Defense. It’s the annoying thing that all sports dads shout at their sons no matter what sport is being played; “defense”, “hustle” and “let’s go boys” combined with the occasional clap. It’s more, however, than just a catchy thing to yell when you want to show that you’re paying attention, it is a crucial and often underappreciated aspect of sports. Every kid dreams of being Gretzsky, Lemieux, Crosby etc and scoring the overtime Cup winning goal; very few dream about being the reliable defenseman who allowed the team to hold a lead to get to that OT period in the first place. Defensemen are most often, the unsung heroes of the ice.
The Leafs have had some amazing defensemen over their history; Salming, Horton, Turnbull, the days of Markov and Yushkevich still bring a tear to my eye. These days, our defense corps is showing the signs of the current rebuild more than any other area; it is easily the shakiest and least solid area of our team. We are able to score at an increased rate unlike past seasons, however we couldn’t carry a secure lead if we had a bucket; I cannot remember a time when I have actually dreaded having a two goal lead prior to this season.
Our defense corps is lacking in pedigree and leadership; the same youthful spunk and enthusiasm that is spurring on our young forwards is the same thing that is killing our defensemen. They’re a young group, only 2 of the top 8 are over the age of 30 (children!) and 3 of the top 8 have played less than 100 career games. The veterans on the team with over 250 games played are guys such as Polak, Reilly and Gardiner. Polak is not a massive liability; his greatest achievement is looking like a cross between Sam the Eagle from the Muppets and Jermaine from Flight of the Concords (Google it). He is a very stoic player, quiet and not exactly known for his leadership and ability to take younger players under his wing. We already let him go once, but he came back like a bad penny, proving that he is not the player we are looking to build on. Reilly is perhaps more notable, however his career -50 stat is enough to make you want to question how much of his ‘wisdom’ you want him spreading to young players, he has, by far, the worst +/- ratio to games played of the entire defense. Gardiner is…also there. The Leafs had high hopes for this one but he’s often a bit too eager to jump into the offensive play, his reliability is often on par with the Toronto highway with which he shares a name.
The current defense if a bunch of rag-tag mutts with no alpha to lead them or to step up. The Leafs thought they had the franchise defenseman when we signed Dion Phaneuf, however, his brain seemed to be allergic to Toronto ice and he proved as useful as an ice maker in the North Pole. Since that wager did not pay off, the Leafs have not had a real go-to Dman, and certainly not a pairing like Yushky and Markov or even Kaberle and McCabe (showing my age here).
So, what’s the answer? Hell if I know. If I had the answer I’d be on the Leafs’ payroll and could actually afford their ticket prices to watch a game without having to rely on the kindness of other Leafshub members who take pity on me. What I can do, however, is point out the obvious- we have a weak defense. People on Twitter are yelling that Babcock should begin fearing for his job with this team’s inability to hold a lead; however, you can’t coach a man to walk when he has no spine; and the team has no defensive backbone.
I firmly believe that we need to add to what we have, however, there is a distinct lack of available top-rated defensemen in the league. Most of the top rated guys in the league have locked into long-term contracts with their current teams; 8 years being the average length, meaning they either have no intention of leaving their current team, or are going to cost more than we’d be sane to give up. I’m willing to part with dear JVR to get a solid defenseman, as much as he’s a good fit with the team, he’s like keeping your favourite sweater from before you lost weight- comforting to keep around but doesn’t really fit the plan going forward.
The current Leafs are like Ronda Rousey- amazing offense and we can easily see how they can strike at their opponent- but they can’t take a hit without falling apart. Therefore, don’t start screaming at Babcock that it’s all his fault- it’s time to stop kissing Shanny and Lou’s feet for drafting Matthews and light the fire under their chairs to get hunting for the next brick in the wall. My thought…we steal Brent Burns’ beard and create a new defenseman from it. Can’t be any worse than Aki Berg.