Toronto Maple Leafs Defense Plans for the Future

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 17: Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates an overtime winning goal by teammate Jake Gardiner #51 (not shown) against the Pittsburgh Penguins during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 17, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Penguins 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

There is no question that exciting times are ahead for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They have a lot of exciting young talent around which to build, especially at forward with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Despite some good young talent on defense, they do not have the stars their offense has. So what are the Toronto Maple Leafs defense plans for the future?

Toronto Maple Leafs Defense Plans for the Future

Current Roster

There is no question who the best player is on the Toronto Maple Leafs top defense. The 22-year-old Morgan Rielly is signed through the 2021-22 season, and will lead this blue line for the next few years. The question is anyone else on the current roster going to join him for the ride?

Is Jake Gardiner (six goals and 17 points) going to be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs defense plans for the short or the long-term? The 26-year-old defenseman is signed for two more years following this season with an annual cap hit of $4.05 million.

Gardiner has good size at 6’2″, 197 lbs, skilled offensive, strong skater, and an asset on the power play. However, defensively the Minnesota native must continue to improve, especially in his own end, which is Toronto’s greatest weakness. That brings into question whether or not Gardiner is a long-term fit for Toronto.

Nikita Zaitsev (one goal and 14 points) can be a reliable all-around puck-moving blueliner for Toronto over the next few years. At just 25 years of age, Zaitsev can slide in nicely as the Leafs number-four defenseman.

No question the Leafs need to improve their current NHL roster in regards to their top-four defensemen.

Prospect Pipeline Thin on D

While they have a number of prospects about whom to be excited, potential youngsters on the Toronto Maple Leafs defense is razor thin. The Hockey News Fall Yearbook only had one defenseman in Toronto’s top-ten prospect list. That was 19-year old Travis Dermott, who was ranked at the sixth spot.

Considering this is Toronto’s biggest issue, this leaves a big problem for the Leafs brass. Hard to believe there aren’t more blue-line prospects in Toronto’s pipeline, especially since the Leafs have had 20 draft selections over the last two years.

Game Plan Moving Forward

This summer’s unrestricted free agents is very thin on the blue line. Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues is the only elite-level defenseman that could hit the UFA market on July 1st.

The offensive Shattenkirk could land a contract similar to what Keith Yandle received from the Florida Panthers last year at 7 years, $44.45 million. Does Toronto want to make that kind of investment in an offensive defenseman? Or would they like to use their cap dollars on a blueliner who is a stalwart defensively? Shattenkirk isn’t the right fit for the Leafs.

After Shattenkirk, the best UFA blueliner that would fit Toronto’s defensive needs is probably Karl Alzner. He is a more defensively-oriented blueliner that would make the Leafs better in their own end and help out the penalty kill, already the 10th-best in the league. He’s led the Washington Capitals blue line since the 2013-14 season in PK TOI and ranks fifth among all defenseman in that category through that span.

That means the Leafs are going to have to look towards the trade route. There are a couple of avenues Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan can go down in this regard.

Trading winger James Van Riemsdyk for a package of players that is heavy on defensemen will be a smart move for Toronto. The 27-year-old 6’3″, 200-pound winger is someone who can score 25-30 goals and be a force on the power play. Toronto could receive a talented young blueliner ready to step into the NH,L along with an upper echelon defensive prospect for Van Riemsdyk. Keep in mind the former second overall pick becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season.

What would be the smarter move for Toronto: signing Van Riemsdyk to an expensive long-term deal in his 30s? Or trading him to help the blue line both in the short and long-term? Considering the future of this team is Matthews, Marner, and Nylander and eventually all three will have to be locked up on lengthy contracts as well. It’s a no-brainer Van Riemsdyk should be moved to help solve this franchise blue line problems.

Another option for Toronto is to explore trade talks with the incoming Vegas Golden Knights. The expansion draft will offer Vegas General Manager George McPhee a plethora of really good blue line options. However, in all likelihood, the expansion draft will be thin at talented young forwards. Toronto and Vegas could be great dance partners in a trade.

The Leafs are loaded with young talented forwards in their organization but are razor thin on the blue line. The incoming Golden Knights will in all likelihood be the 180 of Toronto after the expansion draft. These two teams should already be discussing trade scenarios for this coming June.

Exciting days are ahead for the Toronto Maple Leafs defense. With the right couple of moves regarding their blue line, Toronto could become an Eastern Conference contender before you know it.

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