the seventh time in his career.

Skating next to teammates Ryan Johansen and Mikael Granlund at 5-on-5 has been an effective combination for Niederreiter, who’s averaging 15:49 of ice time, the second-highest of his career. The 6-foot-2 lefty isn’t a power-play specialist but has notched two goals and four points on the man advantage, making him a viable candidate for Toronto’s second unit.

Similar to Domi, Niederreiter would bring some much-needed physicality to the Maple Leafs, as he’s landed 100-plus hits in seven of his 12 NHL seasons — including 2022-23. He has been a key source in that department this season, with his 103 hits ranking fourth among Predators forwards.

The fifth overall selection from 2010 has nine seasons of playoff experience, four of which have seen his respective team advance beyond the opening round. Last season, Niederreiter netted four goals — three versus the Boston Bruins in the first round — and five points over 14 games.

As a non-rental acquisition, Niederreiter would probably cost more than Domi and Nyquist, especially with Nashville needing to retain 50 percent of his cap hit. But it could be worth paying a little extra for a player of his calibre.

Considering Toronto has six forwards as pending UFAs and two pending RFAs with arbitration eligibility after this season, adding a skater signed through 2023-24 might prove worthwhile this summer.

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