Why the Maple Leafs should sell at this year's trade deadline

Mike Stephens
NHL analyst

Now that we’ve finished putting our faith in false Twitter idols, it’s time to talk seriously about this year’s trade deadline — arguably the most important of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ current contention era.

With teams around the league frantically loading up their rosters with external assets, the Leafs now face an intriguing crossroads ahead of Feb. 24: that being, whether they should buy or sell.

Admittedly, both arguments hold water. So, in the spirit of the trading season, I thought it would be fun to delve into the merits of either approach in an attempt to ultimately find out which side of the aisle the Leafs should fall on.

Join me, won’t you?

Why the Leafs should be sellers

Tyson Barrie could be a valuable trade candidate for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

If the Leafs do choose to pivot away from the buyers market in order to peddle some of their expiring assets for futures, it won’t be the sell job most are accustomed to.

Typically, teams that happen to fall into the “sellers” club around this time of year are those on the far outer rim of the playoff picture, with no hope left for a late-season push. These basement-dwellers, then, usually trod down one of two paths: strip their aging roster for draft picks, or conduct a few subtle moves to recalibrate following a disappointing (and usually injury-plagued) campaign.

The Leafs fit neither of those criteria — regardless of how disappointing and injury-plagued their season has been. This is still a good team. And good teams don’t sell.

Toronto’s version of such an endeavour, then, would be more in line with the “addition-by-subtraction” mentality: cashing in a heavy hitters’ value in return for a multi-part package of lesser comparable quality that might, in the end, more evenly balance out their roster.

This is essentially a long way of saying that if Kyle Dubas heads to auction, his first item up for bid should be Tyson Barrie. Why? Well, because after roughly 60 games in a Leaf uniform, Barrie has clearly become hockey’s version of Rudy Gay.

This isn’t to knock Barrie’s on-ice merit, however. If you recall, Gay was still among the NBA’s upper-class during his two partial seasons with the Toronto Raptors from 2012-13 to 2013-14. Gay averaged 19.4 points per game in Toronto, even chipping in an additional 7.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists while logging some heavy minutes as his team’s quasi-number-one option. Those are good numbers. On paper, he seemed fine.

But do you know what that stat line doesn’t tell you? The Raptors sucked with Gay as their on-court focal point, closing the book on his 55-game stay with a 25-30 record and precisely zero playoff births.

Then, a newly-appointed Masai Ujiri hit the eject button. And in trading Gay to the Sacramento Kings (along with a few ancillary pieces), Ujiri managed to pawn off a one-dimensional offensive player whose seemingly-admirable production was, in fact, actually hurting the overall success of his team.

Sound familiar?

Coming the other way was a package of Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, and Chuck Hayes. Were any of those names even close to the quality of Gay’s at the time? Of course not. Not by a mile. But they didn’t need to be.

A more balanced Raptors squad went 41-22 the rest of the way en route to the playoff birth — their first in five years.

These two situations are, obviously, not entirely comparable — these Leafs are a much better team than those Raptors were, for one — but the similarities are still relevant enough to make you think.

Barrie’s numbers under Sheldon Keefe — both of the surface-level and advanced variety — paint the picture of an otherwise effective player; just as Gay’s did all those years ago. But hidden beneath them is the murky underbelly: the misguided point shots, the questionable decision-making and the inability to play a featured defensive role.

Clearly, the pros no longer outweigh the cons. Perhaps they never did.

Nevertheless, the Maple Leafs’ goal at this year’s deadline should be to improve their current roster, regardless of how they ultimately go about it. Turning a singular asset that averages an inefficient 20-plus minutes (Barrie) into, say, three that can give you an efficient 12-15 might be the only way to satisfy that initial goal and still technically “sell”.

That is, if such a package exists.

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