Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Highs and Lows: The Defence

Now that the offseason can officially be pronounced dead (barring an Erik Karlsson trade or a William Nylander extension), we can start looking at the roster, and what we can expect from the roster in the 2018-19 season. This might be a hot take to some, but the Leafs made some big improvements this offseason, particularly with the addition of John Tavares, so we can certainly expect this team to make strides this season, but it might not go as expected.

Taking from our buddies at Oilers Nation, over the next little while, I’m going to be looking at the Leafs roster, and seeing what the best and worst case scenarios are for all of the Leafs. Of course, this will be assuming that these players don’t get injured at all this season, and that they won’t get traded, but I’m going to try and make realistic ceilings and floors for what we can expect from the Leafs this season.

Today, we’ll be looking at the defensemen, or at least the ones that *should* be in the lineup. While the past versions have focused more on points, I’ll look more into roles for the defensemen, because not every defenseman will be putting up a ton of points.

Jan 10, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (44) celebrates with team mates after scoring against Ottawa Senators in the third period at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Morgan Rielly

Ceiling: Last season saw Morgan Rielly put up a career high 52 points, beating his previous best by 16 points. Not only that, but Rielly’s defensive game saw some more improvement as well, as he’s slowly adjusting to his top pairing role.

But, one thing that Rielly didn’t really do a whole lot of was play on the penalty kill, considering that Babcock liked to just run Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Polak on the PK last year. If he doesn’t want to do the same next season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rielly get some more time shorthanded this season to round out his game even more.

So, I’d set Rielly’s ceiling as another 50 point season, but see him improve his defensive game just a little bit more, and become one of the team’s better penalty killers.

Floor: One key to Rielly’s 52 points is that a lot of them were on the power play. He put up 25 points on the power play, compared to his 27 even strength points.

This could be something that drops his production a little bit going into next season. Whether it be that that unit regresses a little bit, or if it starts off slowly with the personnel changes (with both Bozak and van Riemsdyk leaving the team), there’s potential for him to drop back into the 30-40 point range that he’s usually in.

Also, while he was good defensively this season, his defensive game was considered to be a glaring weakness for him for a while. So, we could also see him have another poor defensive season and it become a problem for the Leafs this year.

Mar 22, 2017; Columbus, OH, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Leafs won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Gardiner

Ceiling: I’ve said this once, and I’ll say it again: Jake Gardiner is the Leafs best two-way defenseman. For every bad turnover he has, he has 20 excellent plays that go unnoticed. Despite what the eye test says, Gardiner has consistently put up great possession numbers.

So, considering that we’ve seen Gardiner’s play for seven seasons, we know what we’re getting with him. Roughly 30-40 points, and consistent defense (and by consistent, I mean that we can expect a mostly well rounded game with a couple big mistakes per game).

But, Gardiner has one thing going for him this year: it’s a contract year. I don’t know what it is about hockey, but the gods just seem to always make players really, really good going into a contract year so that they make some serious dough. Just look at John Carlson, James van Riemsdyk, and William Karlsson this season.

So, because it’s a contract year (and only for that reason), I’ll set Gardiner’s ceiling at “gets considered for the Norris” so that he gets $7-8 million in free agency.

Floor: Offensively, I’ll set Gardiner’s floor at 30 points, considering that Gardiner has only had one full season in his career where he had less than 30 points, and that was in the 2014-15 season where the Leafs offense was non-existent for half the season.

Defensively, I’ll set his floor as to what it was last year. Last year was the first season that saw him have a negative 5v5 CorsiRel%. He’s usually been good defensively on some bad Leafs teams, but this season was his worst (capped off by his game seven performance). If he were to have another bad year, it’d be similar to last season.

Feb 27, 2018; Sunrise, FL, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott (23) controls the puck behind the net against Florida Panthers center Colton Sceviour (7) during the third period at BB&T Center. The Panthers won 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Dermott

Ceiling: Dermott was a pleasant surprise for Leafs fans this year, emerging halfway through the season, and becoming a consistent blueliner on the Leafs.

Despite only 13 points, Dermott was second on the team behind Gardiner in 5v5 P/60 with 1.19. So, if Dermott is given a bigger role on the team this year, it wouldn’t be surprising if he were to put up even more points. He was on pace to have 28 if he played 82 games, and that’s on the bottom pair with Roman Polak.

So, I’d say that Dermott’s ceiling this season is 30-40 points, and he manages to impress Babcock enough to get put into a top 4 role on the team.

Floor: As for his floor, I’d say it will probably be similar to last season. He doesn’t end up getting off that bottom pair, although not playing with Polak will be an improvement. He also had a 104.24 5v5 PDO, so he’ll likely regress a little bit over the course of the full season, and probably just end up with a 15-20 point season.

Oct 9, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey (2) goes after the puck against the Chicago Blackhawks at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Blackhawks 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ron Hainsey

Ceiling: Ideally, I would’ve bunched Hainsey with the outsiders, which I’ll be covering in an upcoming post, but we all know Babcock loves his toys, and since Dubas did a fine job of getting rid of most of them, I feel like Babs will REALLY try to abuse the ones he has left. So, this means that Hainsey will probably play on the top pair again.

For his ceiling, I’d say that, with a full offseason’s rest, Hainsey could have a season similar to the start of the 2017-18 season. If Babcock manages his minutes, and gives him rest from time to time, Hainsey could be a steady defensive defenseman this season.

Floor: As for his floor, it’d basically be a repeat of most of the season last year. Babcock overuses him and tires him, and because of fatigue and age, he has another poor season.

Now, his floor could still be a good scenario for the Leafs. If he ends up playing badly again, maybe Babcock will diminish is role and throw him on the bottom pair, a role he’d be more likely to excel in.

Nov 16, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) controls the puck against New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood (44) at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated New Jersey 1-0 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Nikita Zaitsev

Ceiling: After a fine rookie season, Zaitsev really fell off last season, and made his shiny, new contract look really really bad. But, he was also going into the season with concussion symptoms, had a lower body injury part way through the season, and was also sick for a while that apparently messed up his routine a lot, which affected his play.

But, later on in the season, Zaitsev’s play started to pick up, so perhaps with a few months of rest, he can try and regain some of his form in his rookie season.

While I doubt he puts up 36 points again, I’d say an appropriate ceiling for Zaitsev this year would be maybe 20 points, as well as returning his defensive game to what it was in 2016-17.

Floor: As great as it would be to see him return to form, he could also be as bad as he was last season, and that be what he really is as a defenseman.

I’d say that Zaitsev’s floor could see him be similar to 2017-18 Nikita Zaitsev, and end up being dropped to the bottom pair, or even a consistent healthy scratch.

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  • MartyThomas

    Without two experienced veterans in defense you do not have the chance,
    in guests especially and play off not to talk,no offense.
    There is a missing and checking line and penalty kill is not good.
    I would try to engage at all costs Tyler Toffoli RW,
    fantastic penalty kill and defence stats he have,this is player for Leafs.
    I would change Brown and Leivo and draft pickfor Parayko D from Blues also
    I would change Gauthier at all costs you need to get rid of him and Marincin
    also Greening,and I would add in a offer draft pick for some veteran D
    like Alzner or solid Nick Jensen,Demers,Vlasic somebody of mention players.
    I think Engvall in the NHL would be a good player and that Leafs must put him
    in the game and that Dakota Joshua has NHL potential to surprise you.
    Borgman I’d put in a game,Rosen and Aaltonen I would trade for
    Luke Glendening and this is third and fourth line player for Leafs
    what they search around,this addition will give
    depth in penalty kill and defence,this TML can go to Stanley current NO.