So, I’ve kind of already done this earlier in the summer, when I wrote about the Leafs defense in full, and why it might be not bad this season.
But, it’s August, there’s almost no content to be had, and it’s a topic that could be touched on in a bit more depth after a Craig Custance article from the Athletic sort of brought it back into the light.
Here’s the quote in question, taken partially out of context, so read the article if you want it:
3. Offensive defensemen – The Maple Leafs had two 50-point defensemen last season in Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, but it drops off pretty dramatically after that. The defense still needs work in Toronto, and if this Maple Leafs core raises a Stanley Cup, the defense will likely look much different than the one that exists right now. Half credit.
First off, comparing teams to the Cup champion is always dumb. The team that wins the Cup is usually not the best team in the league that season, because the Lightning probably should’ve won that series, and had Marc-Andre Fleury not turned into God mode, either the Predators or Jets would’ve easily handled the Caps in the finals (besides, tHe PrEsIdEnT’s TrOpHy Is ThE tRuE tEsT oF mErIt). Also, teams are built differently to win cups. Washington and Pittsburgh won their Cups from their centre depth, while Chicago did so because of their depth on defense. Every team is different.
But, despite comparing teams to the Cup champs being dumb, I’m gonna do it anyways! Because content!
Without further ado, let’s look at the Caps defense from their Cup run, and compare it to the Leafs projected 2018-19 defense corps.
Morgan Rielly & John Carlson (The “Overrated” Offensive Defenseman)
When you think of defense on the Leafs and Caps, these are the guys who are probably the first to come to mind. They’re the ones who many consider to be the best defensemen at both ends of the ice, their teams equivalent of the #1D.
But, they aren’t really that. Truth is, they put up the offensive numbers, quarterback the power play, but their defensive game is lacking, and there is usually a defenseman on the team that is better (who that would be, you’ll find out next).
Now, Rielly’s defensive game has definitely progressed this season, and he’s actually facing top competition unlike Carlson, all while carrying a much worse defensive partner. Although, Carlson did produce a bit more offensively this season, but his usual production is similar to Rielly’s.
This might be a hot take, but I’d take Rielly over Carlson, especially if you keep in mind contract situation.
Jake Gardiner & Matt Niskanen (The #ActuallyGood Defenseman)
Hiding behind their team’s “star” defenseman is the one who usually performs better, but doesn’t get the attention. In the case of Gardiner, it’s because he screws up badly from time to time, so everyone thinks he’s bad, while Niskanen has been one of those defensemen who always drove play really well, but has rarely been noticed.
But, both usually put up better underlying numbers than their offensive counterparts, and are usually the ones tasked with shutting down the top competition (Gardiner less so, but whenever Rielly has faltered, Gardiner has been the guy Babcock has looked to as a “safe bet” to replace him during those stretches. See: 2017 playoffs).
Niskanen is slightly older, but also slightly better in terms of defense, while Gardiner has slightly better production. In the case of Custance’s article, this would make Gardiner the better option, but I’d probably take Niskanen, considering his better all-around game, and that he has a contract for a few more seasons. But it’s really, really close.
Travis Dermott & Dmitry Orlov (The Underrated Defenseman Pt. 1)
These are the guys that are really good, but have questions around their game that are what holds them back from people being sold on them being good. In the case of Dermott, it’s the fact that he hasn’t played a whole lot so far, and mostly in a bottom pair role (although he also did this with Polak as his partner). Meanwhile, Orlov has spent a good chunk of his career with Matt Niskanen, and is kind of unproven away from him.
But, as far as we know, they’re both pretty good, and can produce offensively as well. The important part for both of them is that regardless of their situations, they drive play in that position, which is what helps the team in the long run.
I’d take Dermott over Orlov due to age and contract, but Orlov wouldn’t be bad to have either.
Connor Carrick & Michael Kempny (The Underrated Defenseman Pt. 2)
Kempny at the start of the 2017-18 season is very similar to Carrick going into this season. Kempny was never really considered to be much with Chicago, and was never really given a chance to play big minutes despite good underlying numbers. But, once he was given a shot with Carlson on the top pair, he impressed and showed he was capable of it.
Hopefully it doesn’t take a trade for Carrick’s potential to be realized, but he hasn’t been given an opportunity with the Leafs thus far, even though he’s put up great numbers so far. Obviously this comparison is made more based on his potential to be like Kempny, than him being at the same level.
Obviously, Kempny is the better player, but Carrick’s age and unproven potential leave an opportunity to make this closer in the future. But, that’s like saying would you like Michael Kempny or a mystery box that *could* be Michael Kempny.
Nikita Zaitsev & Christian Djoos (The Unknown Commodity)
This is a situation where both haven’t really looked amazing thus far, but also haven’t been put in ideal situations either. Zaitsev entered the league and almost immediately was the shutdown defenseman, and has been plagued with injuries and illnesses, while Djoos has had the undortunate situation of being strapped to Brooks Orpik.
Both are probably better than they’ve looked so far, but you also don’t really know, so it’s hard to make a proper evaluation to really make a move. So, you just play them some more and hope for the best.
I’d take Djoos over Zaitsev in this situation, considering he’s both younger and not overpaid.
Ron Hainsey & Brooks Orpik (The “Grizzled Veteran”/Pylon)
These are the guys that “every team’s gotta have”, even though they really don’t gotta have them because they’re usually terrible and there’s always a much better and younger guy in your system that could do it better. You “need them” for penalty killing and those final minutes of the game, even though they’re either average or really bad in those situations.
Hainsey is probably better than he was last season, due to being forced into the situation he was, while Orpik was mostly on the bottom pair, and was still one of the worst, if not *the worst*, defenseman in the league. This would’ve been Roman Polak’s spot if he was still on the team (thankfully, he’s not), but the comparison still stands, although Hainsey is by far the better of the two, and that’s saying something.
So, as you can see, the Leafs defense isn’t *that much* worse than the Capitals. In fact, I’d even say it might be as good, maybe even better, than the Caps, although it depends on how Carrick does (or if he even gets a full time role this season). Regardless, it’s a lot closer than people think, and the Caps are paying an additional $5.2 million for it (and that’s after they got rid of Orpik’s albatross contract, and brought him back on a cheaper deal).