Have you ever played with one of those big puzzles with hundreds of pieces? Considering this is 2017 and we all have smart phones, the answer you have is probably not for several years. But for the sake of our time, let’s just assume you have. In this large hypothetical puzzle, let’s also say that you’ve been trying to do this for years but you kept losing pieces and just got too frustrated and quit several times. Sometimes you even got further than usual but you’ve still never finished it.
However, the last few years you have been finding that you’re becoming more successful and keep finding the pieces that were missing before. I swear this all leads to something and this isn’t a complete waste of time, but imagine with me that you finally think you can solve it. What if all you needed was that final piece?
Well instead of the puzzle, how about a hockey team? And that one last piece of the puzzle is a defenseman, but how do we find it? I think it’s time to go out and get one. It doesn’t even have to be this season, just one defenseman you know can fit with the puzzle for years to come so you know you aren’t missing a piece.
The best trades are sometimes the ones that you DON’T make. Look at some trades that teams were discussing, but ultimately never pulled the trigger. Just this past summer, the Leafs were in talks about acquiring Travis Hamonic. The price was something like James van Riemsdyk and a high pick. Van Riemsdyk is on pace for a career high in points, while Hamonic looks as if he pulled a Wile E. Coyote and fell off a cliff.
It even applies in the NBA. Right before they became arguably the greatest team ever, the Golden State Warriors were in talks about trading for Kevin Love with a package centered around Klay Thompson. Golden State balked, and now they have two championships.
Now, that’s not to say no team should ever go for it. Those trades worked out for the teams that didn’t make the deal for other reasons. Hamonic was already on a down slide, while Klay developed into one of the most deadly two-way shooting guards in the league. There’s always risk attached to these kind of moves.
The Leafs are also in a position like no other in the Eastern Conference by having all of their top end talent on extremely team friendly deals. Like I mentioned in the start, the Leafs missing piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle is that one extra impact defenseman. What I’m going to (attempt) to do is zero-in on which one makes the most sense based on defensemen that could potentially be available. The best way (I think) to do this is to categorize these defensemen:
Tier 1 – Unquestioned studs that are part of the future
Tier 2 – Veterans that can help in short term
Tier 3 – Defenseman whose teams need forwards/cap space/assets
Tier 4 – Anyone else, really
Let’s see what we can come up with.
Starting off with the juicy names sounds like it would be the most fun so we’re going to start there because I said so. I should mention that if seeing the name Jacob Trouba as a target would disappoint you, then I apologize. The first name that comes up that makes sense for Toronto actually plays in the province and is a right-handed shot. You guessed it, it’s Cody Ceci!
Just kidding, I would actually like to continue writing here. He won’t even be available since he’s going to get traded for Jake Virtanen. Yes, that’s a one-for-one trade.
All jokes aside, Erik Karlsson is the right-handed shot I’m talking about. There’s obviously not a realm in the Thor world where Ottawa would trade him to Toronto, but seeing he’s a free agent in 2019 and he’s trying to get the money he deserves, it can’t be ruled out. Normally I’d be wary of handing over a large contract to a 29 year-old defenseman that has foot issues, but Karlsson was made by scientists and is a one of a kind blueliner. The way Karlsson plays, it sure looks like his game would age well.
One last note on Karlsson: I can’t even imagine a powerplay with him as the quarterback. The thought of him and four of Matthews, Kadri, Nylander, Marner, Kapanen, maybe van Riemsdyk, Bracco or Grundstrom. I imagine that would be the Sistine Chapel of powerplay units. Then again, I might not ever see the Sistine Chapel so maybe that’s a bad example. Anyways, let’s move on.
The 2019 free agent class has the chance to be super interesting if Drew Doughty decides to cash in. Like Karlsson, he wants to get paid what he thinks he’s worth. Now, Doughty isn’t on Karlsson’s level but that’s not to say the Kings defenseman is some slouch. We all know at his best Doughty is a top 10 defenseman in the NHL, maybe even top 5 depending on who you talk to.
The one minor problem with Doughty is just who it is you ask. The mainstream media makes him out be this once in a lifetime defenseman in the Nik Lidstrom mold, which lead to a Norris trophy he probably shouldn’t have won. Other writers that use advanced stats and models, probably would say he’s a tad overrated. I’m personally in the camp that views Doughty as somewhere right in the middle. Exceptional defenseman, just not the best.
Of course, the reason I even bring up Doughty is two different storylines that never seem to die. One is the whole Doughty being the good Ontario boy to come back and play for his childhood team. The other is the Babcock effect. I don’t know if anyone has heard about this, but apparently Doughty was leaned on heavily as a teenager in the 2010 Winter Olympics and again at the 2014 games. Babcock definitely has a lot of say in personnel decisions so maybe there might be some interest.
Next up on our list is Oliver Ekman-Larsson. This one seems too easy as almost every single needing a defenseman feels like it’s been linked to the Coyotes defenseman. It makes so much sense when you think about how frustrated Ekman-Larsson has to be in the desert. He’s made the playoffs just once since debuting in 2010 and that playoff appearance was in 2012. This was supposed to be the year where the team took a step forward but looking at how the season has gone, it looks like they took two steps back while also spraining their ankle.
It can’t be fun to constantly ask yourself if the team you play for is relocating or not, year after year. That and the lack of team success can lead to frustration. Just imagine how he has to feel.
At one point, the prospect systems for the Leafs and Coyotes were the two best. Right now, the Leafs are the up and coming team in the East, while the Coyotes are unable to break out of cellar of the West. Granted, the Coyotes are still young and there is still time to turn things around in the long run, maybe it might be beneficial for him to go a team that is young and already good.
Moving passed poor Ekman-Larsson, I saved my personal favorite for last in this tier. He’s another right-handed shot, he might not cost as much (but won’t come cheap), and has a terrific beard. I haven’t seen many, if any, people petitioning for Ryan Ellis.
The biggest reason for the possibility of his ability is Nashville’s future cap situation and their defensive depth. When Ellis’ deal ends in 2019, Nashville will have $53 million locked up to 12 players in their cap. If Ellis wants maybe a little more money than Nashville would be willing to spend, then he could maybe consider to try to cash out somewhere else.
Obviously, Ellis coming to Toronto is a pipe dream and a lot would have to happen for that to come true, but it’s something that I think would make so much sense for Toronto if he were ever available.
So both of my veterans would only happen if their respective teams fall out of the playoff hunt, which I’m assuming at least one of them does.
He did draw interest from Toronto over the summer and he might not even become available, but I still think the Leafs should at least call the Bruins about Zdeno Chara. He might not be that lock down defender he was a few years ago, but he’s still effective. His 52.5 CF% and a 53.36 xGF% as a 40 year-old is even more impressive when you consider he skates like he’s in mud.
If Chara were available it would quite relieving knowing that there is a.) another defenseman that isn’t a disaster in his own end and b.) Nikita Zaitsev would see less time. It also adds another capable penalty killer, how exciting!
More likely than not, Mike Green will be available because, well, Detroit isn’t very good. I’m probably more inclined to acquiring Green than Chara because of Green being a right shot, and there would be worse things in the world than seeing Mike Green run the point of a powerplay unit. His 7.31 points/60 on the man advantage is 3rd among defenseman.
It might be just me but if getting Green also meant Zaitsev getting less ice time and Roman Polak getting fewer games, than I wish we got him two weeks ago. If a top six of Hainsey-Rielly, Gardiner-Green, and Borgman-Zaitsev is the unit going into the playoffs, than I say that isn’t so bad.
It could, in fact, be better with Carrick rather than Zaitsev but that’s a discussion for another time.
This tier probably isn’t the sexiest in terms of names but either one of them would be a quality add to the back end. Even better, with these two is that their contracts both expire at the end of the season.
This is going to be filled with three names I’m intrigued with just because of their youth and upside, while also potentially being available.
It might be partly irrational but I’ve always been towards the front of the Noah Hanifin bandwagon. I wanted the Leafs take him over Marner and Strome back in the 2015 NHL Draft. This would probably be a move for the offseason, but I only bring it up because there were some rumblings about him being available this past offseason. The only problem with this might be that Hanifin is having an excellent year for Carolina, looking like a much more capable defenseman.
I’m going to bunch together the next two together since they both play on the same team and because you’re probably begging to be done with this. Don’t worry, just a little long with me.
Anyway, Shea Theodore and Colin Miller were two names I kept my eye out on during the expansion draft. They both are in or entering their prime (Theodore is 22 and Miller is 25) and they were absolutely available while Vegas was constructing their team. After taking a bunch of mediocre defenseman, Miller and Theodore looked like they were on the outside looking in. Even now they don’t get as much playing time as they should, as they are 4th and 6th in ice time for Knights defenseman. Who knows what Vegas is doing. All I know those are two talented players that would mesh nicely with the future of the Leafs.
This is going to be a lightning round of a few players, of different pedigrees who have the chance at being available. Stay with me, here.
Not that I would really want him, but I just feel the need to mention John Carlson. He’s fallen off a bit in the last few years and would likely want a ton of money. I say let Washington keep him to push them even closer to the cap ceiling. Plus, I doubt he goes anywhere. Their blue line isn’t exactly dominant.
We’re going to bunch together two players that are teammates again because I said we can. Calvin de Haan is the one where he’s definitely the more desirable acquisition. Last summer, when he was going through arbitration, him and the Islanders were several million dollars off which is asinine. He’s an unrestricted free agent after this year and I think he’s one of the more underrated players.
His teammate Thomas Hickey still piques my interest. I think of him as someone as trying to acquire him for this season as a solid bottom pairing defender, maybe in case of injury. He has a positive shot rate (52.93 CF%), doesn’t take penalties (+4 penalty differential), and can kill penalties. I think he can help.
Of course this wouldn’t be an article about potential Leafs defense fits without bringing up Chris Tanev. That doesn’t happen until Vancouver possibly miss the playoffs, which seeing that team, looks pretty probable. There’s a lot of variables that would go in to obtaining Tanev but I think that if the Canucks haven’t traded him by now, it might not be likely.
There’s one final player before we end this. You might guess him. Hear me out: instead of spending assets on a stud blueliner for the now and future, you realize you might have him? We love you, Timothy Liljegren and we can’t wait for you to don the blue and white. Seriously though, Liljegren is fantastic and we might not even to need to try to get that one more impact d-man.