By Stan Smith & Old Prof

The Toronto Maple Leafs shook things up by re-acquiring 29-year-old defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin from the Anaheim Ducks in a three-way deal. The trade went down shortly after the conclusion of the Maple Leafs game against the Arizona Coyotes on February 29th. The move saw Anaheim retain 50% of Lyubushkin’s $2.75 million cap hit, while the Carolina Hurricanes also chipped in by retaining half of his remaining salary.

In addition to Lyubushkin, the Maple Leafs also got the rights to 24-year-old Russian left winger Kirill Slepets, adding depth to their lineup.

Related: Maple Leafs Looming Decision: What to Do with John Tavares?

What Does Lyubushkin Mean for the Maple Leafs’ Defensive Strategy?

This trade marks Lyubushkin’s second stint with the Maple Leafs. He previously had joined the team during the 2022 trade deadline. His earlier tenure saw mixed results, particularly when paired with Morgan Rielly in the top defensive pair during the 2022 postseason. While his statistics were respectable, there were notable challenges when he was pushed into a top-four role.

During Rielly’s recent five-game suspension, the Maple Leafs adapted their defensive pairings to maintain stability on the blue line. Timothy Liljegren and TJ Brodie formed one pairing, while Jake McCabe partnered with Simon Benoit on the other pair. With this strategy, Head Coach Sheldon Keefe intended to preserve the cohesion of these pairs, given their effectiveness during 5-on-5 play.

When Rielly returned, Keefe chose to pair him with William Lagesson on the third pair. Despite this adjustment, Rielly continued to anchor the team’s top power-play unit and received additional ice time based on game situations. The strategic decision to keep the other four defensemen together was made to maximize their chemistry and defensive effectiveness.

This adjustment could provide a more suitable environment for Lyubushkin to thrive. Being on the third pairing would allow the Russian Bear (Lyubushkin’s nickname) to focus on his strengths as a physical, stay-at-home defenseman without the pressure of top-line responsibilities.

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Given the Move to Retain Lyubushkin’s Salary, the Maple Leafs Have Further Flexibility

Furthermore, the Maple Leafs only covered a fraction of Lyubushkin’s salary. That gives the additional flexibility to pursue further roster improvements. Despite not being the first choice for GM Brad Treliving, Lyubushkin’s presence could prove valuable as the Maple Leafs aim for a deep playoff run. He will also likely be used on the penalty kill and in maintaining the team’s physical presence.

In essence, the acquisition of Lyubushkin may not be a headline-grabbing move. However, it could play a significant role in shaping the Maple Leafs’ defensive strategy and overall playoff ambitions. Morgan Rielly was certainly happy about the move.

Related: Oilers’ Zach Hyman Gives the Maple Leafs a Scoring Lesson

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