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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

What the Leafs Pairings Could Look Like This Season

Last week, I looked into what the Leafs forward lines could, or should, look like this season, based on what we’ve seen so far in the season, what we saw last season, and on the quality of the players in the lineup. Now, let’s take a look at the defense, and see how they will be run this season.

With Matt Hunwick gone to Pittsburgh, and Roman Polak looking too injured to return, the Leafs have a chance to improve their bottom pair. While Hunwak faired much better as the season went along, that pairing could have been used a lot better. In comes Ron Hainsey from Pittsburgh, and a young defenseman in Travis Dermott, Andreas Borgman, or Calle Rosen, and the Leafs defense could be improved a lot more this season. It’s not like the Predators or Ducks, but it’s not like last year’s defense. Here are a few possibilities that the Leafs could explore throughout the season.

Pairing 1: Copy and Paste

Jake Gardiner – Nikita Zaitsev

Morgan Rielly – Connor Carrick

Calle Rosen/Travis Dermott – Ron Hainsey

The top four is essentially what the Leafs ran with down the stretch and during the playoffs last season, and it seemed to work well, as they finished the season with a 12-5-1 record (10-2-1 if you ignore that nightmarish final week), and had a competitive series against the Washington Capitals. Gardiner and Zaitsev did a good job shutting down the opposition’s best, while Rielly and Carrick thrived in a sheltered role, generating a lot more offense. The bottom pair would consist of Hainsey and whoever wins the final spot, as it will give them an opportunity to play and learn from an experienced defenseman in a reduced role.

Pros: This lineup seems to work to the best of everyone’s ability. Gardiner and Zaitsev seem to do okay in the shutdown role, Rielly and Carrick are more offensively minded and can use that to their advantage in this role, and Hainsey, while he has the ability to play tough minutes, would thrive a lot better in a reduced role.

Cons: The only con is the argument as to who you think can handle the toughs better: Rielly or Gardiner. Rielly seems to do okay in a shutdown role, and so does Gardiner, so it’s mostly up to opinion.

Likeliness: I doubt the Leafs start with these pairs, since Babs is trying out the Rielly-Hainsey pair, but this could be something that they use later down the road if it doesn’t work out.

Pairing 2: Copy and Paste 2

Morgan Rielly – Nikita Zaitsev

Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick

Calle Rosen/Travis Dermott – Ron Hainsey

Much like the first option, but instead the top 4 is run like it was last season. Rielly and Zaitsev in the toughs, Gardiner and Carrick are sheltered. The bottom pair is the same as the other one, and pretty interchangeable.

Pros: There’s some familiarity to these pairs, considering it’s similar to what the Leafs ran last season. Some people might find comfort in that, one of them being Babcock.

Cons: It didn’t exactly work out like everyone thinks it did. Not that it went terrible, but it wasn’t great. The Leafs play greatly improved when they swapped Gardiner and Rielly, so these pairs could be better optimized than this.

Likeliness: Considering how much Babcock used the top four last year, it could be what he adjusts the pairings to if things go wrong, but I doubt this is what the pairings are to start the season.

Pairing 3: Bab’s Pairs

Morgan Rielly – Ron Hainsey

Jake Gardiner – Nikita Zaitsev

Calle Rosen/Travis Dermott – Connor Carrick/Roman Polak

This seems to be what Babcock has been going with for the preseason, particularly with the Rielly-Hainsey pairing, which he’s been talking about all summer. I’m not sure which pair will get the toughs just yet, but Bab’s will probably give it to Rielly and Hainsey. I included Roman Polak in the bottom pair because even though it seems like he won’t make the team, you never know with Babcock.

Pros: We haven’t really got a taste of what Rielly and Hainsey are like together, and they haven’t looked awful so far. If Gardiner and Zaitsev get the toughs, it might improve the pairs, since they worked well together last season. Also, Carrick might thrive in a reduced role, and get a better chance to play his game.

Cons: It’s not ideal to have Hainsey on the top pair, but at the same time, I have no idea how it will play out until it actually plays out. Current data shows that to be unlikely, but who knows. Also, Polak shouldn’t play a game for this team this year. He was slow already, and now he’s still recovering from a leg injury, which means he’ll be even slower.

Likeliness: Since this seems to be what Babcock is running with in preseason, this will probably be what we see on opening day. I feel like Babcock will try this until at least the end of October, and if it doesn’t work out, there are other options that he can use throughout the season.