In this unofficial series I covered the goaltenders and expressed my opinion that doing little to nothing might be the best course of action. Outside of possibly finding Curtis McElhinney a new home to make room for Garret Sparks as the backup, they don’t need to do much there to keep the goaltending situation above average.
Then I wrote about the forwards and expressed my opinion that they really only need a depth scorer, and outside of John Tavares there aren’t really any players out there that deserve a major commitment.
Now I thought I’d take a look at the defense, and I left it last on purpose because as we all know it’s the area of greatest need, but it will also be the area that is the hardest to fix.
First off I’ll try to relate what and where I believe they need help.
The penalty kill was tied for 10th overall, along with the Vegas Golden Knights and New York Rangers, with an 81.4% success rate. While you won’t find many people complaining about the results of their PK, it’s player usage that creates a problem. 37 year old Ron Hainsey logged a massive amount of time on the penalty kill, leading the league with just a second under four minutes per game and over 52 total minutes more than Zdeno Chara, who finished second in total penalty kill time on the season amongst all NHLers. Meanwhile, Nikita Zaitsev averaged nearly three minutes per game while shorthanded and Roman Polak came in at two and a half minutes. With Morgan Rielly logging the next highest amount of time on the PK, and coming in at just over a minute per game you can see how highly Mike Babcock leaned on those three. The problem lies in the fact that Roman Polak is heading for unrestricted free agency and Ron Hainsey only has a couple of more years left in the league. So, while the Leafs are searching for a top pair player to play the right alongside Morgan Rielly, they need to keep in mind that whoever they bring in should be able to help while shorthanded.
The powerplay is much the same as the penalty kill in the sense that Mike Babcock relied heavily on a select few players. Those players being Morgan Rielly (2:12 TOI/GP) and Jake Gardiner (2:04 TOI/GP). Again the results were terrific, as the powerplay finished the regular season at 25%, which was good for 2nd in the league. The real problem here has more to do with one of those two players, and the questions revolving around him. What will Jake Gardiners next contract look like, will he be worth it, and is he a long term fit on the team? Who plays his minutes this coming season if you trade him? Is Travis Dermott ready for that type of responsibility? There are a lot of questions to be asked before you move on from a player like Gardiner, the only thing I know is that if they were able to land a player with the ability to quarterback a 2nd powerplay unit and log some tougher minutes then it would be much easier to move on from a player that may be in line for a long term contract with a heavy cap hit.
I’d say that it’s well documented that the Leafs could use some help on the right side. Also, with the Leafs blueline being on the small side, it would be nice if any addition they make carried a little weight behind them to help with boxing players out of the crease and fighting along the wall for pucks.
Oh, and the ability to skate would be nice too because the team they’ll be joining is a fast one, so there’s that.
So, what does this all combine for? From what I can tell the Leafs need to add a player that is big, fast, plays a two-way game, shoots right, is young, and can help immediately. Not a big deal really.
There are a few players that fit the bill that are available (if you ask the right rumour mongers), but the cost and availability to the Leafs specifically might be questionable. What I mean by this is a player like Erik Karlsson, who appears to be heading out of the Ottawa Senator organization, isn’t likely to be traded to a provincial rival. Likewise with Rasmus Ristolainen from the Buffalo Sabres, he’d be a terrific fit in my opinion, but the chances of the Sabres and Leafs striking a deal for a player like that is slim at best.
So who should be considered a real option for the Leafs at this point? There are only a few options total, and even less that would check all of the boxes listed above, so here they are:
John Carlson: This one is a no brainer if he hits free agency. A legitimate top pair defender that shoots right, has great size, logs a ton of minutes in all situations and just had a career 68pt season, followed by 20pts in 24 games en route to winning Lord Stanleys Cup. He’s everything the Leafs want and need right now.
Doug Hamilton: A 24 year old that stands at 6’6”, has great offensive instincts, drives possession and can log a ton of minutes. I don’t believe he’s actually available but the rumours just won’t seem to go away. One can dream.
Chris Tanev: A defensive specialist in todays NHL, Tanev has been long rumoured to be available for the right price. He doesn’t offer much offense, he isn’t physical and he has trouble staying healthy. However, he logs a ton of PK minutes, starts the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, and can help where the Leafs need it the most, with defense.
The Carolina Duo (Trio?): Justin Faulk is who I’m predicting the Hurricanes will move if they do eventually trade a big ticket player from their blueline, yet Noah Hanifin is consistently rumoured to be available as well. For what it’s worth I think the availability of Hanifin is nothing more than a ploy to try to see what might shake loose around the league in terms of a big time centre of similar age. In other words yes, he’s available, but at what cost? As for Justin Faulk, he seems to be more offense than defense, he’s basically the opposite of Chris Tanev and that might make me shy away if I’m Kyle Dubas and am, in fact, looking for a two-way player. If they wanted to move on from Haydn Fleury on the other hand, who would be cheaper, has good size, moves well, and has a knack for the defensive side of the puck, then I believe the Leafs should be very interested. His offense hasn’t flourished yet, and may never do so, but he’s a good young player.
Damon Severson: This 23 year old, 6’2”, Saskatchewan native that is locked into a contract for 5 more years at just shy of 4.2M per year was a healthy scratch at times last season for the New Jersey Devils. The reason I’m including him is because he could be a terrific “buy low” option. The additions of Sami Vatanen and Will Butcher have seen his power play time drawn back, and he’s never been a mainstay on the penalty kill unit, yet his age means he has a lot of room to develop and his contract means he would be until your control for plenty of time to allow that development. Any GM that obtains him could end up looking brilliant or ridiculous. This type of addition, to me, would have to mean moving on from Jake Gardiner in the near future as I believe it would mean too many of the same type of player on the team.
The Winnipeg Duo: The next two summers will be a busy time for the Winnipeg Jets. This off season will involve resigning Jacob Trouba (RFA), Connor Hellebuyck (RFA), Joel Armia (RFA) and Adam Lowry (RFA). Next summer will see Blake Wheeler (UFA), Tyler Myers (UFA), Patrik Laine (RFA), Kyle Connor (RFA) and Andrew Copp (RFA) up for renewal. On top of that the extensions inked by Bryan Little and Nikolaj Ehlers will kick in this coming season. This will raise questions of affordability and cap space going forward and could result in bodies being moved for picks, which might be right up the Leafs’ ally. With all of this said being an NHL GM isn’t just about managing the cap. At the end of the day it’s about winning the Stanley Cup, so it’s quite possible that Kevin Cheveldayoff holds on to as many pieces as possible for as long as possible in hopes of winning it all as soon as next season, we’ll just have to wait and see. As for the players themselves, both Trouba and Myers would be on top of my list of targets. They would jump to the top of the Leafs’ defensive depth chart and help stabilize the group. Both can play a lot of minutes on the power play and penalty kill, have the size and skating ability to keep up with our group, and are age appropriate.
Justin Holl/Timothy Liljegren/Igor Ozhiganov: These players weren’t signed or drafted to play for the Toronto Marlies. They were brought here to develop into Toronto Maple Leafs. The option that nobody is mentioning are the options right under our nose. It’s true that Liljegren will likely need more time to develop, and that Justin Holl may never be a top 4 NHLer, but rather a 3rd pair or depth option (nothing wrong with that), and we won’t be 100% sure about what Ozhiganoz can bring to the NHL until he shows up and plays. Yet they are all young enough to surprise, and could be exactly what we need to drive this team forward and past the 1st round of the playoffs.
For what it’s worth, this is what I think I would do:
I didn’t disagree with keeping the pending free agents at the deadline, instead I drank my blue kool-aid and dreamt about the possibilities that having that type of scoring depth could bring. I think at this point they should avoid making the same mistake and move on from Jake Gardiner. Not because I believe he’s a bad player, but because I believe it’s the next wave that will carry this team anywhere. On top of that he could bring enough assets back to justify paying a hefty price for players such as Tyler Myers or Jacob Trouba, which would be my main targets. If Dubas can be sly enough to line up a trade for the player of his choice before moving Jake then it all comes together quickly. Your new player slots in alongside Morgan Rielly, with Ron Hainsey playing the left side in an attempt to help the struggling Nikita Zaitsev. Meanwhile, Travis Dermott can be eased into top 4 minutes while being paired with depth options Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov, or Connor Carrick (if he ever takes a step forward). It’s a lot to ask, making two big trades like this in a single off season, and for what it’s worth I doubt this is the way things go down. It would be a major task for a seasoned general manager, let alone a rookie GM, but maybe that’s exactly why it can be done!! Maybe over the past 4 years Lou forgot to tell Kyle that a quick fix such as this isn’t allowed under the old boys club rules? Or maybe that memo went directly to the spam folder and was lost? Either way, a big move like this could move the Leafs from pretender to contender fairly quickly, and if done before the draft maybe a certain somebody with the initials J.T. takes notice?
So, what say you Leaf fans? Stay the course and wait for prospects such as Liljegren to develop? Or is a big move what is needed? If so what would be your swing for the fences deal? Let me know in the comments!!