In 2008, I was pretty excited at the draft when I heard “The Toronto Maple Leafs are proud to select with their first pick in this year’s draft, from the Kelowna Rockets, Luke Schenn”. Big, nasty and the next Adam Foote is what was said. How could you not be excited about this kid?! At the time, although it may not seem like it now, the Leafs were in a rebuild period and to kick the rebuild off they added a young and future shut down defenseman.
He was thrown into a blue line that included the likes of Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Ian White, Jeff Finger, etc. Take that however you will. Then enter Francois Beauchemin, Carl Gunnarsson, Garnet Exelby and Mike Komisarek. Then Brett Lebda, Keith Aulie and, well you all know.
Point being is that in hindsight (because at the time a lot of us were optimistic about several addition) the Leafs attempt to build a solid blue line was a nightmare. From not developing prospects properly, to misusing players and handing out atrocious contracts, it was chaos to say the least. Fast forward to 2016 and what exactly do they have on the blue line exactly outside of Morgan Rielly? I’ll get to that eventually, I’m not going to make an assessment on our current blue line based on other people’s feelings about certain players but I will say this, it still needs work and may take some time. How much work and how much time? Well, there will be various answers to these questions but ill give mine: it needs some solid work and it will take at least a couple of years.
Many of you will probably disagree and that’s fine but if you’re reading this thinking our blue line is in good shape going forward, take a step back and ask yourselves “Is this current core of defensemen good enough to make us a playoff team?” Let me tell you, I’ve asked myself this a couple hoping for a different than “Definitely not” but that remains my answer and for good reason.
Now back to my question from before, what exactly do the Leafs have on there blue line outside of Morgan Rielly?
Nikita Zaitsev: Looked great in preseason. Offensive instincts are there and if he can keep that up throughout an NHL regular season, bingo.
Jake Gardiner: He is what he is at this point in my opinion. A great skater who comes up with the odd offensive flash and struggles defensively.
Roman Polak: Nasty (Nasty is aggressive) but may be a bottom pairing/7th defenseman.
Martin Marincin: Very good on Microsoft Excel.
Connor Carrick: Surprised many and I like what I see so far but I’m not getting ahead of myself yet.
Matt Hunwick: Nothing more than a bottom pairing defenseman. Will be dealt at the deadline if a suitor(s) can be found.
Frank Corrado: Time will tell with Corrado. I’d like to see him succeed but I don’t see him being in the long term plans.
Again, these are my opinions to take however you like but the reality is that this current core of defensemen is not good enough to move forward with, from an improvement and impact standpoint. Understanding it is a rebuild, I feel the need to mention it for many who feel the job is done simply because we’re very skilled up front and have a confirmed goaltending situation. Arguably the most important position to be is not solidified in Leaf land just yet.
Now I don’t believe for a second that they are all here to stay, I’m aware that management is going to address this sooner rather than later, but if you’re a fan thinking they’ll make the playoff this season (which is fine) don’t be surprised if they fail qualify and that will be largely in part due to the inexperienced and less impactful defenseman we currently have. Again, I’m not here to bash, that’s not my intention whatsoever. I am just trying to look at it from a level headed perspective. These men go out there, wear the crest and work hard to keep us fans interested. I just feel that some are not needed for the direction we’re headed in but certainly can be welcomed elsewhere.
The real question remains, where do we go from here? There’s plenty of ways to go about it. There are some potential internal options for post deadline games that are interesting such as: Rinat Valiev, Andrew Nielsen and maybe even Travis Dermott. Outside of those 3, there isn’t much else we can add internally which may be a little telling, but it is what it is. I don’t have an issue with these defensemen being in our system, but it gets thin after that in terms of guys who can make an impact.
There’s the trade route which is always entertaining but with Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba being the only big and intriguing name available via trade that’s likely not happening. Unless of course the Jets really are interested in a package of Gardiner plus a B level forward prospect in which many of us are convinced will get the job done.
As many of you may know, I’ve been pushing for the Leafs the draft a high end D for a few years now and I still stand by my wish. With that said, based on the team’s needs after each season, I like to look ahead to draft time and what draft eligible prospects I’d like the Leafs to go after. With this topic being defenseman for the present and/or future, I have a couple who I’ve kept an eye on since last season who I think would be welcomed additions to the organization.
Son of former NHLer Adam, Callan Foote is a defenseman many scouts will have their eyes on for the upcoming 2017 NHL draft. Listed at 6’4” 210lbs, the Rockets defenseman is a complete player. His long reach allows him to take up passing lanes and he possesses great defensive instincts. When your dad is Adam Foote, that certainly helps. To add onto his stellar defensive play, he has a good shot and moves very well. Callan projects as a top pairing defenseman and will be a massive boost to any NHL club..
The 6’6” 215lbs Steelheads defenseman will certainly be looking to prove that he is in fact the guy you want on your blue line. Aside from often using size to his advantage, Hague’s strongest attribute is his skating. He can use his speed to get out of trouble and also moves well with the puck. Hague can get nasty in the corners and clears the crease well for his goaltender. Another player who any NHL team would love to acquire.
It shouldn’t stop there. After the 2016/2017 season, the Leafs have about $20mil coming off the books with Nikita Zaitsev arguably being the biggest priority. That’s a lot of cash, so why not put it to good use? Yes, the Leafs should look into signing a defenseman in free agency. Not just any defenseman, but one with experience who can mentor the younger players and still play at a high level. Some of you may be thinking this would be taking a shortcut in the rebuild which is true to a certain extent but Leafs Nation was also convinced that Stamkos wasn’t going to be a short cut. Anyways, who may these players be? Here’s my list:
Most likely not happening but to sign a guy like Burns who can play both defense and the right wing, I would welcome the addition of Burns who brings speed, intensity, versatility and experience. Most likely to re-sign in San Jose but hey, crazy things happen all the time.
Can’t quite picture this either but Daley is a one I’ve always liked and being 33 years old, he could be looking for a deal with shorter term around the $3-$3.5mil mark. Which may be too much for some but I’m just spitballing here.
Trade rumors have included Shattenkirk’s name quite often since last season’s trade deadline and will continue to do so as he enters the final year of his contract. I would assume the Blues’ plan is to keep him for a playoff run unless of course they get a big offer for him at the deadline. Whatever the case may be, I can see a player like Shattenkirk hitting the open market and fetching a deal worth north of $6mil per for about 5-6 years. Some risk involved there but what big free agent signing doesn’t involve risk? For a defenseman of Shattenkirk’s caliber, that may be chance I’m willing to take.
A player I’ve been a fan of since his days with the Hitmen and representing Team Canada as captain at the World Juniors. I believe Alzner is a player that could very well hit the open market and I would have no issues meeting his asking price, whatever that may be. Madison Bowey will look to make the jump and the Caps have quite a few big name players to re-sign come 2017. Nothing guaranteed of course, but I think Alzner would be a great fit with his experience, defensive style of play, size and ability to chip in offensively.
The bottom line here is the Leafs have a few holes to fill at a position that is arguably the most important in hockey. Whether it’s adding to the prospect system or bringing in players who can make an immediate impact, I think it’s safe to say the Leafs need to pimp their blue line.
As always, thanks for reading and I would love to hear your thoughts.