Could the Maple Leafs be targeting the Hurricanes’ Justin Faulk?

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 4: Justin Faulk #27 of the Carolina Hurricanes corrals the puck at the blue line during an NHL game against the Winnipeg Jets on March 4, 2018 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 4: Justin Faulk #27 of the Carolina Hurricanes corrals the puck at the blue line during an NHL game against the Winnipeg Jets on March 4, 2018 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs need to improve their defensive core in the offseason. Could this come in the form of the Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Faulk?

Let’s be clear: The Toronto Maple Leafs’ blue line needs work. Major work.

The Buds’ recent exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs is still a painful memory for many members of Leafs Nation, but nevertheless ought to serve as a point of discussion over the course of the summer. Heading into the third period of the final game of their first-round series, the Leafs led the Boston Bruins by a score of 4-3 — only to have their opponent bury four unanswered goals and ultimately snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

While the Leafs’ lack of offensive output in the game’s final stretch of play rendered each and every player complicit in the unpleasant loss, the matchup showcased the extent to which the team’s two-way blunders had finally caught up with them. Poor decision making in the defensive zone was the central avenue through which the Buds’ 2017-18 campaign came to a stunning conclusion.

Then, on May 11, Brendan Shanahan — President and Alternate Governor of the Maple Leafs — announced some much anticipated news. Kyle Dubas, 32, previously one of the team’s assistant general managers, was promoted to serve as the next GM of the organization. The upgrade had been in the making since Lou Lamoriello was brought on board to oversee the early stages of the Shanaplan, but was finally translated into a reality.

Few would question the idea that Dubas’ hands have been full from the outset of his promotion. The issues that he is expected to address are far-reaching in nature and each respective move — or lack thereof — promises to entail drastic implications for the future of the franchise.

According to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, a potential subject of interest for the young GM could come in the form of the Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Faulk. Speaking with Michael Landsberg, McKenzie gestured to the possibility of the Leafs targeting the 26-year-old defender:

"Justin Faulk is one of a number of Carolina’s defensemen that may be available. The word out of Carolina is that they’re open to doing a lot of things — that doesn’t mean they’re committed to it, but they’re open to listening on basically all of their players outside of Sebastian Aho. And you’ve got a rather unconventional, but somewhat aggressive management group . . . So Faulk is a guy that’s probably available. I don’t know whether Slavin and Pesce are, but there’s a lot of defensemen available in Carolina."

McKenzie’s comments, however, came with a word of caution.

"You run into the same old problem if you’re the Leafs, whether it’s Faulk or Slavin or Pesce or any of these young defensemen — relatively young defensemen — that could bolster a Toronto blue line. You know that Carolina’s gonna want a big return on them and they’re going to be looking at premier assets the Toronto Maple Leafs have up front."

But who could those “premier assets” be? William Nylander? Connor Brown? A promising prospect or two? McKenzie noted that the Leafs would certainly be reluctant to part with most of their offensive depth, but went on to suggest — under the framework of vigilance — that Brown could act as a moveable piece if a strong deal came to light.

Nevertheless, the notion of a Dubas-led franchise entertaining the idea of targeting Faulk is surely an amusing thought for Maple Leafs fans. That the team has been linked to him in the past only serves to heighten talk of this variety.

There’s little doubt that adding Faulk to the Maple Leafs’ defensive core would greatly strengthen the club’s two-way game. The right-handed defender has demonstrated an ability to tally fairly sufficient totals on a team that has been underwhelming in recent years, but is also known to succeed in a shutdown role.

He’d also provide the Leafs with a degree of defensive accountability that the team is currently lacking on its right side. While Ron Hainsey’s experience has been a key factor in allowing Morgan Rielly to flourish, the veteran is nearing the end of his career and is signed for just one more season. Nikita Zaitsev has definitely shown signs of promise, but a shaky 2017-18 has left fans questioning the extent to which he can succeed in a top-4 role. Timothy Liljegren is among the team’s most exciting prospects, but is still a means away from an NHL debut.

And what of the future of Jake Gardiner? The 27-year-old high-risk, high-reward defender occupies a major roster spot on the left side, but is due for an extension very soon. As any fan will attest, an executive decision to keep Gardiner would require Toronto’s administration to find him a partner that rounds out some of his costly mistakes — that is, a player whose defensive responsibility can act as a counterpoint to ill-timed errors. Should Gardiner walk or be traded, a talented right-handed D-man could still benefit the likes of Rielly and/or rising star Travis Dermott.

It’s pure speculation at this point, but adding Faulk would all but ensure that some of the Buds’ defensive problems are finally addressed. The only issue, therefore, is one of tactics.

What would be the cost of acquiring a player like Faulk? And would the benefits outweigh any potential shortcomings in the long run?

It’s your turn, Mr. Dubas. Leafs Nation is waiting.

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