If the Leafs seek to improve their Top Four defencemen via trade or free agency, it will be a surprising move, given Brian Burke’s recent comments about the teams situation. In the July 1 conference call [transcript here] Burke suggested that it was a “lower priority” to upgrade the D. This doesn’t match my own individual assessment of the team. There are still some possibilities for free on the market that the Leafs could bring in to upgrade the Top Four.
It’s true that the major hurdles for the team are centre and goaltending, but the fact is that Toronto doesn’t have four defencemen who have shown the ability to play Top Four minutes in the NHL.
The average fourth defenceman sees about 16.2 minutes of even strength ice time per game, which works out to 16:12. They also face a Corsi Rel QoC (quality of competition) of above 0, which isn’t the toughest of minutes, but they’re still playing on average players who generally push the play forward compared to other members of their team.
This is what current Leafs defencemen did last season:
|NAME||TOI/60||Corsi Rel QoC||ZA Corsi|
[Behind the Net, ZA Corsi is “zone-adjusted Corsi”, which measures the amount of shots per 60 minutes directed towards the opponents net while a player was on the ice relative to the player’s own net. It is adjusted for number of shifts a player starts in the defensive or offensive zone]
Gardiner and Liles saw enough minutes, but they didn’t particularly get a very good look against possession-players, which may have forced Ron Wilson or Randy Carlyle to spot Phaneuf and Gunnarsson in spots maybe he wouldn’t have liked.
Only Franson was a plus-Corsi player, which is trouble. Corsi is a particularly useful for defencemen, since defencemen aren’t expected to get too much into the play offensively, but can control a lot of where the play is at any given time since they’re the ones making the first passes or the pinches at the proper moment.
That isn’t to say that Franson is the best defenceman on the Leafs. His role was extremely limited. Phaneuf and Gunnarsson did a good job at keeping the play on relatively even footing while they were on the ice, considering how tough their minutes were. That said, they were the only Leafs truly doing their jobs.
This lineup didn’t work for Toronto. The team was by most measurements the third worst puck-possession team in the league last season. Getting that extra defenceman who can drive the play forward is critical, and a puck-moving centreman for Kessel and Lupul isn’t so much so. The fourth defenceman is playing two minutes a night more on average than the Kessel line, and the difference between a Matt Carle or a Michal Rozsival in place of John-Michael Liles is key for the Leafs.
Burke alluded to the fact that Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker or the newly-signed Mike Kostka could come in and make the team, that the solution to the Leafs’ extra defensive spot is internal. While dipping into the prospect pool for depth isn’t necessarily a problem, I don’t think that there is top four potential in the Leafs’ pool right now, despite having a very strong youth group on defence. It will be a couple of years before Stuart Percy or Morgan Rielly or whoever is able to step up and play 17 minutes a night.
This is a spot where Adrian Aucoin, or even Michal Rozsival helps. You need that stop-gap option for a couple of seasons, but Burke isn’t interested. He would rather build a team from the farm up, and move every player a step up in the depth chart. Phaneuf and Gunnarsson is a clear #1 pairing, but Gardiner, Liles, Komisarek and Franson, 4, 5, 6 and 7 guys, will be forced to move to 3, 4, 5 and 6 due to Burke’s dissatisfaction with the free agent defenceman or trade market.
Burke has had a good offseason so far. Signing Jay McClement frees up some easier minutes for Mikhail Grabovski. Him and James Van Riemsdyk are both two players who can drive play. If this is the unit that Burke really wants to go with, he’s going to have to bank on his forward unit to drive the play, employ a strong forechecking scheme and be adept defensively—Randy Carlyle hockey.