When breaking down the Leafs' Player Usage Chart from the 2011-2012 season Rob Vollman observed that: "Toronto certainly is a two-horse blue line (Phaneuf and Gunnarson), and Schenn is certainly the inexplicably weak link on defense - at least Komisarek’s poor results can be partially explained by playing in his own zone far more often than he should have been allowed." Unfortunately we're paying three other player's Top 4 money. This needs to change. The Leafs need to find a Top 4 "shut-down" defenseman on the cheap.
As has been the common theme the past few season, the Leafs are spending too much money for sub-par results. While players like Phil Kessel, Clarke MacArthur, Jake Gardiner, and Mikhail Grabovski have given the Leafs great results at bargain prices the majority of the remaining players either don’t produce enough, make too much money to be considered bargains, or both at the same time.
This has been the most obvious, and detrimental on the blueline. Essentially, the Leafs are paying Top 4 money to bottom pair players. Take a look at last season’s player usage chart.
To read the chart, the basic thing to note is the circles. Blue circles represent players with positive Corsi, our name for a shot differential statistic that acts as a proxy for team puck possession when a player is on the ice. White circles represent negative Corsi, and the size of the circle indicates to what degree.
The x-axis (horizontal) indicates offensive zone start rate, meaning that the further a player is to the right, the more optimized his minutes are for offensive usage. The y-axis (vertical) is to place a player's quality of competition, the higher the better.
Essentially Phaneuf and Gunnarsson were the only Top 4 Defensemen on the Leafs last season. They faced tough competition, started the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone, and generally moved the puck in the right direction. The team saw success using them as their top pair last year, and I expect them to do the same next season. The issue is that there is no one besides them who can handle tough minutes.
Liles and Schenn are both decidedly average, which is fine, except that they make far too much money. Komisarek spent most of his time trapped in the defensive zone, not worth $4.5M. What the Leafs need is another Gunnarsson. A player who can play tough minutes and move the puck into the offensive zone for under $3M. Should be easy, right?
While I’ve made it know that my preference is for the Leafs to draft a forward in the Five slot, there is also the possibility that they use that pick on NHL ready Defenseman Ryan Murray. Many have speculated that the Oilers are interested in him, and his inclusion on Canada’s World Championship team added fuel to that fire.
As you may recall, the Leafs most recent experience with inserting a D-Man drafted from the WHL at 5 right into their line-up did not go so well. Brian Burke has also gone on record as saying that he would have sent Luke Schenn back to Junior the year he was drafted. That being said they are two different players, and if drafted Murray will undoubtedly get the whole pre-season and nine regular season games to prove he belongs in the NHL.
While not the ideal draft outcome Murray could provide the Leafs with another option to filling out the Top 4 at a reasonable price.
Schenn, Jake Gardiner, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson jump out as the most likely in house candidates. My only concern is that two of them aren’t ready for it, one of them can’t handle it, and the other is recovering from a concussion. While I’ll look at these options more in-depth later I don’t think the Leafs have the solution in house.
The good news is that there are some UFA options who could help the Leafs out. Justin Schultz, Bryan Allen, Barrett Jackman, and Michael Rozsival are all players available who would make less money than Komisarek and Schenn and provide better results. As these players tend to be undervalued they will likely cost less than more offensively minded d-men on the open market. I think that this is the best way for the Leafs to address this need.
You’ll notice I did not include Ryan Suter here. Since the operative word is “cheap” he does not fit the bill. The Leafs simply do not have the cap space to throw enough money at Suter. Unless something changes it’s unlikely he’s a member of the Leafs next season. For what it’s worth I think he stays in Nashville anyway.
Trade for One-
As always, predicting trades is damn near impossible. I’ll identify some players that I’d like Burke to trade for, but there is no way of know if they’re available or if the Leafs possess the assets to get it done.
The good news is that this should be the easiest problem for the Leafs to fix this off-season. Who would you like to see in the Leafs' Top 4 next season?