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Photo Credit: Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

The Maple Leafs should definitely be talking to Florida about defencemen

The Toronto Maple Leafs need a good right-shot defenceman, and thanks to the imminent NHL expansion draft there should be plenty of options on the trade market this season. We’ve previously considered Anaheim and Minnesota as potential partners, but for my money today’s team is a better fit as a trading partner than either of those.

The Florida Panthers have a bunch of good, right-shooting defenders, and even if they want to keep them all they’re going to have trouble. And, given the changes in the team’s front office this summer, it’s not even clear that’s a goal of the team.

Florida’s expansion situation

The Panthers are one of those teams whose depth works against them as Las Vegas prepares to enter the league. That’s particularly true on defence, because when we break down the list of players the team should want to protect it includes five blueliners:

  • Forward (5): Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trochek, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault
  • Defence (5): Keith Yandle (NMC), Aaron Ekblad, Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, Alex Petrovic
  • Goal (1): James Reimer

I’ve omitted some players others might consider protection-worthy. Roberto Luongo is 38 years old and still has five years left on his contract, so even though he’s coming off a decent season he probably isn’t worth worrying about. Jussi Jokinen and Colton Sceviour are useful forwards, but hardly irreplaceable.

Nick Bjugstad was the toughest player on this list to value. He’s 24, a 6’6” right-shot centre who scored 24 goals just two years ago. He had an awful, awful season, and is signed for four more years at $4.1 million. Does Florida protect him? Do they let him go? I’d be inclined to protect him and bank on a rebound, but there’s an argument to let Vegas take their chances on him, especially if it means that the Panthers keep their defence intact as a result.

Alternately, Florida could protect eight skaters, which would mean exposing one defenceman of the above list and one of Smith or Marchessault. Or they could take a 7-3-1 approach, shielding all the forwards above, plus two others, and exposing two of Demers, Pysyk and Petrovic.

Under either scheme, they could well be open to moving a defenceman.

Three defencemen, only one or two protected slots

There’s a contrarian case that Florida should move Ekblad, cashing in on reputation/potential that to-date outstrips his actual results and formidable salary. It won’t happen. Given Yandle’s no-move clause, the two most expensive players on the Panthers blue line are safe from the grasping paws of the Golden Knights.

Normally, I’d regard Demers as relatively safe, too, given that he just signed in Florida. But with the turmoil in the Panthers’ front office, it’s far from certain that whoever makes the decisions this summer is going to agree with the decision to sign him last summer. In that case, getting his $4.5 million cap hit (for the next four years) off the books may well be seen as preferable.

If so, some team is going to get a good defenceman.

Demers turns 29 this summer, and the all-situations defender has shown little sign of slowing down. At even-strength, both his on-ice shot and goal metrics have outperformed those of his teams in three of the last four seasons, even in relatively difficult minutes. Conservatively, he’s a very good second-pairing defenceman at 5-on-5, and he might be better than that.

His power play numbers aren’t great, outside of what looks to have been a one-off year in 2013-14, and he’s probably best used as a fill-in option on the man advantage.

The penalty kill is where he looks to have really shined. Our metrics for shorthanded work aren’t very good, but over the last four years Demers is one of the NHL’s five best defencemen in terms of goals against/hour and he’s just outside the top-25 in terms of unblocked shots against/hour. Even if we assume he mostly saw second unit opponents, those are great totals.

Demers is a right-shot defender, too, which makes him more valuable league-wide. Florida is in good shape on the right side, though, since Ekblad, Pysyk and Petrovic are all right shots.

Both Petrovic and Pysyk are just 25 years old, logged serious minutes last season, and should be relatively cheap to re-sign as restricted free agents. Given the bigger tickets on the Panthers’ blue line, those cost savings could also play in to Demers being dealt.

Both are good players, too.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Petrovic was the player Florida most wanted to keep. There were complaints last year that the Panthers had moved too far towards puck movement and away from physical play on their blue line, and the 6’4” Petrovic stands out as the most physical incumbent. His pairing (with either Pysyk or expansion-exempt Michael Matheson) got a heavy dose of defensive zone starts and he played a lot on the penalty kill, too.

Pysyk, just 6’1” and 200 pounds, doesn’t bring the same element. He’s one of those two-way defencemen without a standout quality, providing neither offensive flash nor highlight-reel hitting. He’s a brilliant player, though, far more than the sum of his parts.

Florida snatched him up from Buffalo after a 2015-16 campaign in which he broke even by both shot and goal metrics on a lousy Sabres team (he posted a 54% Corsi with Carlo Colaiacovo, of all people, who had a 42% number away from Pysyk and couldn’t get an NHL job this season).

It’s a deal the Sabres should regret. Pysyk was Mr. Reliable for Florida this year. He played two hours or more with five different partners this season, flourishing with offensive stars like Ekblad and Yandle, working as a shutdown option with Petrovic and Matheson, and working hard to maintain the illusion that Jakub Kindl actually deserves to be in the NHL. Whether his partner was a right- or left-shot and regardless of role, Pysyk got the job done.

Whether that’s enough to keep Pysyk in the fold is debatable with the Panthers. GM Dale Tallon has mentioned the desirability of making room for prospect defencemen he sees as ready to make the jump. Even if Demers were dealt and Pysyk lost to Vegas, Florida could run a top-four featuring Yandle, Ekblad, Matheson and Petrovic. Add Ian McCoshen to the third pairing and that’s a pretty good nucleus.

Toronto’s interest

Demers could be a phenomenal fit for the Leafs. Toronto doesn’t need a power play defender, but rather someone capable of doing yeoman’s work against strong opponents at both even-strength and on the penalty kill. His price tag is reasonable and while he’d add experience to the back end he’s not so old that the wheels are about to fall off. For an up-and-coming team, his steadiness and versatility seem a logical fit.

Pysyk would be a solid addition, too, and he’s well-suited to the role of shutdown defender. Although less of a sure thing than Demers, he’s younger and will certainly be cheaper, and could grow alongside the Maple Leafs’ core.

The Panthers definitely make sense as a potential trading partner for Toronto.

  • Gary Empey

    Here is an angle no one seem to have noticed yet.

    Florida actually only has three defencemen that meet the “required exposure” rules. Yandle (NMC), Ekblad, and Demers. Forget about the 3 or 4 D-men Florida is allowed to protect. One of Ekblad or Demers must be exposed unless Florida makes a move.

    The Minnesota Wild and the Ducks are in a similar bind regarding the “required exposure” rules.

    The Leafs have two D-men, on the taxi squad, Marchenko and Marincin, that meet the “required exposure” rules. including one of them in any deal we make, would give a team their required exposure D-man. It may not help with their overall protection list, but the penalties for not meeting the exposure rules are extreme.

    Also clubs choosing to make a restricted free agent goalie available in order to meet this requirement, that goaltender must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the club’s protected list.

    Meaning whichever goalie we offer a qualifying to we are stuck with it if Vegas doesn’t choose the goalie.

      • Jonathan Willis

        It’s a good point, but within limits. Minnesota will probably end up exposing Scandella regardless, and could always re-sign a guy like Nate Prosser, who would qualify. Ditto for Florida and someone like Jakub Kindl. They’d probably rather have Marchenko or Marincin, though (or, for that matter, Connor Carrick, who might slide out of protection if TOR lands a D).

        • Gary Empey

          Just an added level of stress for some GM’s. Agents for some players will end up with a better deal than normally expected. I am waiting every day to see something happen. Are we looking at a situation like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

  • 24% body fat

    did a leafs article state the Ekblad was overrated and living on reputation, when one of their worst defenseman is touted as a future perrenial norris trophy winner. of cpuir

    • Gary Empey

      I had to read the “Ekblad was overrated and living on reputation” over twice……..
      Aaron Ekblad
      Defense — shoots R
      Born Feb 7 1996 — [21 yrs. ago]
      Height 6.04 — Weight 216

      Aaron played 68 games last year and scored 10 goals and 11 assists on a team with a very dysfunctional analytic driven management team. This year Chicago architect Dale Tallon is back as GM to try and put the genie back in the bottle.

      I think you are wrong in your opinion on Rielly though. It is true we Leafs fans tend overrate him. He is still a good defenceman but Ekblad is indeed an elite one.

      • Don’t forget that Ekblad finished tied for 3rd in defensive shot production (behind Burns and Byfuglien while tied with Faulk) with 225 shots. In a game where it is becoming harder and harder to get points shots on the net, Ekblad is excelling at a pretty young age. I can’t see how his point production doesn’t rebound next year with Florida’s forwards getting healthy (giving him more assists off tips and rebounds) as well as his shooting percentage inevitably increasing from a measly 4.4% conversion rate.

    • The Russian Rocket

      Ekblad is awesome but I think his hype might be even higher which is what the author was alluding to. His stats are very good but his potential is seen as ‘best defender in the league’.

  • 24% body fat

    did a leafs article state the Ekblad was overrated and living on reputation, when one of their worst defenseman is touted as a future perrenial norris trophy winner. of course im talking about the -20 , 30 point man, Morgan reiley. Most overrated and overhyped player in the league.

  • ChrisG

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if Florida protects 7-3-1, they protect Ekblad, Yandle and Pysyk on the bleuline. Means they lose one of Demers or Petrovic? And they start next years with 4 of those 5 dmen. Say they trade Petrovic to Tor (or someone else) for a draft pick, then vegas takes Demers…. now Florida has lost 2 defense men, has a draft pick that won’t help forn3-5 years unless the flip to Vegas for a dman. Stand pat, lose 1 D, trade a D and wind up losing 2 D. Seems like much ado about nothing?

    • Gary Empey

      I think you are right Chris. When the GM’s analyze all their options some will come to the conclusion that their best option is to let Vegas have one of their good, youngish, regular players and then get on with trying to improve their roster for next season.