August 30 2014 11:05AM
In a world where we're beginning to value moving up drastically more than we do shutting down, the stock of defensive defencemen on the whole is beginning to drop. But that's not in the eyes of everybody. Even if it was, you'd have to concede this to be, in the most extreme scenario, a transitionary phase in hockey strategy. As such, teams will actively be looking for players of the shutdown mold.
As far as the Leafs organization goes, Andrew MacWilliam is perhaps the best personification of that type of player, which brings him to the 15 spot on our Top 20.
In last season's rankings, MacWilliam just barely got his foot across the finish line to land in 19th place. In that piece, our very own Justin Fisher described him as a "a short term, low risk prospect who buys the organization a bit of time while the blue chips develop". His hopes for him were that he would keep Korbinian Holzer out of the Leafs roster, and that he would fill a hole in the Marlies roster.
What actually happened? Well, neither Holzer or MacWilliam found their way into the Leafs lineup. Rarely did any of the Marlies defencemen, actually; John-Michael Liles came up to be showcased in December, and Petter Granberg was given the last game of the regular season. It certainly helps that most of the defensive core stayed healthy, and that the team had an abundance of defencemen already in the NHL.
However, MacWilliam found himself playing with Holzer for the bulk of the year, in what seemed like an effort to groom him into a better version of his German counterpart. Together, they made the Marlies' shutdown pairing, getting a significant amount of minutes and even playing the penalty kill. The pairs would shift around in terms of usage and who exactly would play on them, but they stuck, which is something that MacWilliam felt worked to his benefit.
"It was huge. The coaching staff would give me opportunities against the other team's top lines, and working with [Holzer] helped me out a ton this year. I can't thank him enough. To have an older guy like that and to have a steady presence like that, just to have as a partner and to coach me along the way was awesome."
Opportunities against top lines is an understatement, to say the least. Josh Weissbock has been doing some preliminary advanced stats work for the American Hockey League, and his numbers have MacWilliam being used in far and away the toughest situations, both facing the highest Quality of Competition and having the lowest Quality of Teammates on the team (using Estimated SF% - these numbers are admittedly much less of a sure thing than NHL ones).
As a result of his steady play, MacWilliam found himself bumped up to 16th in our midterm rankings. One of my concerns was his lack of offensive production, with just three assists in 28 games. Down the stretch, he doubled his production. While he is still chasing his first professional goal, MacWilliam put up six assists in his final 27 games, including three in his final six regular season games. In the playoffs, he added an assist. MacWilliam suffered concussion-like symptoms that cut his season short, but returned in the playoffs and didn't appear to have struggles.
MacWilliam is an imposing (6'2, 230) defenceman who isn't afraid to get physical or aggressive. He'll get in the way of shots if he has to, he doesn't shy away from throwing big hits, and isn't against dropping the gloves, fighting five times this season.
His opponents tend to get the better of him, but if he continues to include fighting in his repertoire, he'll probably get better; it's a big no-no in College Hockey, and this is his first year as a pro.
It would not be a surprise to see the MacWilliam-Holzer pairing reunite with the Marlies this year, and to see him continue to play heavy minutes in penalty killing situations. The NHL is likely too sudden of a jump for him, particularly with the sheer depth that the Leafs have right now, but who knows? Maybe he comes on board as an eventual replacement for Roman Polak or Stephane Robidas.
As it stands, he's a workhorse of a defensive defenceman who will be vital in keeping a super young Marlies roster afloat.
Photo Courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com