How to Upgrade the Blueline?
Shortly after the lovely start of our 2016/2017 season, as some of you may recall, I wrote a piece called “Pimp My Blueline” outlining what I’d like to see the Leafs do to improve the corps on the backend for the short and long term. The piece mentioned potential unrestricted free agents to sign and draft eligible prospects to select with our first round pick and develop. I know this is yet another piece talking about the team’s’ defense but hey can you blame me? It’s clearly their biggest weakness and easy to talk about. Anyway, after 88 games that consisted of many “Shit!”, “F**K”. “Wow”, “Unreal”, it was easy to determine that we need to upgrade the blueline in order to take the next step. I know what you’re thinking “Yeah no sh*t it is, they’re going to do that and we’ll make it to the second round”.
I always like to think that whatever we know, management does as well and then some. And that’s exactly it, what we know is that the team will address the need of multiple bodies on the back end and we’re all aware of the options: trade (JVR), free agency and drafting being the more common ones but after evaluating and giving it some thought, what exactly is the best way to upgrade our blueline? I know the answer and you guys probably won’t like it, but let’s look at the options and result.
Let’s make one thing clear, by “upgrading” I mean adding a top 4/top pairing guy. Preferably someone who logs around 22-25 minutes a night. What we realize is teams aren’t willing to give up those types of defenseman just like that. It’s a position in which teams are always looking to improve/maintain so trading for the top 4 guys makes it tough. Preferably, we’d like to keep members of our current top 4 as adding another man will pushing some of them down one spot which is ideal for the group.
Adding a “big name” man on the backend as we know has come to the expense of key players and sometimes draft picks like the Hall-Larsson and Subban-Weber trades. The obvious man to move out for that “big man”, JVR. But of course, as us members of Leafs nation love to say, “But it has to make sense”. The other options are some of our young forward prospects and our 1st round pick.
Now here’s where things may get complex, the expansion draft. I’m not going to pretend like I know everything about this expansion draft because really the only thing I know of is that teams have to protect a certain number of players. There are some who will say it’s best to wait until after the expansion draft which is a reasonable thought but maybe this is something to take advantage of.
With all that said, who would be the preferred trade target? Well there have been a few desired targets ranging from anyone on Anaheim, Chris Tanev, Tyson Barrie, Jonas Brodin etc. I can sit here and give you reasons why each one of these dman would be solid additions but instead I’ll ask this, is trading the right route to take?
Look back and think about the history of trades involving big name defensemen. I won’t mention break them down one by one but I’m sure you’re all aware of the cost and today’s market. Whether it was a “Hockey trade” or a rental pickup at the deadline, these trades for defensemen featured giving up one of your own high end guys, high draft picks and a top player. I won’t get into the whole “has it worked out for them” but I will mention that the price to acquire one is high. Can we afford it? Depending on who you have in mind I guess but I’ll answer that later. Let’s move on.
Free Agent Signing?
The Leafs have a ton of cap space and it’s easy to say, “Let’s put it to good use in free agency for a defenseman!”. I’d agree but then we’d both be wrong. Yes, Shattenkirk and Alzner are both attractive free agents but there’s no doubt that there will be a bidding war for both. They may not cost us a high pick or promising prospect but after 2017/2018, we’ll have Nylander, Marner and Matthews to sign. Not too say they’ll each make $10mil/yr, I’m sure they’ll sign reasonable deals but I wouldn’t dish out big money to any UFA’s just yet.
Now, if it’s a European UFA that Hunter and/or Babcock is high on like Rosen and Borgman, go nuts. Not to say they’ll both turn out like Zaitsev did but more because it’s low risk. Bottom line, stay away from UFA’s unless it’s a diamond in the rough.
On second thought, would we benefit from a big-name UFA signing long term?
Draft and Develop?
Travis Dermott, Andrew Nielsen and maybe Rinat Valiev are players on the Marlies right now that could potentially make the jump to the big club next season. Will any of them or other prospects outside the AHL makes contributions to the top 4 in future? It’s possible and we’ll certainly hope.
The draft is always a hot topic around this time of year with mock drafts and rankings coming out left, right and center along with player comparables and who the Leafs should draft with their first round pick if available. The favorites seem to be former NHLer’s son Callan Foote of the Rockets and Nicolas Hague of the Steelheads when speaking of defensemen. Why do I bring this up? I’ve always been a big believer in “You can never have too many defensemen” and it’s true. They tend to play more than forwards and injuries always occur. It’s a position you need organizational depth in and as mention a couple of times over the course of the last two seasons (With all due respect to our hard-working prospects), the Leafs don’t have much. I do believe that defense should be the focus at the draft. You know what though, we had a great run this season, do we really still need to be patient about developing prospects?
I’ve given my viewpoint on the three most popular ways to improve the blue line and asked you something at the end of each. I’d like to answer each myself and give my take of the hot variety on which option I think is best.
Can we afford to trade for that young and dashing, future/current top pairing defenseman? Yes, we’ll all point to JVR as being the #1 piece of trade bait but not to mention we do also have promising forward prospects in our system and necessary draft picks. Is it the best route to take? Not my first choice.
Would we benefit from a big-name UFA signing long term? Of course it depends who it is, but generally speaking, no. To be more specific, a big-name signing of the 2017 UFA crop is not the answer. Options are limited and there will be bidding wars that could very well result in the big deals being busts. In other words, it’s a gamble I wouldn’t take for now.
Do we really still need to patient about developing prospects? Yes and you guys aren’t going to like it, but this is the option I say they should focus on most. I know, I know, defensemen tend take longer to develop and we’ll be ready before that. But here’s my reasoning, and it’s quite simple, teams with solid defensive cores developed those players. Also, most of the teams with some of the league’s top Dmen, were drafted and developed, Hedman, Keith, Karlsson, Doughty etc. Where am I going with this? Well, in my opinion, instead of splashing cash at the UFA market, or selling the farm, I’d be a lot more comfortable with developing these future contributors especially with our great farm organization and one of the best scouts out there. Nashville (even prior Subban) one of the best D-cores in the league, top 4 all developed. Anaheim? Same thing (Outside Bieksa).
I’m not opposed to the Leafs trading JVR or whoever at all but I just don’t necessarily think it HAS to be for a defenseman.
Luckily for you readers, my opinion doesn’t matter and the Leafs most likely don’t take it either. We all have our preference in who to sign and/or trade for but one thing is clear, our organizational depth at a very important position has to be better so why not take advantage of our resources like Keefe and Hunter?
One thing is clear, this organization will stick to the plan. What that plan is, no one really knows but I say let’s keep it that way.
As always, thanks for reading and enjoy what should be an exciting off season!
NOTE: I created a new twitter account (@LeafsFuture) which is simply keeping tabs on our prospects across different leagues. Give it a follow if that stuff interests you, I’ll do my best to keep it updated.