ADMIN NOTE: Apologies to the author, had a really bad week with flu and other things. This is posted little late, but still relevant.
Your Toronto Maple Leafs have gotten off to a great start to begin the 2017/18 season. The depth of their forwards ranks among the best in the NHL. However, we are still wondering just how good our blueline can be and how to improve it…..
As I watched the Leafs play one of their better defensive games of the season against the Los Angeles Kings, and come away with a 3-2 win, I wondered just how much pressure management actually feels to improve the back end. After that game I would say they felt no pressure at all. Against the Senators though? Different story. We saw a tale of two teams in a short period of time and it got me to thinking. Not about what the blueline looks like right now, but more about what it could look like in the very near future.
The last time I spoke about the state of our defenders there were a lot of question marks. I mentioned the hope I had that some of the early to mid twenty year olds could take steps forward. Some did, some didn’t. Martin Marincin and Connor Carrick, it appears, have plateaued in their development. This cost Marincin a spot in the lineup, a trip through waivers, and a spot with the Toronto Marlies. Meanwhile, Carrick was just benched in favour of the newly inked Roman Polak.
The other players I mentioned specifically were Calle Rosen and Nikita Zaitsev. Rosen is also in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies but he had a great preseason and showed good mobility, poise, and solid potential in 4 regular season NHL games. It’s only a matter of time before he finds himself back in the NHL.
At the time there was one prospect that I didn’t mention on purpose and for one simple reason, it seems pointless to me to talk about something without knowing some facts first. That prospect was Andreas Borgman and he has changed much of what I thought about the future of this defense group. Borgman is listed at 212lbs but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out he’s much bigger than that. He hits like a truck and skates well for a player that is meant to be a no business, defend first kind of guy. He brings much more to the table than we were lead to believe and for the evidence of that you need look no further than the 7:15 mark of the 2nd period versus the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings stifle a zone entry attempt by the Leafs and the puck squirts back out into the neutral zone where it’s pounced on by Borgman. He then proceeds to carry the puck through two defenders and into the zone before he’s pressured on the wall. He gets the puck deep (veteran move) and follows up on the play. He follows the puck behind the net and lays a big check to Jake Muzzin and then heads back to his position while the Leafs forwards take over. The puck went the other way at that point and in great form we see Borgman force the attacker into a bad pass that is picked off by a well positioned Mitch Marner. The entirety of that play lasted about 25 seconds but it’s 25 seconds of what the future of the “stay at home defender” looks like in todays NHL. Mobility, physicality, decent edge work and defensive awareness. There is zero to hate about this player at the moment.
Aside from that play I also wanted to point out how he calmly kept possession of the puck at another point during the same game while Anze Kopitar was breathing down his neck. He shook him off, and advanced the puck calmly. For a rookie defender to come in with the poise, confidence, and skill to go against one of the better #1 centres in the league like that and make it look easy is beyond impressive. Hat tip to Borgman for a very consistent game.
So what does it mean to have him in the NHL already, as a 22 year old, with what I would consider top 4 potential as a defense first player? It means management feels zero pressure if you ask me. Combine Borgman with the potential of Travis Dermott, Timothy Liljegren, Calle Rosen, and Andrew Nielsen (among others) and you have a future that promises as much depth on the blueline as you have now in the forward ranks.
The real question on everybody’s lips is if there is enough top end talent to push this blueline into elite status, and if the answer to that is no then shouldn’t they look to trade for that talent?
Trading, James Van Riemsdyk, The Perfect Fit
During an intermission in the game against the Kings the question was posed about trading for a top 4 defenseman to help the Leafs win now. I haven’t been on the “we need a trade” train this season because they’ve started so well. It’s easy to sit back and enjoy the wins, even if the goals against average isn’t exactly where you want it to be. There’s a question I keep asking anybody that wants to answer though, and Bob McKenzie touched on it briefly. If you were to trade JVR, the guy that most people look to because of his trade value and expiring contract, for a defender, then who would that defender be? Rumours of available defense are slim and if you are going to trade an expiring contract it would make sense that you would be receiving one back in return. Otherwise, why would a team risk trading a defender under contract for years to come for an asset that could easily walk away in a few months time?
So, if you assume that defender you are getting in return is also heading towards UFA who is the guy you want? Go to capfriendly.com, find their free agent page and look at defenders that are heading towards unrestricted free agency and tell me what you think. No hurry, I’ll wait.
Back already? I knew it wouldn’t take long because the list is so short. There are virtually zero defenders hitting the market this summer that would make sense to swap JVR for, and the couple you could possibly make an argument for, like Calvin De Haan, aren’t right shot defenders. Nevermind the fact that Garth Snow already passed on a JVR for Travis Hamonic trade at the draft.
Instead, why don’t we widen our scope? Go one year further and you see names such as Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, and Tyler Myers. Karlsson will stay in Ottawa, no doubt there. Doughty….I’ll have more on him shortly. Tyler Myers is the guy I think we should concentrate on. He’s a very big man and Mike Babcock is obviously under the belief that the Leafs are too small on the back end. He openly admitted that it’s partly why Roman Polak was brought back. So he fits what they need in size. He has a big shot as well, which is also something the Leafs are lacking from the back end. Give another check mark. He shoots right which is something we are still a little shy on in the organization overall, so fill yet another need. The question is cost and contract. The Jets need for JVR is questionable at best so even this line of thinking, no matter how well Myers fits the Leafs needs, is probably flawed. However, they need to make room for contracts they have signed that kick in next season (Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little) and for contracts that will need to be signed this summer or next (Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba). Tyler Myers is a name that’s worth watching if you ask me.
Drew Doughty on the other hand is a name that can’t go away quickly enough in my opinion. Simply put, his mouth is getting him in trouble when he talks about looking at possibilities if his team isn’t moving in the right direction and that’s exactly why I wouldn’t want him here. That type of statement to the Toronto media, at some point down the road, would mean pandemonium. Doughty the player in blue and white? Yes please!! You’d be crazy to not want a perennial Norris candidate on your team. Doughty the person and the effect that would have on the dressing room? Major pass!! Dewey can stay in L.A. for all I care, cups can be won without him, and he even said himself that he doesn’t think he’d do well in the pressure cooker that is the Toronto hockey market. Can we all move on please?
I guess at the end of the day we should all ask ourselves one question. With three legitimate top 4 defensemen already on the team in Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev, and more potential top 4 defense on the way in Borgman, Rosen, Dermott, Nielsen, and Liljegren (not to mention players like Eemeli Rasanen and hopefully a new future edition in Igor Ozhiganov), how necessary is it really to go out and spend on a big name guy for now? Furthermore, how much of that future would it cost us and how would the addition of another big cap hit effect the future signings of the talent we have and want to retain? It’s a lot to consider when the addition of a player like Tyler Myers could cost you the price of trading for him, plus having to watch some of your favourite players walk because of a cap crunch. What’s worse? Watching some of your favourite players make it hard on themselves…..
At no point have I ever hidden my love for Leo Komarov. I’ve spent countless words praising him and will continue to do so as we move forward. While I still believe he is a legitimate top 9 forward and can be one on a Stanley Cup winning team, it’s easy to imagine moving on without him in the near future, especially considering he hasn’t started very well offensively. With only 3pts so far he is ahead of only Matt Martin among forwards that have played in all 9 games to start the year. With younger, cheaper players such as Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov and Miro Aaltonen knocking on the door, as well as seeing Mitch Marner and Connor Brown switching between the 3rd and 4th lines, you have to wonder how they’ll make room for everybody. Obviously you could envision James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak being on the move but there’s still only so many minutes to go around and the current state of the centres makes it even tougher for a veteran winger looking for a new contract. If Tyler Bozak prices himself out of Toronto, which, based on his production last year is quite possible, then they’ll have to find a 3C to take his place. Miro Aaltonen is a candidate but it also wouldn’t surprise me to see them go after an established player that knows the league and knows his way around the defensive side of the puck. By adding a player like that you make the transition for your young wingers much easier as they’ll flank one of Matthews, Kadri, or the theoretical defensively responsible vet to start their career. With this in mind, and taking into account that William Nylander needs a contract at seasons end, followed by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Jake Gardiner the following summer, the tough questions of who stays and who goes are going to sneak up on Shanny and co. very quickly. My hope is that Komarov wants to stay in Toronto badly enough to take a haircut on his next contract and then nobody has to worry about it again for a few years. My fear is this is his last year with the team.
Quick hit on the addition of Calvin Pickard. I watched him a little bit when he was with Colorado and he looked pretty good. For a while there he looked like he could even wrestle the job away from Semyon Varlamov. Claimed by Vegas and being moved so quickly to Toronto has me wondering what happened there. It’s easy for a goalie to lose his confidence but it’s also possible to look much better than you are over an extended period of time. So the question is can Pickard be a “Dubnyk-lite” (he doesn’t have that high of a ceiling), or is he a guy that tried and failed? The future of Garrett Sparks and Kasimir Kaskisuo as NHLers is muddy at best, so no matter where he ends up it’s tough to hate the extra depth in goal.
This is an interesting case if you ask me. Mitch being on the 4th line was all kinds of confusing at first but, in my opinion, it’s not really a big deal. I mean it is in the sense that you want a guy with that much talent to impact your game, and that’s tough to do from the bottom of the lineup, but it’s not simply based on the fact that the Leafs are so deep at forward and you know he won’t stay there too long.
For starters, if you feel like Babcock does, that he needed to be removed away from Bozak and Van Riemsdyk, then your options were very limited. The Matthews line has been dangerous and consistent each night, making changes there would be dangerous. The combination of Kadri, Komarov and Marleau has brought a terrific mix of skill, grit and defense so, like Matthews and company, tampering with that line wouldn’t be very wise.
That leaves you with two lines and one that was very much broken, especially defensively. JVR has never been known for his defensive prowess, and Bozak has never been much better. While Marner may be the best defensively of the three he too isn’t about to win a Selke trophy. So, if you ask me, moving Marner off of that line and Brown, who is terrific in all three zones, onto it, has as much to do with helping the veterans as it does with giving Marner a kick in the pants. The optics of it are poor, because it looks like your team is punishing your high end young player by demoting him to the 4th line. The reality of it though? He had nowhere else to go and it just so happened that Brown, on paper, was/is the perfect fit for two veterans that should be protecting the kids. Instead, we see a guy in his sophomore season trying to shelter some of the players that drove the Leafs into a rebuild in the first place.
Funny how some things never change.