It seems like nothing can go wrong these last few days in Leafsland. They added John Tavares to the roster, let Bozak, Komarov, and Polak walk, shed some unnecessary salary cap in Matt Martin, all while we witnessed Kyle Dubas dunking on his former boss, Lou Lamoriello.
But, Leafs fans aren’t allowed to be happy. Even when we have an elite core of forwards, especially down the middle, the other fanbases need to nitpick at our few flaws to make themselves feel like we aren’t unstoppable. We aren’t there yet, but we may be a lot closer to that when we think.
The big thing is the Leafs defense is bad. Which is very true. The Leafs had a 59.38 CA/60 at 5v5 (7th worst in the league), and a 2.54 xGA/60 at 5v5 (5th worst, and the worst among playoff teams). However, they managed to only have a 5v5 GA/60 of 2.42, which was 18th in the league, although this was due to a 92.64% 5v5 save percentage from Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney (and one game of Calvin Pickard).
Basically, the Leafs were really bad defensively, and got into the playoffs because of their high octane offense and stellar goaltending. However, the Leafs might be a lot closer to fixing their defense than many think. But, how can they go about that? Well, there’s a way they can go about it, without necessarily breaking the bank.
Well, I already wrote an article explaining that a couple months ago, but let’s take another look at why by looking at some of the most recent Cup champs and showing how they did this.
First, let’s look at how all of them drive play. Below is all of the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs, 2017-18 Washington Capitals, 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins, and 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins defense cores, or at least the ones that made a contribution during their Cup run (hence the lack of Kris Letang under the ’17 Pens), as well as their 5v5 CF% for the three seasons prior to that playoff run, or in the case of the Leafs, the last three years.
You’ll notice that they have a few things in common:
1. They all have a defenseman that barely drives play that is considered their best defenseman. For the Leafs, this is Morgan Rielly, on the Caps, John Carlson, and on the Penguins, Justin Schultz (in 2016-17).
2. They have a solid defensively strong defenseman that drives play. For the Leafs, this is Jake Gardiner, for the Caps, this is Niskanen, and for the Pens, this was Dumoulin.
3. They have good depth defensemen who also drive play. For the Leafs, this was Dermott and Carrick (when he played); Orlov, Djoos, and Kempny on the Caps; and Maatta, Cole, and Daley for both Pens teams, with Streit and Lovejoy replacing each other as the other one.
However, their are a couple differences as well:
1. Only the 2015-16 Penguins have an elite defenseman. This being, obviously, Kris Letang. But, the fact that both the 2016-17 Pens and the Caps won a Cup without a Kris Letang tye defenseman, proving that you don’t necessarily need an elite defenseman, so long as you are strong in other areas (ie., center depth, goaltending).
2. They have very few defenseman who don’t drive play, and they were usually sheltered. Of course, they might have a role on the PK, but at even strength, they were paired with someone who could handle them. Schultz in 15-16 was paired with Cole (although his CF% probably took a hit from Edmonton earlier on that year). Hainsey in 16-17 was paired with Dumoulin. Orpik was a bit different, as he got ice time with Carlson and Bowey the most in the regular season, but in the playoffs, he was paired with Djoos.
The second point is the bigger difference. If you’ll look at the Leafs defense core, they had three defenseman who didn’t drive play: Polak, Zaitsev, and Hainsey. Yes, they were “sheltered” in a sense, as they were all paired with a play driving defenseman, but the problem is that other teams only had one, so it was easy to hide one pairing and shelter it. You can’t shelter all three pairs.
Also, not only were they half of the Leafs defense core, but they were also given the “shutdown” minutes per say. While Rielly-Hainsey was the shutdown pair, it was only Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Polak who were killing penalties, and you’d usually see two of those three on the ice in the final minutes of a close game.
Looking at this, I think it might be a lot easier to improve the Leafs defense without making any huge additions. The most recent Cup winners were built around their center depth, quality wingers, and excellent goaltending, while their defense basically consisted of defensemen who could pass the puck. Look at Trevor Daley, he’s terrible defensively, but drove play with Pittsburgh because he could, at the very least, pass the puck.
So, the Leafs don’t need an elite defense core with the forward group in front of them, they just need a defense core that doesn’t suck at passing the puck. And that’s what Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Polak aren’t good at.
Now, they’ve already made some improvement there, by letting Polak walk and sign with Dallas, and this means that he’ll probably be replaced by Connor Carrick. That leaves two defensemen left in Hainsey and Zaitsev. If I had to keep one of the two as the “defenseman that gets sheltered”, I’d probably go with Zaitsev. He’s younger, can at least produce offensively when played right, and, unfortunately, he’s locked up for the next six years anyways, so we can’t trade him. Also, his last season was plagued with injuries and illnesses, so I’d like to see him get a full offseason of training, and how he comes into next season with that. He was much better as the 2017-18 season went along, so perhaps that continues. Also, Hainsey would be much easier to deal, and he was also Babcock’s “toy” on defense, so getting rid of him means we won’t have to deal with him playing way too much.
In their place, they probably wouldn’t even need to leave the team to find them. There’s no way that this defense lineups gets run, but this is something I’d like to see them try next season to start.
Rielly – Carrick
Gardiner – Zaitsev
Dermott – Holl
Too bold? Well, let me explain. Rielly-Carrick as the top pairing is definitely insane, it’s not something I necessarily want to do. But, my thought with this is that perhaps playing Carrick in top pairing minutes could bring out the best in him, and he ends up being a Michael Kempny like player that isn’t your second best defenseman, but can play well alongside your offensive defenseman. It could go well, or it could be terrible, and if that’s what happens, that should be when you try to bring in a defenseman via trade.
As for the other two, there’s a bit more sense. Play Zaitsev with Gardiner to shelter him, but still give him a solid role. Play Dermott and Holl together because there is some familiarity from the Marlies, and they can really round out the top 6.
If that’s too bold, you can always go
Gardiner – Rielly
Dermott – Carrick
Borgman/Rosen/Marincin – Zaitsev
That could be a safer bet, but you start to deal with defensemen on their off side, which probably isn’t a huge deal, but it might be able to be avoided.
You could also explore the trade/free agent market to fill these holes as well, but it’s obviously cheaper to look internally first. This is something that the Leafs will need to start doing, especially if they want to keep their core of forwards. It’s doable, but it has to be done right, and done smart by bringing in good defensemen with low market value to sign for cheap and allow them to provide depth around the core, especially once the cap crunch begins.