In year two of the Leafs rebuild, it can be easy to forget the message instilled by management a year ago. Take things slow, rebuild properly. Don’t hasten the process for a shot at a wildcard spot. So far the Leafs have done an excellent job of being bad, and were rewarded with the number one overall pick for their efforts. It will be tempting to load up on rentals and make a run for that final playoff seed this upcoming season, but management must resist temptation. For this reason, Roman Polak is the Leafs most important player on the Leafs roster.
It would have been easy to write 1000 words on how great Auston Matthews is or the unlimited potential of Mitch Marner or the impact of a good starting goalie in Freddy Andersen, but the truth is: none of that matters this season. Roman Polak symbolises the rebuild. Sign bad free agents and flip them for picks. Yes, Polak is bad, which is what makes him the perfect player on a rebuilding team.
Polak is an enticing combination of poor player value and perceived trade value. He proved that at last years trade when he netted the Leafs two second round picks, despite making the team worse. Surely a trip to the finals heightened his value as a player who “knows how to win” or as a leader in the locker room.
By signing Roman Polak the Leafs have alerted the Leafs Nation that they are holding true to the original plan, and letting the process work, while also bringing back a player who fans like and are familiar with. Polak might not have good on-ice results, but he is capable of sticking up for his teammates in a fight or delivering a big hit. Now, neither of those are likely to help the Leafs outscore the other team which is good because the Leafs don’t need to win. It helps that many fans still enjoy watching two big guys go at it, or a giant hit into the boards.
I don’t buy for a minute that this analytically savvy management team brought back Polak because they believed he makes the Leafs a better team. Polak has a very specific skill set. He hits, fights and provides a physical presence, while also being solid defensively. While there is value to this set of abilities, they become useless when the player in possession of these skills is a negative in terms of helping your team outscore the other.
When evaluating a player, I like picking out positives and negatives of their game and weighing them against each other. In Polak’s favour, he does help reduce shot attempts against. It’s by a slim margin (-0.4 shot attempts per 60 less than his teammates) but manages to do this in a fairly heavy defensive role, so it is a valuable attribute. In addition to this, he also is good at forcing the opposition into taking lower quality chances, meaning his defensive impact reaches further than raw shot differentials might indicate. Polak is also underrated as an individual offensive contributor. He produces points at a rate we’d expect from a low end 2nd pair defenseman. This flies in the face of Polak’s general perception as being a stay-at-home defenseman with no offensive abilities.
In Polak’s case, his downfall is that he is a huge offensive liability. While individually he does produce a decent amount of points, he is a massive drag on generating shot attempts. In fact, the Leafs take 7.46 shots less per 60 with Polak on the ice. This equates to -0.41 expected goals for per 60 minutes of ice time. So while Polak is in fact decent defensively, he is so bad at generating shot attempts that his team is still better off having Polak on the bench.
Polak’s true value is that he is somehow a valued commodity. San Jose proved at last years trade deadline that teams are willing to pay exorbitant prices for a physical defenseman. So Polak is an asset, not because he is a good NHL player, but because his perceived value is higher than his actual value. This is excellent for the Leafs as he helps them lose games, while also gaining picks/prospects at the deadline. He is the perfect rebuilding block and that’s why he is the Leafs most valuable player, because he symbolises the rebuild which mustn’t be hastened to make a cheap playoff run. When the process is done, the end result will be an exciting team filled with some of the league’s most dynamic players. But there are still holes in the Leafs system, which need to be, and will be filled in the next few seasons.
The Leafs still need to find that future starter to take over for Andersen a few years down the road. Perhaps Joseph Woll is that goalie, though he seems like a longshot. Also the Leafs could use a blue chip defensive prospect to either join or replace Gardiner when he passes his prime.
The Leafs are in a great position, especially when you consider they are only one year into their rebuild, but the next few seasons of being bad will end up being the difference between a Leafs team that’s pretty good vs a Leafs team which can potentially be a perennial cup contender. So I say, bring on Roman Polak and let’s have another terrible season!