TLN Monday Mailbag: February 27th


Whoa, it’s almost March already?! Time flies when you’re having fun, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are a lot of fun. But they’re also extremely concerning, depending on who you ask. Which is everyone, really; we just can’t all agree on the concerns.

Here’s five of them for this week:

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I don’t think it would impact their chances much, and if it did, it could even improve them. That’s not to say that the Hunwick-Polak pair has absolutely no use, don’t get me wrong; we’re critical of them on here, but I do get that they’ve contributed to the penalty kill unit and at times have been able to keep the puck out of the net with their style of play.

But at even strength, Babcock only tends to bring them out against weaker opponents in positions where he doesn’t have to rely on them to score a goal. They don’t see a lot of useful even strength time, and because of that, more of the “big” minutes go to Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev. It’s wearing those two down.

I think Marincin and Marchenko are more capable of making two-way contributions at 5-on-5, and seeing as that’s the bulk of the game, I can’t see why they can’t be at least as good as the pair around right now. Cashing in two veterans who will probably carry an inflated price tag based on this market seems like a no-brainer to me. Who knows if they actually do it, though.

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They need to keep the puck as far away from the net as possible. Now, it’s up to you what that means. Is it a bruiser? A blocker? Or just a guy that’s so creative with the puck that he adds more time in the offensive zone to the tally, minimizing the need to play defence? I’m on the latter side of the equation, personally.

I think in that regard, the Leafs have two pairs pretty well settled, and there doesn’t need to be a huge, all encompassing play. If you can find a couple of play drivers sitting on the market at a low cost at 2:55 on Wednesday, go for it. If you can’t, see what the market holds in July. If that fails, pray that Travis Dermott has a good training camp? 

I don’t know. There’s a lot of small ways to approach it. Rushing into it will just lead to over-investment; strike when the opportunity is clear.

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As you can see, defence is a common subject on here this week…

I don’t think it does. Carrick’s absence isn’t likely to be a long one, and the Leafs can fall back on a player like Frank Corrado, Justin Holl, or even off-siding Martin Marincin for a day or two if it gets to that point. I don’t know if Polak goes, but they won’t change their mind over not having an obvious Plan B for a single night.

Usually, when we talk about a strong draft versus a weak draft, what we really mean is that the top one or two picks aren’t obviously mega-stars like other years. After back to back years of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, followed by Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, it’s no shock we all feel this way now about this year’s group.

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That shouldn’t spill over into burning low first rounders and second day picks, though. A good scouting department should still be able to find useful players to select with those selections. If they’re giving them up easier, its because they don’t trust themselves to do much more with the picks than roll the dice.

A team like Toronto or Florida, who seem to have systems and methods going as far as picking at the podium these days, would make a killing by grabbing a bunch of under-valued mid round picks now and cleaning house on the podium.  If this is going to be the “cheapest” year in a while to get more rolls of the dice, get the pick count into the double digits again. You may as well.

Kasperi Kapanen remains out as a result of a leg injury he suffered in mid-January. He’s out of his cast now, but there’s still no publicly known timeline for his recovery.

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  • The China Wall

    Jeff you said, “…Babcock only tends to bring them (Hunwick & Polak) out against weaker opponents in positions where he doesn’t have to rely on them to score a goal”.

    Isn’t this by definition what a 3rd pairing is for?

    Obviously, you want to end up with better options than Hunwick and Polak eventually, but which teams currently have this dynamic pair of 5/6 D-men that everyone wants to ditch Hunwick and Polak for?

    Perhaps someone more stats inclined could do a comparison for us stats-challenged folks showing how our 3rd pair compares to all the 3rd pairs on the other teams?

    Somehow, I think our 3rd pair probably ends up somewhere in the middle of the effectiveness-curve for 3rd pairing D-men.

    • Liam O'brien

      Man you hit the nail so on the head, I really don’t understand what people expect from a 3rd pairing, I personally think they’re compitent they wern’t signed to play 1st or 2nd pairing minutes, they fulfill a role at 5 on 5 but escpecially on the PK so the other Dmen arent hung out to dry.

      • DukesRocks

        I thinks the point Jeff was making was the Leafs may have players that can step in and fill the role of 5/6 pairing. Allowing the Leafs to make trades to obtain assets. However, I see no evidence that the Leafs currently have any player equal to or better then Polak or Hunwick.

          • LukeDaDrifter

            The reason they don’t get more credit is because the bloggers consider “offensive output” as the only stat that really matters. Every graph, chart, etc, I see all points out how our bottom two defence and our 4th line are not scoring as much as the other guys.

    • HockeyKeeperKit

      I think the issue mainly, as it always tends to, comes down to cap hit. Luckily, Polak and Hunwick aren’t exactly expensive, however, Polak does rate 3rd in caphit ($2.25 mil) behind Gardiner and Rielly. For a 3rd pairing guy, I think you’re looking for somone closer to $1 mil or below.

      Personally, I’d want my second pair to be the “shutdown line” making $2-4 million range with good shutdown players (similar to a Vlasic/Bruan in San Jose) while my 3rd pair is more of my prospect/development line (Carrick/Marchenko and Dermott/Nielson in a year or two). This would be similar to having defensive-minded forward in Kadri manning the second forward line with a 3rd line being more of a “kid” line who get offensive starts more often. What the Leafs have now is more of a bargain-bin defensive “specialist” third pairing that regularly loses minutes to the 2nd pairing kid line.

      • The China Wall

        Interesting thought.

        But if your 2nd pair is the shutdown pair, then by default they also have to be your PK unit as you’re not going to give that duty to your development 3rd pair. This 2nd pair is going to be seeing somewhere between 25-30 minutes a night, depending on PK time and would be ground into dust pretty fast.

        As well, once the Leafs are contending, they won’t want to use the 3rd pair for development purposes, I would argue this would have been the year for that, they will want their youngsters to “over ripen” in the AHL until such time as they are more than ready to play at the NHL level.

    • espo

      which wouldn’t be so bad, but by protecting them by only playing them against the opposing 4th line, (same with our 4th line btw) it prevents our top D and forward lines from taking advantage of weaker competition as well. (protecting the opposing 4th line in the process) The acquisition of Boyle may change that slightly, time will tell.

      • The China Wall

        Remember, there are 4 forward lines and 3 defense pairs.

        At home, with the last change, Babcock has put the Matthews or Kadri or Bozak line out with the 3rd pairing (H & P) allowing that forward line to “feast” on the other team’s 4th line and 3rd pair.

        On the road, without last change, Babcock seems to favour putting the 4th line out with the 3rd pair in hope of not getting scored on. Sometimes the other coach is OK with matching his 4th/3rd against the Leafs’ 4th/3rd, but sometimes the other coach is trying to exploit the perceived weakness of the Leafs’ 4th/3rd by getting his other top line(s) out against them.

        As I said in my original comment, at some point I am sure the Leafs would like to find a better player for both Hunwick and Polak, but until such time as a trade is made or a youngster pushes either or both of them out of a job, Babcock is going to play these “good pros”.

  • DukesRocks

    It will be interesting to see what the Leafs do at trade deadline. My problem with the Leaf’s D this year is, they don’t have the smarts of a Lidstrom and therefore need to rely of size and strength over smarts to clear the crease and move the puck out of danger. The problem is the Leafs D lacks size and strength in addition to smarts. Polak arguable is the strongest D they have, while Zaitev is the smartest.

    If the goal is to try and make the playoffs and you want to move Polak or Hunwick. You need to replace them with somebody better. Marincin and Corrado are behind on overall depth chart so they are not a solution. I have to admit Marchenko might be a solution for Polak. He has looked decent the last 2 games but the sample size is small in my opinion. So we’re back to square one, the Leafs currently don’t have anybody better then Polak and Hunwick and therefore should not be traded.

    • HockeyKeeperKit

      I kind of laughed at the Lidstrom smarts comment. I get what you mean, but I don’t think that Lidstrom-level smarts come around that often.

      Given that, in the meantime, I don’t think you’re going to get someone to replace those two (via the deadline). I think the point is that we have younger, cheaper options in the system that could arguably be near-replacement level to those two (or, even better in the case of Polak). I could live with near-replacement level players while also adding picks or prospects (via the deadline) to the system for coming drafts. The added cap room could also lead to an add via the deadline to fill a hole elsewhere.

      Totally hypothetical and based on a historic trade: May a team like Washington want to trade away a player like Laich to gain cap room to acquire another add via the deadline? To account for the cap takeover by Toronto, may they include a guy like Carrick or a pick as compensation? They may additionally want a defensive D like Polak (instead of Winnick). In this event, both teams get a win. Washington gains cap room and get a defensive add while Toronto gets a veteran depth player for a playoff run while also gaining a prospect with minimal defensive change due to depth at that position.

      • DukesRocks

        Yeah I was trying to point out that if you are smart and skilled, you can get away with lack of size and strength. To illustrate the point, I was trying to think of the best defender I’ve seen play recently. Hence Lidstrom.

        I don’t agree you can get away with near replacement if you want to make the playoffs. For the simple reason, the Leafs D isn’t solid and they are just scraping by as it is. I also don’t agree with the “better than Polak comment”. The reason I mentioned Polak is the most physical presence on the blue line is because that’s the one attribute he brings that the Leafs need. He can move people and clear the crease.

        I don’t see how your hypothetical will benefit the Leafs in making a PLAYOFF PUSH. Especially if you are giving up a defender in your top 6 to obtain a veteran forward for cap relief and a prospect compensation. WHY?

  • Kevin

    One of the Leafs needs is center depth, I’m curious if there is mutual interest in a Leafs/Habs deal that centered around Plekanec? Plekanec is signed for one more year at 6mil, but would provide center depth on the third or fourth line and possibly get the Leafs a decent prospect like Juulsen. IMHO I don’t think the Leafs would need to send much back, maybe a late 2nd round pick, since Plekanec is pretty much a salary dump (although still better than Laich). The Leafs have plenty of cap space for next year and despite his offensive decline, Plekanec would still be an excellent depth center. Plus Juulsen is a young RH defenceman who is just about NHL ready. On the other hand, the Habs would also greatly benefit from the extra cap space allowing them to sign Radulov and Galchenyuk while making a trade or signing another center.

  • ChelmsfordLeafs

    One doesn’t like to panic but with just 20 games to go (give or take) shouldn’t the D have been boosted before the trip to California? Divisional 4-pointers aside, the next 3 games are going to be a good marker to see if we will make the play-offs. Whilst agreeing with the long term rebuild, it will be very disappointing not to make the post-season in such a weak / evenly matched division. Short term changes to The Plan to get the rookies some play-off experience would surely be beneficial in the long term.
    Also a question on the long term; when the superstars move onto proper contracts will we be able to afford a decent defence?

  • Stan Smith

    I think the fancy stat guys sometimes lose sight of what the position of defense is all about. It is call defense for a reason. They state the Leafs need more offensive dmen with the end result being keeping the puck out of their own zone. The problem with that whole idea is that offensive dmen tend to be weak defensively. They are great in the opposition’s end of the ice. Not so much in their own end.

    The big question is, is where is the Leaf defence weak and where is it strong? Do they need more offense or more defense. Right now the Washington Capitals are in first place in the league. Their defence are on the ice for an average of 2.99 goals per 60 minutes 5 on 5. The Leafs D are 2.69, or 0.30 goals lower. The Caps defense are on the ice for 1.60 GA per 60, 5 on 5. The Leafs are on for 2.39. A difference of 0.79. More than double the difference of GF.

    Breaking down the Leafs D it is interesting, first of all to see Marchenko has the lowest GA at 1.47, which would rank 3rd on the Caps. The next two best GA? Hunwick 1.92, and Polak 1.94. The worst Leafs at GA? Morgan Rielly at 3.20, followed by Marincin 2.93, Zaitsev 2.92, and Carrick 2.62. The best Leaf combined is Gardiner 3.19 GF and 2.16 GA. (Actually Marchenko is 2.58 and 1.47, but he has 30 games with Detroit, and only 2 with the Leafs)

    Overall though, on the debate on offense vs defense, it is definitely on the defensive side the Leafs are most lacking, and Hunlack are not the issue.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      It looks like a lot of people, not all, can only see a run and gun team. All out offense. Let the goalie take the blame if we lose 6 to 5. If so then we have the wrong coach for that style of play. If so we should of hung on to Kessel and Phaneuf and maybe Carlyle.

      • Stan Smith

        As the season has gone on Polak has gotten better and better at head manning the puck out of the zone, slowly catching on to Babcock’s faster pace game, all the while still being the most defensively responsible dman on the team. At 30 be is having one of his best seasons and he still can’t get any respect.

        • Glen

          Right on! The problem with the D is not the bottom pair it is the top pair To say they don”t play against strong opponents ignores their fine work on the power play. I shudder to think what would happen if Rielly was on the PK.