Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY Sports

Where the Leafs Will Suffer (and Learn) Most Against the Capitals

A few days ago I wrote about how we can talk ourselves into the Leafs somehow upsetting the almighty Capitals in round one. The point of that piece was to simply look for a few areas where things could swing in the direction of the blue-and-white and potentially make this series interesting. One thing we avoided was talking much about the teams’ blue lines – their D groups. That’s because it’s the part of this series that isn’t going to swing anywhere. It’s staying right where it is, in favour of the Caps in a big way.

Toronto is so heavily outmatched here. They’ll take one of the weaker groups of defencemen in the entire league up against arguably the best. Just take a look at how that part of the lineup stacks up between these two clubs (average all situations time-on-ice in brackets):

Toronto Washington
Jake Gardiner (21:32) Kevin Shattenkirk (19:56)
Morgan Rielly (22:10) Dmitri Orlov (19:32)
Nikita Zaitsev (22:01) John Carlson (22:43)
Connor Carrick (16:20) Matt Niskanen (22:11)
Matt Hunwick (17:59) Karl Alzner (19:47)
Roman Polak (17:55) Brooks Orpik (17:47)

The bottom of these groups are a probably a wash talent-wise, but there’s a case to be made that any of the Caps’ top four could step into Toronto’s lineup and immediately become the number one defenceman. That’s trouble. [The one positive is that Carlson, who is an absolute horse, will be questionable to start the series.]

Where this will hurt most at even-strength is against the Leafs’ retrieval and cycle game. Toronto is a team that doesn’t mind dumping the puck, but getting it back in this series is going to be difficult against such a mobile and talented group. On the flipside of that, as a Metro powerhouse that plays so heavy, Washington’s forwards are going to be a nightmare for an already-thin Leafs group that might even be missing two regulars in Zaitsev and Polak.

Even strength numbers from Datarink:

The even-strength picture is pretty bleak, but it’s on the powerplay where the Caps look even better with how they get help from their top guys. Shattenkirk in particular is an absolute killer in that regard, and could be the difference in the special teams battle. That’s going to be important, as both these teams rank near the top of the league in converting on the powerplay.

Power Play P/60 (via Datarink)

There’ll be a lesson to be learned here. Not necessarily for this existing defence corps, but for coaching and management going forward. To start to make that next step in the direction of contention, Toronto likely needs to make a move of magnitude for help on the blue line. Who knows, that might even come at the Caps’ expense in the form of pending free agent Shattenkirk. Either way, this series is likely to really expose that weakness. Even people most optimistic about this Leafs group can’t really deny that Babcock has squeezed blood from a turnip here, and he’s going to need upgrades on the back-end to get this team where it needs to be.

That tweet above unsurprisingly got a lot of negative reaction (especially among upset Sens fans who took the bait), but honestly I think there is a level of truth to it. The Capitals are where you want to be if you’re pretty much any team on the way up, and Toronto will get an up-close look at them for 4-7 games over the next two weeks. They’ll study them plenty, game plan for them, and try to skate with them. In the end it’s unlikely they’ll emerge from this having beaten them, but they’ll see how desperately they’ll need the pieces they’re missing, and getting a good look at Washington’s blue line should really hit that home.

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  • lukewarmwater

    Good discussion of the difference between Washington’s solid and playoff conditioned defence versus our relatively inexperienced defence when it comes to the playoffs. I thought Gary brought up a good point in that there are some solid, bigger defencemen that should be available in the late teens of the draft. Quite possibly the leafs could move up in the draft, as after all the wise old owl, no not Jimitthy but Cliff Fletcher gave up two draft picks so he could draft Luke Schenn. Okay, I’ll leave Booby Cappacino to analyse that move. Hopefully as you suggest Ryan we can get a free agent and have one of the Marlie kids ready to step up to the bigs.
    The other key factor is quite possibly Polak won’t be back next year so grabbing a similar type of rugged stay at home defencemen as a number 5 or 6 might be the direction that the leaf management will be looking at.
    I’ll remind Ryan that Shanahan rightfully stated there would be pain at times and the rebuild would take time. Obviously the excellent management group has done a splendid job on the forward lines and obviously now it is time to work on the defence. Yes there will be pain in the playoff series against the big , determined Capitals. We are still climbing Mount Everest to reach the top to claim back the Stanley Cup, but this rookie laden squad is making rapid progress. Go leafs Go.

      • lukewarmwater

        Stan I wouldn’t mind having Polak back for another year but it would indeed upset several writers in the leaf nation as his analytics stats are not up to par. He just has this stubborn habit of playing hard, physical, take no prisoners hockey. You know the type that playoff teams love.

          • Feel free to check his TOI and stat line in the 2015/16 playoffs. A 15 min ATOI good for 5th (3rd pair) on the team doesn’t exactly scream confidence from the coaches. From my memory of the finals, he was used very sparingly and was incredibly sheltered. Also, no points, tied for last (-5) in P/M (only one other player was in the negatives), and 3rd most in PIMs.

            But yes, he blocks and hits. Woooooo. Let’s not forget that Zaitsev was was right behind Polak in both hits/blocks and actually contributed offensively all while and not getting nearly the same praise for stuff like “grit” that Polak gets associated with.

            If I comment on this blog, does that mean I helped write it? Simply being in attendance does not mean your attendance had a positive effect. The commitment to this guy astounds me. Sure, he’s been somewhat competent lately, but I don’t understand why people don’t think he can be replaced.

          • Also, let’s not forget that, if he is so coveted, why did no contenders sign Polak this offseason when they had the chance? He actually took a pay cut to come back to TO. Gary, if you were so willing to use the argument that no one wanted Corrado (while ignoring his injury filled prior season in Vancouver), then you can’t ignore the same argument with reference to Polak.

            Fans should not get complacent with certain players, especially depth ones like Polak, just for the sake of familiarity.

      • Gary Empey

        I will repost this here.

        Trading up is really tough question to speculate on. I really don’t know Lamariello’s history on trading up. (prehaps someone else does) Using the Bleacher Report’s Mock Draft, I see four D-men listed in the 10th to 20th range. After that the highest rated D-man comes in at 28th.

        12th- Miro Heiskanen, D, HIFK Helsinki (FIN)
        13th – Cale Makar, D, Brooks (AJHL)
        15th – Callan Foote, D, Kelowna (WHL)
        17th – Nicolas Hague, D, Mississauga (OHL)

        At 17th the Toronto Maple Leafs take Nicolas Hague.
        Defense — shoots L
        Born Dec 5 1998 — Kitchener, ONT
        Height 6.05 — Weight 216

        “He’s a big defenceman who is a fluid skater” “He moves the puck extremely well, creating a ton of offense. He shows an ability to run the power play and has an excellent shot that he gets through with consistency.”

    • Gary Empey

      There is no doubt in my mind we could use an elite defenceman. I have heard a few GM’s mention the only way you can get one is through the draft. I believe them. Nobody is trading theirs. As we all know projecting an 18 year old’s ability to develop into an elite defenceman is next to impossible. Still at some point that is what one has to do. Top four can be acquired though free agency. One does have to sell the farm to get one. Top four are sometimes available through a trade but the price is always a top forward of the calibre of Taylor Hall.
      As Stan Smith mentioned either here or on Editor in Leaf. Toronto’s defence is not as bad as some would have us believe. I see improvement in each and everyone of them from the start of the season. Zaitsev and Carick are both in their first full NHL season. Sometimes we forget that when the other team has the puck all of the 5 guys on the ice have a role to play. That role is a slow learning process for rookies. As the forwards are learning the defencemen must try to coverup for their errors, putting themselves out of position.

  • jimithy

    Dust off the Red Kelly pyramids and the 20′ pyramid he put in the dressing room. Sittler scored 5 goals in game 6 of the ’76 playoffs against the Flyers with pyramid power. Last year this club was in the basement. This year they could be drinking from the Cup. The Stanley Cup.