The story has typically stayed the same.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, destined for the postseason, pull the trigger on a deadline deal to add veteran depth to a talented yet flawed roster, surrendering significant draft capital in order to do so.
Brian Boyle arrived at the 2017 deadline for a second-round pick and depth center Byron Froese. After a relatively quiet 2018, Toronto was back at it the next year by nabbing Tomas Plekanec from the Montreal Canadiens for another second-rounder and a pair of AHLers. The impending COVID-19 shutdown curtailed the 2020 trade deadline somewhat, but the Maple Leafs still pulled off a pre-deadline deal by acquiring both Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford near the end of February.
And then 2021 came along to feature the biggest swing of them all in the former of Nick Foligno for the Leafs’ first-round pick and two fourth-rounders.
After those four years, the Maple Leafs ended up spending one first-rounder, three-second rounders, two fourth-rounders, and a host of depth prospects (including Trevor Moore) for four veteran skaters who ultimaely walked in free agency that summer and produced a grand total of zero regular-season goals.
That, as the kids say, is not ideal.
Then, along came another greybeard in Mark Giordano. And while the bar may be cavernously low, the former Norris winner has flipped the script on Toronto’s deadline luck entirely.
Giordano arrived in practically the same way: as a pending UFA whose price tag consisted of multiple second-round picks. But the performance he’s given in the blue and white could not have been more different.
The counting stats are one thing — Giordano’s five points in 12 games thus far already out-pace any previous Leafs deadline addition, despite him being a defenseman — but the Toronto native’s ability to elevate literally everyone around him is what truly demonstrates his value.
The Maple Leafs are the best team on the ice whenever Giordano hops over the boards. The math can prove it.
At even-strength, Toronto has generated 57.60 of the expected-goals and 55.36 percent of the available scoring chances in Giordano’s 12 games since being traded, dominating the possession game and tilting the ice noticeably in their favor. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find the high-danger chances, of which the Leafs generate a whopping 58.62 percent in Giordano’s roughly 176 minutes of usage thus far.
After years as the team’s Achille’s heel, the blueline, with Giordano, is now one of the Leafs’ greatest strengths.
“It seems like since Gio’s come in, we’ve just evened out all the pairs,” explained Justin Holl.
“Just playing guys regularly, and not worrying so much about the matchups. I think that’s been working well for us, keeping everyone involved”
It’s not as if the Leafs were completely unfamiliar with Giordano prior to welcoming him into their locker room.
Thanks to COVID-19 and the mandated North Division last season, Toronto faced Giordano’s Calgary Flames a whopping eight times in 2021, being treated to a larger sample than most of the perils that come with playing against him.
For their sake, those perils are now no longer their problem.
“He’s just really good in the subtle plays,” continued Holl when asked about Giordano’s most frustrating strengths as an opponent.
“Whether it be finding a guy on a breakout or even walking the blueline, and you think he’s just going to maybe put it back on the yellow (of the boards) in the corner, and instead he finds a space to get it through”
“Just small things you notice. But things that make a big difference in the game”
While the entire blueline has benefited from Giordano’s presence, the biggest winner by far has been none other than Timothy Liljegren, whose 104 minutes of ice time alongside Giordano is the most of any Leafs defender by a wide margin.
Liljegren was already beginning to show the potential that once made him a first-round pick prior to the deadline. But as Giordano’s most consistent partner in the weeks since, the 22-year-old has proceeded to crank his play up a notch with four points in 10 games all while making a truly compelling case for himself as a member of the Leafs’ postseason top-six.
As a pairing, Giordano and Liljegren have dominated their opponents at even-strength, generating an eye-popping 60.66 percent of the expected goals and 56.52 percent of the available scoring chances while helping the Leafs’ forward transition from the defensive zone with ease. Whereas depth issues earlier in the year once forced the Leafs to trot out a bottom-pair of Justin Holl and Travis Dermott while summarily thrusting Liljegren into top-four usage alongside Jake Muzzin, Giordano, as Holl said, allows the defense pairs to now even out, bumping Liljegren back down to his most useful position and allowing Giordano to also jump up into the top-four when needed.
“For me, I thought he was pretty fun to play with,” said Liljegren after his first game as Giordano’s new partner.
“He’s a veteran guy. He speaks a lot on the ice, so it makes it easier to play. He’s just good to play with”
If the Leafs’ back-end is a game of Tetris, each block can now firmly fall into its designated space.
It’s a luxury the team has simply never had in its current era. And with the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning as the most likely first-round opponent with just eight games left in the year. Sheldon Keefe’s squad is far more prepared to weather the offensive attack of either club, particularly the latter’s, than ever before — even with Muzzin still working his way back from multiple lingering ailments.
“He’s (Giordano) been excellent with Liljegren. And Liljegren has been excellent playing with Gio,” replied Keefe when prodded about his newfound pairing.
Frankly, that’s about as succinct as you can get.
After years of gambling away their draft capital on veteran assistance for the season’s final stretch, Kyle Dubas & Co. finally hit on their latest calculated bet.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time, either.