Well, wasn’t that a fun trip?
A hectic first round matchup against their demons in the Boston Bruins, the Leafs ended up on the wrong side of the playoff bracket, and see themselves participating in the rest of the playoffs from their living rooms.
While we could pick apart many different problems that the Bruins exposed during this series, there is no denying that the Leafs had one glaring issue: the right side on defense.
The fact that the Leafs three best defensemen were all on the left side made it easy for the Bruins to defend against their breakout, as they just had to put pressure on the left side, since the right side of Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Polak were so bad at breakouts that high school students want to know what acne prevention products were.
This could’ve easily been fixed, whether that meant throwing one of Rielly, Gardiner, or Dermott on the right side, taking one of the three RDs out for Carrick, or (call me crazy) do both. Even then, it wouldn’t have drastically changed the defense, but in a series that went to seven games, it could’ve possibly won them the series.
So, that should be the big change going into the offseason. The Leafs don’t need to focus on forwards (unless his name rhymes with Bohn Savares), and they definitely don’t need to focus on goaltending, so the primary and only focus should be changing their depth at RD. If the Leafs are running Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Polak again next season, they need to rebuild again.
Of course, it’s not going to be easy. Defensemen are hard to get, never mind right handed defensemen. But, it is doable. Best case scenario is that Liljegren makes the jump, and can fit into the top 4 or even bottom pair, and the Leafs can sign John Carlson in free agency. But, that’s not extremely likely.
Luckily, I have another bold strategy that could be very useful for the Leafs.
And that is trade William Nylander for Brent Seabrook.
No, not actually. I hate myself for even thinking about it, never mind typing it out.
The actual bold strategy is what the Vegas Golden Knights used going into the expansion draft, or at least, what they got out of the expansion draft. One thing that has helped their success this year is that their defense consists of a lot of players who were solid possession or productive players who weren’t given the proper ice time.
In the last three years, Colin Miller has put up a P1/60 of 0.61, 0.6, and 0.59, while his actual production was 16 points, 13, and 41. Why the big jump? He went from about 586 minutes to about 805 minutes to about 1228 minutes. His production rates never increased, but his ice time did, so he scored more.
Same goes with Nate Schmidt. In the last three years, he put up a P1/60 of 0.41, 0.42, and 0.42, while his actual production was 16, 17, and 36. Once again, the main reason for this was his bump in ice time. While his ice time didn’t change drastically from 2015/16 (about 1158 minutes) compared to this season (1299), his power play ice time did. He went from having no PP time to almost 129 minutes on it this year with the Golden Knights.
Now, the big concern with something like this is a player’s possession numbers. Usually, if a player puts up great possession numbers on a bottom pair, it’s because they’re facing weak competition, so an increased role would mean increased difficulty.
Both Miller and Schmidt saw a decline in their possession numbers this season, it didn’t hurt the team. Miller went from a 59.93% 5v5 CF% last season to a 55.63% 5v5 CF% this season, while Schmidt went from 53.52% to 50.29%. So, obviously they aren’t as good as they would be in a reduced role, but that’s the case with every player. I’m pretty sure if you put Erik Karlsson on the bottom pair, he’d probably have a 69% CF%.
So, the moral of the story is that the Leafs could potentially use this method in the future to help shore up their defense, without having to trade William Nylander. But, what kind of options are available?
Well, the Leafs already have one on their roster in Connor Carrick. While not as productive, as his P1/60 in the last three years is 0.22, 0.3, and 0.35, his CF% has been relatively steady at 54.86%, 53.01%, and 52.79%. If playing an increased role would see that drop similarly to Miller and Schmidt, that would drop him at around 50%, which would still be higher than all of Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and Roman Polak.
Also, they have that in Travis Dermott. Dermott’s 1.19 P/60 ranks 14th among ALL defenseman with at least 500 minutes, as did his 54.87% 5v5 CF%. An increased role would see him put up more than just the 13 points he did in 37 games this season (which is still amazing for a rookie defenseman), and would probably only see a drop to 51-52% in CF%, if he sees a similar drop like Miller and Schmidt.
Just like that, if the Leafs move one of Rielly or Gardiner to the right side, they have a top four of:
All capable of passing the puck up the zone for a breakout, producing offensively, and being effective defensively.
And we didn’t even have to look at free agency.
If you wanted to, there are a few options out there. While John Carlson and Mike Green are the big names, smaller names like Cody Franson (remember him?), Chris Wideman, and Paul Postma are all options who have a solid combination of production and possession abilities, and will all come really cheap in free agency.
Not saying that adding these guys to the Leafs blueline will make them world beaters, but throwing in one or two of these guys in place of Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Polak would certainly improve the team.
And there’s always the trade market too. The aforementioned Colin Miller and Nate Schmidt were both rumoured to be on the trade block, with the Leafs in those discussions before they fell through. Not to mention Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, David Schlemko, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Nathan Beaulieu were all traded for relatively cheap, considering their value.
So, to wrap this all up. If the Leafs really want to sign Carlson or Green, or trade for Karlsson or something insane like that, go for it. But, that’s not their only option, as there are some partially proven options in their own organization, and some other options going into free agency this season, that the Leafs could look at to improve on their defense.
Because, so help me god, if the Leafs run Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Polak on the right side again next year…