The Toronto Maple Leafs were already struggling before the loss of their best defenceman. When Morgan Rielly fell awkwardly against the Philadelphia Flyers, the outlook was dim. Already missing a member of the Leafs definitive top three defencemen in Nikita Zaitsev, the team was looking down their depth chart. The Toronto Marlies had already offered their best in Travis Dermott. This left the team to choose from their go-to in Martin Marincin, or try something new. They decided on Rinat Valiev, who hadn’t been with the big club since March 2016.
Depth Solidifies Toronto Maple Leafs Blueline
Valiev’s recall may be a reward for strong play with the Marlies or more cap-related. Nonetheless, he serves as depth for this road trip unless another defenceman man gets hurt. The fact that Valiev was the third choice of recall from the Marlies begs the question, what does the defensive depth chart look like? Much, much better than it’s been in a long time. After Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Zaitsev, and Ron Hainsey, there is not much clarity. Andreas Borgman has shown real flashes of top-four potential. Dermott’s ceiling is a very well rounded number three defenceman. After them, it’s Connor Carrick, Roman Polak, and Martin Marincin closing out the NHL capable.
There are a few good options for next year with the Marlies as well. I had high hopes for Calle Rosen, but he’s still struggling to adjust to North American ice. There are many reasons for confidence that he will figure it out, so he would be at the top of the Marlies depth chart moving forward. Justin Holl is a strong, right-handed AHL performer, putting him slightly above Valiev (who has limited ability to drive play), and the unpolished Andrew Nielsen. Vincent LoVerde is simply AHL depth. He plays a similar role to Andrew Campbell in previous years.
Standing above the rest though is Timothy Liljegren. The Leafs first round pick in 2017, the young defender still needs a bit more time, and polish. However, the potential here is immense. He suffered from mono in his draft year, causing him to fall down draft rankings and slip to the Leafs. However, his play this season with the Marlies, as well as his performance for Sweden in the World Juniors, shows that he has the skating and puck-moving skills to be a top-pair defenseman in the NHL. The Leafs are showing patience here, and rightly so. This blue chipper could be a key part of the team’s future.
Purely in terms of prospects, there are a lot of names, but as always there is a need for more high-end prospects from the upcoming draft. One surprising note is that the right side appears stronger than the left, an anomaly both for the Leafs and leaguewide recently. The Leafs have quite a diverse group of defensive prospects, so it’s hard to rank them against each other. In groups, however, it’s easier to identify where players fit. For now, Liljegren leads the way in terms of potential, but still needs refinements. Dermott and Rosen still qualify as prospects, with Borgman having become an NHL regular. Nielsen would join them in terms of potential but needs a bit more time.
In the OHL you’ll find Eemeli Rasanen, Keaton Middleton, Nicolas Mattinen, J.D. Greenway, and Fedor Gordeev. This group is classified as “giants.” They are all 6’4″ or taller. Rasanen is head and shoulders above the rest of the group (not only because he’s 6’7″), but because he has top-four potential. He pairs that size with strong skating and good point production for the Kingston Frontence.
Speaking of skating, Gordeev is extremely smooth for being 6’6″, and is having his best year in the OHL with Flint. Mattinen also started the season with Flint, and leaving London was the key to his breakout season. His recent move to Hamilton has stifled his production. Middleton has a disappointing 17 points thus far. These three seem to have potential to be depth defencemen, with Gordeev having a chance to be a little higher in the line-up.
Greenway is a real wildcard, having missed most of his season at the University of Wisconsin due to personal issues. It was never revealed what he was dealing with, besides his coach saying Greenway is ready to focus on hockey in his return. In his second year of NCAA hockey, Greenway needs to produce. Despite being known for his defensive play, one assist in six games is just not enough at this point. In addition, his already low point production has seen a dip in this small sample. A third-round pick in 2016, he’s still very much a project. One thing Greenway does have on his side is time, a strong final two seasons might be enough make him a desirable college free agent.
Most Leafs depth charts do not typically include Ryan O’Connell and Jesper Lindgren. O’Connell seems to be having a decent year in the BCHL, but there’s not much information on him considering he was playing high school hockey this time last year. Five years from now, when his rights are expiring, he will be in more discussions. Right now, it’s just too far away.
Lindgren was, at one point one of the Leafs best right handed prospects. That just goes to show the horrendous depth in past years. He had great SuperElit numbers in his draft year, but then struggled to jump to the SHL, or even Allsvenskan. This year he decided to jump to HPK of the Finnish Liiga, but he seems to be getting similar results. Older players pushed Lindgren down HPK’s depth chart, and he’s running out of time to prove worthy of an entry-level contract. In order to get more playing time and exposure Lindgren should consider jumping the pond to play in the AHL
Reports indicate that free agent Igor Ozhighanov could join the fray sometime in May, when his KHL contract ends. Elliotte Friedman has reported that he already has a[verbal contract:”Just wanted to tie a final bow on something that’s been in this blog a couple of times. Other NHL teams have been told Toronto has a verbal commitment from Russian defenceman Igor Ozhighanov. He can sign after April 30.”
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