Why Toronto’s Top Off-Season Priority Should Be A Right-Handed Defenceman

When it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ off-season plans, almost all the focus has been on the possibility of adding Steven Stamkos.  Adding an elite offensive player like Stamkos is an exciting possibility, but as a rebuilding team the Leafs have many areas of the roster in need of improvement, and all the talk about Stamkos has overshadowed other places where the Leafs have to get better.  In my opinion, none is more pressing at the moment than finding a defenceman capable of playing top-pair minutes on the right side.

The Leafs are pretty set on the left side moving forward.  Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are both talented players locked-in long-term to team friendly contracts, solidifying the top 4.  Beyond that, the Leafs have a slew of left-shooting options: Martin Marincin, Scott Harrington, Viktor Loov, Stuart Percy, and Rinat Valiev all shoot left.  Beyond that, Travis Dermott is also left shot, and so is (*shudder*) Matt Hunwick.

Morgan Rielly frequently played on the right side last season, with either Matt Hunwick or Martin Marincin on the left side.  However, I think the Leafs would be better served to move Rielly back to his natural side.  An article by Domenic Galamini a couple of months ago over at Hockey Graphs contained some good evidence that playing a defenceman on their off-side can noticeably drag down their possession numbers.  I’ve written about Rielly’s defensive struggles in the past, and I think the frequency with which he plays on the wrong side could be a contributing factor.  Aside from that, getting him away from Hunwick is a good idea, and switching him back to the left side would help facilitate that.

On the right side, the picture is much less clear.  The Leafs finished this season with just two right-shot defencemen on the roster: Frankie Corrado and Connor Carrick.  The recently signed Nikita Zaitsev can be added to that list.  However, it’s not clear right now that any of those players is up to the task of playing the big minutes that a top pair defender is asked to play.

That means that the Leafs are likely going to have to look outside the organisation to find their top RD.  The good news is that the Leafs have a lot of draft picks in the next two drafts in addition to some pretty good prospects, so they’re in a strong position to put together a trade package to land an excellent player.

POSSIBLE TARGETS

I’ve put together a list of 8 players the Leafs might be able to target this off-season to fill that top RD spot.  As a general rule, I was looking for players who are still RFA age (under 27) so that they’ll still be good players as the Leafs top young players develop.  I have made one exception to the age rule because it’s a player a lot of people have talked about the Leafs possibly acquiring.  Other than age, I was looking for players who either score a lot or play a lot of minutes, and ideally both. I’ve tried to limit the list to players who I think might be available for the right trade package (so no one like Rasmus Ristolainen, who is great but isn’t going anywhere).

I’m going to give a break-down of each individual player, but here’s a breakdown of some of the key stats for each player before I get more detailed:

Player Age Points Ice Time Corsi Rel
Seth Jones 22 31 24:27 2.8
Jacob Trouba 22 21 22:04 0.6
Matt Dumba 22 26 16:50 -0.3
Sami Vatanen 25 38 21:19 -3.1
Tyson Barrie 25 49 23:12 0.4
Jared Spurgeon 26 29 22:41 3.8
Michael Stone 26 36 22:29 0.3
Kevin Shattenkirk 27 44 22:25 1.0

(The preceding list was ordered based on age on opening night for the 2016-17 season.  Corsi Rel was collected from War On Ice; all other stats courtesy Hockey Reference.)

SETH JONES (CBJ)

I don’t think Seth Jones is available, at least not in the sense that Columbus would consider moving him willingly.  But the Blue Jackets have a dangerous salary cap situation, and I think there’s an outside shot that an offer sheet could work.  According to General Fanager, the Blue Jackets have $68M in salary cap commitments for 2016-17.  With an estimated $74M cap, that leaves just $6M to sign three players.  The exact offer sheet compensation levels aren’t known yet, but based on the previous season’s numbers, an offer to Jones in the neighbourhood of $7.5M or so would cost a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick.  Given that Jones already logs a huge number of minutes, scores a lot of points, and is an excellent possession player, that seems like a compensation level the Leafs should be able to live with.

I fully admit that successfully offer-sheeting Jones is a big long-shot.  The Blue Jackets would likely do everything they could to be able to match.  But their salary cap situation is very tight, and there’s not a lot they could do to unload salary (no one’s taking David Clarkson), so I do think offer-sheeting Seth Jones is something the Leafs should at least contemplate.  He’s easily the best player on my list, and his age perfectly matches with how the Leafs are building.

JACOB TROUBA (WPG)

Trouba may also seem like a long shot on account of his age and the minutes he plays, but I think he’s worth pursuing.  With Winnipeg committed big money and term to Tyler Myers and Dustin Byfuglien, it’s not clear where Trouba fits in on Winnipeg’s right side.  It’s possible that rather than investing a lot of money in Trouba, the Jets would prefer to spend their money elsewhere.  If so, Trouba is a player the Leafs should be heavily pursuing.

Trouba may not look enormously impressive in the table above, but some of those numbers are misleading.  He’s a fantastic Corsi player whose totals are dragged down by being paired with Mark Stuart.  Last season Trouba had 48% Corsi when on the ice with Stuart, but 54% away from him while Stuart was a dismal 44% when not paired with Trouba.

Trouba’s low scoring numbers can also at least partly be explained by being paired with Stuart, as the Jets had 18% more shot attempts when Trouba was away from Stuart as with him.  Trouba also didn’t get a ton of powerplay time, 4th on the defence behind Byfuglien, Myers, and Enstrom.  Even if he never turns into a top scorer, I think his exceptional play-driving ability would make him a perfect complement to Morgan Rielly’s high-flying style.

MATHEW DUMBA (MIN)

Mathew Dumba is not a player on the same level as Jones or Trouba.  He doesn’t log a huge number of minutes, and he isn’t a major possession driver.  He does score at a good clip, though.  That said, Dumba should probably more of a fall-back option than a primary target for the Leafs at this point.  But he still might be worth pursuing.

One thing in Dumba’s favour is that he could be more available than some of the other players on my list. The Wild are quite cap-strapped, with very little money coming off the books this summer and quite a few roster spots left to fill.  That means they’re likely going to have to find a way to cut some salary.  With four defencemen already under contract at $4M or more over the next few seasons, Dumba may find himself the odd man out.  They may also try to move one of their other defencemen to find the room to keep Dumba; the possibility of acquiring Jared Spurgeon is examined below.

SAMI VATANEN (ANA)

I get the impression that a lot of Leafs fans see Vatanen as a guy the team should strongly pursue this summer.  With 38 points in 71 games this past season and 37 points in 67 games the year prior, it’s easy to see why he seems like an appealing target. 

Ducks GM Bob Murray has said that he’s going to make significant changes after this season’s disappointing first round loss to the Predators, making the Ducks a plausible trade partner.  With Vatanen due for a big raise over his expiring contract, which paid just over $1M per season, a team like the Ducks with an internal budget may see him as a prime trade target.  The fact that four other defencemen on the team will make $3.25M or more next season strongly suggests someone is on the way out.

There are two problems with Vatanen as a target for the Leafs.  One is that, at 25 years old, he’s probably at the tail-end of what the Leafs ought to be looking at as far as age goes.  Ideally, they’d be targeting younger players like Trouba.

The second problem is that he doesn’t look like a player you want playing big minutes against tough competition.  He has impressive offensive skills, but his underlying numbers leave a lot to be desired.  In particular, his Corsi Against rate is near the bottom of the Ducks defence.  Given that Morgan Rielly is a player with a similar profile, and that what the Leafs should be looking for is a player to anchor a pairing with Rielly, I’m not sure Vatanen is a good match.  He’s a useful player, but probably not a guy you can trust to shut down the other team’s top competition.

TYSON BARRIE (COL)

Usually, I would leave a player like Barrie, who scored 49 points this season, off this kind of list.  I would assume that his team wants to keep him, and there’s no point in speculating.  But rumours of Barrie’s availability have been poking about all season and Elliotte Friedman recently said that he’s “in play.”

Barrie seems to be the kind of a guy the Leafs should be trying to acquire.  He scores at a prodigious rate, he logs a very high volume of minutes, and he’s a reliable driver of possession.  Don’t let his Corsi Rel of 0.4 this season fool you, as he’s been much better than that in the previous couple of seasons.  Not to mention that the Avalanche are such a poorly coached team; you’d love to see what a guy like Barrie could do under Mike Babcock.

A couple of things work against acquiring Barrie.  The first is his age: like Vatanen, 25 is probably pushing it as far as where he fits into the rebuild.  The second is that Barrie scores so many points, his next contract is going to pay him a mint.  Is he a good enough player to lock-in long-term at $6M per season or more?  I’m not sure.  But he is an intriguing possibility, especially if the Avs fail to recognise his value.

JARED SPURGEON (MIN)

The Minnesota Wild almost certainly need to trade a defenceman this summer.  If they want to keep Dumba, then Jared Spurgeon might be on the move.  If so, he’s a guy the Leafs should consider.  Spurgeon scores at a similar rate to Jake Gardiner, is capable of handling a lengthy workload, and is an excellent possession player. 

Another thing making Spurgeon a solid trade target is his contract: his cap hit of $5.2M is not cheap, but it is fair, and more importantly it has four years remaining, which means he’s got a lot more cost certainty than someone like Barrie or Vatanen moving forward.  Of course, these things also make Spurgeon valuable to the Wild too, but if they need to trade a defenceman for cap reasons, he would make an excellent target for the Leafs.

The only thing about Spurgeon that gives me pause is his age.  At 26 years old, he’s a bit on the high end of what the Leafs should be aiming for.  But everything else suggests he’d be a very strong addition if the Wild could be convinced to part with him.

MICHAEL STONE (ARI)

I suspect Stone is unlikely to actually be available; I’ve included him here primarily because he’s an intriguing player who most Leafs fans probably aren’t familiar with.  As you can see in the chart above, Stone had a very impressive season for the Coyotes, and it comes on the back of a good (but slightly less impressive) season prior.  He’s a capable possession player who plays some pretty tough minutes, and he’s capable of putting up a decent number of points (though his 36 points this season are likely higher than should be anticipated moving forward). 

A couple of things work against Stone as a target for the Leafs.  The first is that the Coyotes probably want to keep him.  He’s a good player and Arizona doesn’t have very much money tied up in its defence moving forward, so they’ve got room to keep him.  Like Spurgeon, he’s also probably a bit older than the players the Leafs should be aiming for.  But at the very least he’s a guy worth thinking about.  Stone’s a solid player who’s flown under the radar.

KEVIN SHATTENKIRK (STL)

Shattenkirk falls outside of the criteria that I used to put my list together, but his name seems to come up pretty frequently amongst players that Leafs fans think the team should target, so I figured he was worth including here.  Shattenkirk’s got a lot going for him.  He hasn’t scored fewer than 43 points in an 82-game season since 2010-11.  He’s an excellent Corsi player.  Most notably, he may very well be on the trade market this summer.

The problem for the Leafs is that Shattenkirk doesn’t fit into a rebuild.  He’s already 27, the end of peak age for NHLers, so he’s likely going to start declining from here on out.  He’s also due for a new contract and a big raise following next season.  At that point, he’ll be 28.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Leafs to lock up big money long-term in a player past his prime, who will be in his 30s a few years from now when guys like Nylander and Marner are entering their prime years.

Shattenkirk is an excellent player who makes a lot of sense for a team looking to compete for a Cup in the next couple of seasons, but he’s not the best choice for a rebuilding team, so the Leafs would probably be better served to aim for one of the younger players I’ve discussed above.

  • DragLikePull

    I would add jason demers as he only costs cap space. I’m not sure we could find a top 2 dmen via trade/UFA though if we could secure a player like stralman who the lightning have that would be ideal.

    • Benjamin

      Yeah, Demers looks great. I’d be very happy to see him signed and no assets given up.

      If the price is right, as always. He recently had salary retained on a $3.4M hit, so let’s say a slight raise to ~$4M over 3-4 years.

  • MatsSundin#13

    Great article – I like Tyson Barrie personally, but would also be extremely happy with either Vatanen, Shattenkirk, or even Demers from DAL. Would NOT want to give up a lot of anybody from MIN or Trouba, idk…just have a feeling that they wouldn’t be worth the heavy price.

  • Mcline

    The fact that you think 27 years of age is the end of a defender’s prime really speaks volumes about hoe much credibility you have.

    26 is the start of a D-man’s prime – an age agreed pretty much universally.

    But, to that note – the Leafs are competing against the Oilers for this position, and the Oilers are pretty much willing to outbid anybody right now..

  • CMpuck

    I agree with Mcline that the Oilers will outbid anyone right now. We’ll have to wait for them to pull their triggers first.

    But after July 1 Tyler Myers NMC kicks in, and with Enstrom and Buflyin also having NMCs, the Jets won’t be able to protect Trouba from an expansion draft. That might drive down his cost to acquire.

    Tyson Barrie is the best available D but Colorado needs D themselves and Edmonton doesn’t have anything that would help Colorado (they don’t need RNH). That’s why I think a deal centered around Gardiner and Barrie (along with whatever else is needed to equate them) might be a perfect fit for both teams. Gardiner instantly helps Colorado’s possession game and a Reilly-Barrie first pairing and a Marincin-Zaitsev second pairing sets the Leafs up on D nicely. Marincin is underrated by far, he’s a terrific 2nd pairing guy by not good enough for the top 2. That’s the trade I’m hoping for! Then we don’t have to give up a lot of picks and other prospects like we would with any of the other trades out there.

    • Kanuunankuula

      So we subtract one good for a another good D? That seems awfully stupid, also Colorado would never go for a guy like Jake. You assume Barrie has a lot value for Col, but seem to forget they are also quite stupid, just look at how Roy is still the coach.

      Oilers might in the bidding as well, but do we assume they’re taking everyone on this list? One, maybe two, yes, but not all. Still leaves plenty for the Leafs to look at. (This also assumes the Oilers are willing/able to outbid the Leafs).

      Ps. You’re not dumb, Dr. Agpull

      • CMpuck

        Trades are always about giving up something valuable in order to get something valuable, that’s not stupid it’s a fact. Any of these players that are listed are going to require giving up something valuable.

        We have a really nice (theoretical) top pairing in Gardiner and Reilly, but they both shoot left so they can’t be a top pairing together without sacrificing some of their potential by playing one on the wrong side. Turning one of those two into an RHD in a trade like I’m suggesting helps tremendously.

        Colorado has always been rumored to be interested in Gardiner, so to say they would never go for a guy like him seems silly. Not only that but Gardiner’s possession game is exactly what Colorado needs. We will still have to add to the trade, but not a whole lot. And you can’t say on one hand that Gardiner is too valuable to trade and on the other hand that Colorado wouldn’t go for it. Logic dictates that it’s one or the other but not both.

        • Kanuunankuula

          But if the net sum is zero, what is the point? Point is to give up something you have plenty of to get something you don’t have. We have excess of scoring wingers, picks or left hand shot D in the marlies. Why not make a package deal for Barrie instead of giving them our best possession D?

          Also to assume we only need one good pairing is not very smart. We need 2, preferably 3 good pairings. Rumours are always just that, or are you counting on Subban to save us when he is traded for Bernier or whatnot?

          Your logic dictates that Colorado is smart, which is clearly not the case. Gardiner has a great deal of value, but maybe not that visibly to all. Colorado clearly does not give a rat’s ass about possession or possession stats (of which Gardiner is darling of).

          • Well of course if what you’re saying is that we can get Barrie for less than Gardiner then I’m all for it! But Colorado needs D more than they need forwards so even if Roy and Sakic are as dumb as you say they are, I doubt they’re trading Barrie for the unnamed package you’ve suggested. Which is what exactly? Let’s here your thoughts on what a trade for us to get Barrie would look like.

            A net zero trade in terms of ability is still a good trade if it balances out our LHD-RHD situation.

            No one is saying that we don’t need 2 or 3 good D lines. But 1) Marincin and Zaitsev has potential 2) It’s a lot cheaper to trade for a 3-4 D man than a top pairing one 3) we have the internal resources to fill that 2nd line LHD spot through the organic development of our own prospects.

    • Mcline

      Realistically the Leafs should be looking to trade picks at this point. It will be impossible to sign all of the picks and remain under 50 contracts. So in that case why not package up picks instead of trading a good player?

  • DragLikePull

    @Mcline

    Peak age for players at all positions is about the mid-20s. Here’s Eric Tulsky on defencemen:

    “There is a widely-held perception that defensemen take longer to mature than forwards do, but it’s not entirely clear that this is true. It is true that fewer defensemen are in the NHL at ages 19-20 (by a factor of about 50 percent), but the peak observed performance does not appear to be later.”

    http://www.sbnation.com/nhl/2014/3/20/5528472/nhl-stats-corsi-vs-age

  • DragLikePull

    I wouldn’t be to bothered about defenders ages as they seem to peak older and maintain they’re level of play longer as it’s a position you get better at with experience.
    I’d love to see Shattenkirk as I do believe a blue line needs to be older than a forward corp when your working out peaks and what not he would also add a great presence to help nurture the likes of Reilly and company.

  • CMpuck

    Another obsession of mine.

    Jones? Listening to a Kekalainen on hockey prospects podcast all he did was talk about how the only way to get elie defensemen is to draft them, Murray, Jones, Werenski are basically untouchable.

    Trouba? Will cost too much in trade assets and will be looking for 47 million x 7 years, big gamble, too risky for my taste.

    Vatanen? Sure but not a top pairing guy, would be a good add.

    Shattenkirk? We can agree that would be settling.

    Barrie? Total gong show, there is no structure in his game, Babcock already has to remake Gardiner, Barrie would compound the lack of defensive IQ on our blueline, another project and he’ll be expensive in assets and exentension.

    Stone? Isn’t he an analytics darling the Yotes’ new GM privileges?

    Dumba? See Vatanen.

    The answer is Liljegren. Load up on assets to move up if need be in next year’s draft. We finished 30th, we’ll be in the lottery even with Stamkos next year. Hold off on fixing the goaltending and the blueline for another year and get Liljegren as that final building cornerstone for the core.

    • Benjamin

      No Way! We’ll be 30th even with Stamkos?! Not likely!

      Plus there’s no guarantee that we can draft Liljegren or that he will be this wonderful savior. Not a plan you can count on.

      • CMpuck

        I said the Leafs will be in the lottery not 30th.

        How often to top three pick RHD come along in any draft? Safest bet to find a 1D. He’s likely 2nd OA.

        Not to mention Liljegren fits the Leafs timeline perfectly. He’s the ideal piece and should be the topic of discussion all next year.

        • CMpuck

          Ah, I misunderstood. I apologize.

          However, basing a plan around winning the lottery is risky no?

          And with the expansion draft coming and teams likely being forced to trade D men that they can’t protect, there’s likely to be some nice deals for the Leafs.

          • CMpuck

            All good, I didn’t say the Leafs win the lottery but they’ll have a shot and I’ll repeat, stock up on assets to trade up. We’re not getting a 1D from the expansion draft.

            I’d hate to see the management fast track the rebuild with a foolish contract like Shattenkirk will demand. I’d like to draft a 1D. I’d like that as Plan A, can’t count 100% on anything in a rebuild but we’ll have options if Plan A fails.

  • I wonder if ‘Gardiner for Trouba’ could be the base of a solid trade as it gives both teams a defencman on the proper side. from there the leafs could look at more defensive depth d for the left side.

    Reilly – ( Trouba/Barrie/Vatanen )

    ( Hamhuis/Russel/Yandle ) – Zaitsev

    Marincin – Carrick

    h.s. Hunwick/Harrington

    Package Corrado in a trade

  • DragLikePull

    @Dan

    If you’re offer-sheeting, you’ve got to make it as hard as possible for the other team to match. There’s no point offering $5M or something that the Jackets could match.

    Also, imagine Jones was a UFA today. Would he get $7.5M on the open market? I think he would. He’s an outstanding player who could start getting Norris nominations soon. He’s only 22, so he’s going to keep getting better. I’d gladly lock up the prime years of a Norris-calibre defenceman for $7.5M.

  • magesticRAGE

    I like the list in the article, and some of the suggestions in the comments.
    But guys, let’s pump the brakes for a second! Leaf Nation asked for a proper rebuild, even prayed for it. Prays have been answered, yet have we lost patience already?

    Rielly and Gardiner are part of the core moving forward. Other Left handed d-men will have to battle for the remaining spots.
    Zaitsev is not the only right handed option that Leafs have. Connor Carrick played well with Gardiner. He was aggressive, very mobile, intelligent, and able to drive offense. He’s on the smaller side, but you wouldn’t know it from seeing the game he plays.
    And there’s Frank Corrado. He’s also a mobile defensemen, but more a defensive option that Carrick. He needs to bulk up in the off-season, but he played well in the bottom pairing.
    Then there’s Loov and possibly Harrington (doubt he’ll get qualified), it’s ok to have two left-handed shots on the bottom pairing.

    Before the Leafs commit to a contract that may the Leafs cap strapped in a few years, let wait and see if Zaitsev is the guy, and if Carrick can effectively handle top 4 minutes for a whole season. Carrick is outplaying the award-winning Brennan thus far at either end of the ice. Let’s wait and see, let the players show us where the holes are.