There has been much speculation this off-season on the Toronto Maple Leafs, which is not unusual. What is unusual, is that the media and the fans are starting to believe that this team might be close to being a Stanley Cup contender. Most would agree that the Toronto Maple Leafs defence must be improved. Finishing 22nd in the league at 2.85 goals against per game and 28th in shots against per game at 32.6, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, does little to inspire confidence.
Toronto Maple Leafs Defence Must Improve
The Leafs top three defenders, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev return. All three averaged above 20 minutes a game last campaign. The top two, Reilly and Zaitsev, combined for a miserable minus 42 for the season. Granted, this pair often drew the toughest minutes versus the oppositions best attackers and it is now generally accepted that plus/minus is a dubious statistic at best.
Neutral Zone Performance
If we look closer however, we can see that Zaitsev in particular struggled defensively compared to his teammates. When it comes to neutral zone performance at 5v5 play Zaitsev finished dead last at stopping the opponent from gaining the blue line with possession of the puck. In breaking up the play at the blue line, only Roman Polak was worse.
It might be surprising that Jake Gardiner performed much better than Zaitsev on these measures. He was the second best D-man on the Leafs at preventing carry-ins and breaking up the play in the neutral zone. The logical thing to do for Mike Babcock would be to split up the Reilly/Zaitsev pairing at 5v5. In fact, this is something that we saw late in the season and in the playoffs, where Gardiner/Zaitsev became a pair.
If we are to believe Babcock the newly signed Ron Hainsey will play with Reilly. This means a Gardiner/Zaitsev partnership is likely in the cards again. Most observers see the aging vet Hainsey as merely a replacement for the departing Matt Hunwick.
However, Hainsey is a perennial big minute munching solid NHL defence man. He played a big part of an underrated Pittsburgh Penguins defence corps that merely won a Stanley Cup last spring. There is a compelling analytical argument that Hainsey is better defensively than either Hunwick or Zaitsev. Hainsey is not the big acquisition that fans are hoping for this summer, but barring another move by the Leafs before October, he will be dependable and steady in a second pairing role and likely on the penalty kill. Hainsey mainly played on the left side in Pittsburgh, but Leafs management seems convinced he will be able to effectively transition to the right side.
Toronto Maple Leafs Defensive Depth
With the Toronto Maple Leafs lack of defensive depth on the right hand side, Connor Carrick will probably return as one half of the bottom pairing. The big question then, is who will be the other half? There is no lack of competition. Any of Travis Dermott, Martin Marincin, Andrew Nielsen, or the recently signed Swedish duo Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman will be vying for this spot.
Given their various stages of development the most likely candidates to make the team out of camp are Dermott, Marincin or Rosen. It’s also possible two of the three stick with the team or that all three rotate in and out of the lineup. Marincin is the only one with NHL experience but the Leafs are high on Dermott who looks to be NHL ready. Rosen is a bit of a wildcard and if he has a good camp has the potential to bump either of them. Neilsen and Borgman are both interesting prospects as well, having the size and skill to play in the NHL but probably will need more time to develop at the AHL level.
It’s also worth mentioning Timothy Liljegren, who is a long shot to make the Leafs this year and will likely play for the Marlies or return for another season in Sweden. He has top pairing talent however, and it would not be all that surprising to see him play for the big club at some point soon.
One thing is for certain, no matter who plays defence for the Toronto Maple Leafs this year the fans expectations are going to be sky high. It’s going to be a fun ride. Who do you think will make the final roster?
Main Photo: 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)