Although the trade deadline is weeks away, there are some potential rental players that the Toronto Maple Leafs should be looking at to solidify a playoff spot.
Making blockbuster deals in the salary-cap era has proven difficult for most general managers. Given the cap and the internal budgets that many teams operate under, teams cannot make deals without fully considering both the overall value and the term of the contract for all players in potential deals.
In that context, it seems unlikely that the Leafs will make a blockbuster deal given their current winning streak and their continued public stance that they will not mortgage the future for some short-term gain. As frustrating as this is for some long-time Leafs fans, this measured approach makes the most sense in building a competitive team for years, rather than months, to come.
There are a number of players that the Leafs may be looking at to bolster their top-nine forward group and their top-seven defencemen. Given the compressed schedule, and the anticipated playoff run, teams that believe they have a legitimate chance to make a long run for the Stanley Cup should have at least seven, if not eight, NHL-ready blueliners.
Teams that will be sellers are becoming more clear and the Edmonton Oilers certainly meet that criterion.
Right winger Ales Hemsky might make good sense for the Leafs. While it's been ages since he's played an NHL playoff game, when he did back in 2006 with the Oilers, he was exceptional. His current contract expires at the end of this season.
He is currently banged up, but he's played some inspired two-way hockey for the Oilers this season. Hemsky is more than willing to go to the difficult areas on the ice and will sacrifice his body to make a play. When healthy, he dangles with some of the better forwards in the league.
He has managed 24 points this season despite getting a lot of third-line minutes. Yes, he's minus-11, but that is more a reflection of team play than it is Hemsky's doing. He would not necessarily be an everyday player for the Leafs over the last month of the season, but come playoff time, he could be a decisive factor in a tight playoff game.
With the Leafs needing to add defenders, there are a couple of players that might be available to the Leafs. Another Oiler that could be a good depth defenceman would be Nick Schultz. The former Minnesota Wild player has had a very uneven tenure in Edmonton, but he could fill a limited role for the Leafs.
At 31, Schultz still has enough in the tank to play upwards of 15 minutes per game. Paired with a puck-moving defender against third and fourth lines, Schultz could be an important defensive defenceman. He has just three points this year and is minus-31 since joining the Oilers three years ago, but this is a team issue as much as anything.
Schultz will put it on the line for his teammates and could be a good mentor to young defenders Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and even Cody Franson, who continues to mature at the NHL level.
The Leafs are unlikely to be able to pluck a defender from a top contender. However, defenceman Matt Greene from the Los Angeles Kings might be someone they could add. He's a character guy who plays a nasty, physical game. He's also been a healthy scratch with the talented Kings.
He is not the most mobile defender, but paired with a strong-skating defender, he could be a good rental player for the Leafs. Much like Schultz and Hemsky, he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.
Greene is currently injured and has had some concussion issues this season. But he's a leader and a winner. No NHL team has too much of that on their roster. Greene has five points in 25 games this year along with 35 penalty minutes.
Tom Gilbert is another potential rental player for the Leafs. While Gilbert was bought out by the Minnesota Wild, much of this had to do with the Minnesota salary cap issues than it did with Gilbert's play.
He's not a physical defenceman, but he's a good skater who can move the puck with a good first pass. Additionally, he can leg it out if necessary. He's got 18 points this season on a weak Florida team. He's minus-four, which isn't bad on a team that struggles defensively.
He's also logging more than 17 minutes of ice time per night and has a relative Corsi number of 7.00. He could help the Leafs as a five or six defender if needed.
None of these rental players would come in to take top spots away from current Leafs players. Also, they would likely only cost the Leafs a later-round draft pick. They would be depth players, which all teams need to secure playoff spots and be successful during the NHL playoffs grind.
What type of rental player do the Leafs need?
Above all, the Leafs need to cut down on their shots-against and spend more time out of their defensive end. These players could all help in these critical areas of need if utilized suitably.