“I am probably more bullish on our defense than others….. I’ve got a lot of faith in our defense.”
- Kyle Dubas
“Have they fixed the defense yet?”
- Leafs Nation
The big question floating around Leafs Nation right now is a doozie to answer. How would you fix the defense? Ask 10 fans and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. What I keep asking myself is what’s available out there and what do we have internally to help the cause?
I’m going to make this one quick so let’s get started with what we have and where they fit with a quick (kind of) depth chart:
I’ll argue that the Leafs have 2 players that fit into just about every top 4 in the NHL, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly.
Serviceable Top 4
I’m making these labels up, as you can see, but I’m allowed because I’m the person that decided to write this and the fine folks that run LeafsHub.com didn’t give me any type of rules to follow.
This would be a list of players that are on the cusp of being top 4 players, but either aren’t quite there yet or could be pushed down if you were running the ideal top 4. They include Travis Dermott, who is on his way up and could fit in as a regular top 4 defender as early as the end of this season, as well as Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev, who could be pushed down if they were on a team with a terrific group of top 4 players. Speak to me again in 6 months about Nikita Zaitsev and my tune may change, he’s a prime candidate for a bounce back season (crosses fingers).
Bottom Pair/7th Defender/Depth Defender
Connor Carrick will find himself in a prime position to cement a role in the lineup if they fail to add any more players to the right side. His competition for the #6 spot is most certainly there but with his NHL experience you would hope that he has a leg up on the rest. This list also includes Igor Ozhiganov, Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman, Martin Marincin**, and Justin Holl. It’s tough to argue that any of those players aren’t capable of filling at least an injury replacement role in the NHL right now.
The Marlies Bound
The rest of the defenders signed to NHL contracts seem to be on the outside looking in and are in need of more development, or are AHL veterans. Timothy Liljegren, Andrew Nielsen, Jesper Lindgren, Jordan Subban, and Vincent Loverde fit into this group.
What’s out there?
This is the list that I continuously fail to be impressed by. While there are some legitimate rumours about the availability of players such as Justin Faulk and Erik Karlsson, I find that the players being rumoured are either underwhelming (Justin Faulk), not reasonably available to the Leafs specifically (Erik Karlsson), or are unlikely to actually be available (Jacob Trouba, Colton Parayko, P.K. Subban). The questions that need answering with the addition of any of these players is cost. Obviously, the trade prices for players such as Subban and Karlsson would be immense, and young, top 4 players such as Trouba and Parayko would also cost a significant package of assets. Meanwhile, if you decide to chase a player such as Justin Faulk then you are leaving yourself thin on blueliners that can play while a man down (Faulk played nearly 3 minutes per game shorthanded during his 2nd year in the league, but has seen his SHTOI/GP drop every single year since then), and that’s not really what we need during this time, poor Ron Hainsey needs some assistance. In short, if you’re like me and would prefer to hang onto the few top end prospects that the Leafs have (all their blue chippers are in the NHL so aren’t really prospects outside of Timothy Liljegren), then paying a premium for players that are rumoured to be available may not be the best course of action, especially if said player will also command a massive contract that they may not be able to fulfill to its end.
The free agent market has dried up, and, in fact, wasn’t very good to begin with. If the Leafs decid to dip into what’s left they wouldn’t do much more than boost the aforementioned “Bottom Pair/7th Defender/Depth Defender” group, while you would at least want to get a guy that fits into the “Serviceable Top 4” category. Any players that are left that may fit into that group shoot left as well, so nothing really jumps out as ideal.
So here’s where the title comes in, I’d like to defend the defense.
Age is a funny thing, if a player is 23 years old or younger it’s generally believed they can improve by leaps and bounds. When applied to the Leafs’ group of hopefuls (we’ll exclude the Marlies Bound) that means Travis Dermott and Andreas Borgman could be much better this season. Players from the age of 24-26 (with 26 year olds being on the cusp) fit into a weird stage where improvements may not jump out to you immediately, but it’s still generally accepted that players can polish their games and get better, however, you should have a very good idea about what you have. This would include Morgan Rielly, Connor Carrick, Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov, Calle Rosen, Nikita Zaitsev, and Martin Marincin….. which makes up 7/16 defenders signed to NHL contracts, a large chunk. After that the 27 and up group are considered to be final products, only Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey fit the bill if you agree with this line of thinking.
Considering that the vast majority of the NHL hopefuls are still in a development state, and the fact that the Leafs finished 12th overall in the NHL in goals against, ahead of teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Cup winning Washington Capitals, as well as having the 10th best PK% at 81.4% (tied with the Vegas Golden Knights and New York Rangers), it could be that they improve a little without any outside help.
They are definitely missing a bonafide #1 defender, but I’ve made known my stance that Morgan Rielly is still young enough to make it there in the future, and that his development curve matches some other top end defenders. They are also light on legitimate top 4 defenders but could have a couple on the way in Timothy Liljegren, Andreas Borgman and Igor Ozhiganov. It wouldn’t be crazy to argue that waiting to see what they have in a group of players that are still close enough to age appropriate to expect improvement isn’t ridiculous. Hopeful? I would say it is most certainly that, but the competition for NHL jobs is ferocious right now, and the player(s) that answer that call and have the best summers of their careers may earn themselves the right to play further up the lineup than simply a 6th or 7th defender. Many of these players just found out what it is to win at the AHL level and there is no better experience than that. So, with all things considered, price of trade candidates, age of our group, how they performed last year, and the fact that this is the longest you’ve read anything on the Leafs without hearing about how John Tavares will improve the group (offensively and defensively) since February (probably), then I’ll ask you, the reader, to avoid jumping right to the comments section with a “trade Gardiner for ___” proposal and ask yourself, if you were truly in the GM chair, and felt even a shred of attachment for a defensive group that you helped to assemble and then watched them win the Calder Cup, would you be so quick to deny them the opportunity to fulfill all of their potential? Especially considering the fact that you know your team as currently constructed can make the playoffs and you have time on your side. Or would you wait, watch, allow them this opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong, and if needed add at the deadline when you have a much better idea of who will make it in the NHL?
I think I know what I’d do, and I’ll be sure to let you know what that is in the comments section. (Hint: it has nothing to do with his Game 7 performance)
GO LEAFS GO!!
**He had to fit somewhere and I do wonder how much rope Dubas will give him