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This isn't the year for Leafs to be major players at deadline

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If there was ever a season for the Toronto Maple Leafs to take a back seat at the trade deadline, it's this one.

This team has far too many issues to be considered anything close to a Stanley Cup contender. It's not a couple of deadline moves away.

The Maple Leafs enter Thursday with four straight losses, blowing leads in all of them. They're 25th in the league in regulation wins, and their .595 points percentage would be the worst in a full season under head coach Sheldon Keefe (if he makes it through the season). Toronto posted points percentages of .677, .701, and .688 in each of the last three campaigns.

It hasn't been simply bad luck, either: The Leafs' underlying numbers have regressed. They rank 15th in the NHL in five-on-five expected goals share after finishing seventh, third, and second in the previous three seasons, per Natural Stat Trick.

This isn't to say the Leafs' season has been completely disastrous. By points percentage, they sit third in the Atlantic Division - by a thread - and have a 70.2% chance to make the playoffs, per MoneyPuck. And it's true that anything can happen once you punch your ticket to the postseason - the 2023 Florida Panthers and 2021 Montreal Canadiens are recent examples. But Toronto dealing away another first-round pick or any promising prospects for someone who could wind up playing elsewhere next season would be unwise.

The Leafs have picked in the first round only twice in the past five years: Easton Cowan in 2023 and Rodion Amirov - who unfortunately passed away from a brain tumor - in 2020. The prospect pipeline is thin. They don't own their 2025 first-rounder as part of last year's Jake McCabe trade, and they're without a second-round pick in each of the next three years.

Constantly surrendering first-round picks for players who depart in the offseason - Ryan O'Reilly in 2023 and Nick Foligno in 2021 - isn't a recipe for building a sustained winner, no matter how close Toronto thinks it is to playoff success.

Blue-line woes

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The Leafs have issues in their bottom-six forward group, and there are question marks between the pipes: How long can Martin Jones maintain his strong play? Will Ilya Samsonov find his game? But Toronto's biggest weakness is undoubtedly its blue line. Not only is it far from Stanley Cup caliber, but it's old.

Morgan Rielly (29) is having a strong year, but a career-high 24:26 in ice time against top competition isn't ideal for a player who shines offensively but has never been great defensively. TJ Brodie (33) and Mark Giordano (40) are showing signs of decline. McCabe (30) is miscast carrying a second pair with Simon Benoit (25), who shouldn't be on a second pair at all. Timothy Liljegren (24) has yet to establish himself as more than a third-pairing defenseman.

It's no wonder that Keefe, when asked about Brodie's play, said Wednesday that he still doesn't know which players he can count on in tough situations while defending a lead.

Adding someone like Chris Tanev would definitely help, but he's not a long-term fix as a 34-year-old rental. He's certainly not worth surrendering a first-round pick considering how the Leafs have played the first half of their season; a deep playoff run seems unlikely.

If general manager Brad Treliving can strike a deal for Noah Hanifin that includes an extension, packaging a first-rounder makes sense. But there will be plenty of suitors for Hanifin, and it's unknown if the Boston native would want to commit to Toronto long term without testing the market.

The Leafs could scour the market for defensemen who only cost mid-to-late-round picks, but that type of player won't move the needle much.

Treliving's best bet is to overhaul the blue line in the offseason. With the salary cap rising and Brodie's $5-million hit coming off the books, there will be money to work with. While no Norris contenders are hitting free agency, plenty of fitting, in-their-prime, top-four defensemen could test the market, like Hanifin, Matt Roy, Gustav Forsling, and others.

Treliving has time

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Leafs fans are understandably impatient as they wait for their team to make a deep playoff run, but from Treliving's perspective, he's got time.

After being hired this past offseason, Treliving will likely be given a leash of at least a few years. That means there isn't ample pressure on him to win it all in his first year on the job. Realistically, it'll be hard for the Leafs to win a Cup while a declining John Tavares is still making $11 million per season.

The team's best chance to make a run will be in 2025-26, after Tavares' cap hit comes off the books. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner (assuming he re-signs) will still be in their primes. There's a chance Tavares is still productive by then and is willing to take a major hometown discount to stay.

By 2025-26, if Treliving can effectively overhaul the blue line, find a new second-line center so Tavares can move to the wing, and build up the prospect pipeline, Toronto could have its best chance at a deep playoff run.

The Leafs have been buyers every season since 2016-17. There's no harm in accepting this isn't the year, sticking with the roster for the remainder of the season and hoping for the best, and then regrouping in the offseason.

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