Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev are expected to return to the line up shortly after the All-Star break. When that happens, there will be eight Toronto Maple Leafs defensemen. That is at least one too many. Decisions will need to be made and not all of them are going to be easy.
Toronto Maple Leafs Defence Corps Undergoing Change
There are some Maple Leafs defenders that, if healthy, are assured a spot on the roster. Rielly and Zaitsev are two. Ron Hainsey and Jake Gardiner are another two. Baring a trade of any of those players, those are the top four guys on any given night. None of them will be traded unless someone offers a defenseman swap like a Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. Those deals are rare, especially mid-season.
Two Spots For Four Players
The bottom two pairing is where all the question marks live. Although it would not be surprising if any of Connor Carrick, Travis Dermott, or Andreas Borgman spent time on one of the top two pairings. Babcock has been known to switch these pairings up mid-game, looking for chemistry, or to fit the situation. Do not think that because two players are deemed a bottom pairing they are going to play together consistently.
Borgman has the most games played this season between him, Carrick, and the recently called up Dermott, but his play has struggled at times recently. He also has the worst Relative Corsi For of the three at 0.1.
Although Dermott’s Relative Corsi For is 4.4, highest of all Leaf defenders, he’s only played 8 games. That is not enough of a sample size to assume he can sustain that for the duration of the season and into the playoffs.
Carrick’s numbers are also pretty good, his Relative Corsi For is 2.9, third best of Leaf defensemen. The other player in the mix here is Babcock’s favorite, Roman Polak. His Relative Corsi For is -2.7, tied for lowest of defensemen with Hainsey.
Odd Man Out
At first glance, the answers seem obvious. Get rid of Polak and decide which two to keep of Carrick, Dermott, and Borgman. But Babcock’s stubbornness to keep Polak in the lineup cannot be ignored. Polak’s role is to clear the front of the net, be a big presence, and add some size and toughness to the lineup. There’s no doubt he does that, but his foot speed is lacking. Speed is a key attribute in today’s NHL. He is actually fairly quick for a man of his size, but he is just not fast enough. It is the same thing that drove Frederik Gauthier out of the league.
Maybe its just bad luck, but it seems Polak also has many pucks bounce off him in the wrong direction. As in behind Frederik Andersen or at least towards him.
One thing that is a positive for Polak is his determination. He frequently drives deep into the offensive zone providing a mix of fear and excitement to the fan base. And he loves to shoot the puck. That may be part of the reason Babcock has taken a shine to him. He wants to contribute offensively. But with six points in 32 games, he is not going to fill the net with regularity. Points for trying?
The best place for Polak on this team is in the press box, starting the occasional game against a team with a history of running into goalies. He is a guy the team may want to keep around for a tough series against the Boston Bruins and some of their characters, Brad Marchand for example.
If the team keeps Polak, while hopefully playing him a little less often, that leaves two spots for Carrick, Dermott, and Borgman. This is where it gets tricky. The Leafs can send Dermott and Borgman to the AHL, both are waivers exempt. Dermott’s play has earned him a chance to keep playing, and Borgman has been steady for the most part. At 23, Borgman also only one year older than Dermott so there is some allowance for learning the game. Carrick may be the preferred option to be sent to the AHL, but he is not waiver exempt, and only 24 himself. Here are three young players that should all be getting NHL ice time. Even if Babcock sits Polak, there is only room for two of them.
The Leafs may very well decide to send Borgman or Dermott back to the AHL, or they may continue to keep a rotation as they have been doing sine Zaitsev went down. One thing they will not do is keep eight defensemen on the team, not for very long anyway.
There May Be A Trade On The Horizon
With the NHL trade deadline less than a month away, the Leafs are likely looking at trade options. Many are expecting the team to add a defenseman to the roster, and they still may if the right deal comes along. The New York Rangers are looking to sell and their captain, Ryan McDonagh, is available. Although he is another left-handed shot and the Leafs would prefer a righty. If the Leafs do add a top four defensemen, sending one or both of Borgman and Dermott to the AHL becomes a lot more understandable.
The Leafs could also be looking to move one of their young defensemen out. They have a deluge of scoring, but they could stand to improve their defensive depth at forward. Or they could be proactive in acquiring replacements for Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov. Both are sure to depart in free agency this offseason.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that the Leafs are ahead of schedule when it comes to rebuilding. Playing young defensemen is a good idea. But they have also shown they are in it to win it now with the free agent signings of Hainsey and Patrick Marleau. They are straddling a fence at the moment, hoping to reap the rewards both a contending roster and an up and coming roster.
Trading A Young Defenseman Is Not A Bad Idea
They have more defensemen coming down the pipe, starting with Timothy Liljegren. Earl Schwartz sums up the Leafs defensive depth nicely in his article. The team should not be afraid to move some of their young defensemen for immediate help. If they do, and they take most fans’ advice to sit Polak, the defensive logjam clears up pretty quickly.