One of the most obvious issues that the Leafs have is a lack of effective physicality. The joy that Jake Muzzin added when he joined this team was palatable. He pleased a more traditional crowd because he plays with an intent to hit people. He also pleased a more non-traditional crowd because shot metrics and other statistical models have shown him to be a good player for a number of years.
The intersection of these fields make it clear that the physicality that Muzzin provides is effective, as opposed to self-serving. He isn’t chasing hits like an grinder struggling to hold a job in the league, or crossing the lines into dirty play like an enforcer trying to “police” the game and costing his team with powerplay chances against.
With Muzzin, and to some extent Ron Hainsey, the Leafs have some level of heaviness that one seems to need in the playoffs. Like it or not, it’s a different game in the playoffs. The rules are different, and as a result, the playstyle is different. Size and strength may even be as important as skill when April comes around.
Although the Leafs are in a significantly better position after adding Muzzin, they could still make a move to bulk up and improve in talent before the trade deadline. With that in mind, here are some targets that the Leafs could look at.
A suggested soundtrack for this read:
Each of the following players is above average in Weight-To-Height Ratio, a metric I threw together to represent “heaviness”. A player like Travis Sanheim may be tall at 6’3″, but is in the bottom-10 in defenders who have played a game this year for Wt/Ht Ratio at 2.41, with an average of 2.75. All weight and height numbers come from naturalstattrick.com.
The following players are also all at least performing at 1 Win-Above-Replacement above the worst active Leafs defender, Nikita Zaitsev. This is as per the goals above replacement model created by the Evolving Wild duo. The model takes in a number of statistically relevant factors, weighs them by how well they correlate to generating goals for, and evaluate how each player is in each of those factors. They have created a series of write-ups to explain in detail, and I definitely recommend it for your bedtime reading tonight (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
All of them also have reasonable contracts that the Leafs can easily afford, either due to them being expiring deals, or low enough cap hit to not overly complicate things come next year.
With the flailing of the Colorado Avalanche this season, it may be an opportunity to pluck a defender from them as they look to make room for their upcoming prospects of Conor Timmins and Cale Makar.
Nemeth has added 0.7 wins above replacement to the Avalanche this year, which is a solid 1.1 WAR higher than what Zaitsev has done so far with a -0.6.
While his $2.5M cap hit next year could be problematic as the Matthews and Marner contracts hit the books, the only way to realistically bring on Nemeth is to lose Jake Gardiner as a UFA this coming season.
Nemeth definitely fits the “heavy” category as well, with a very solid 2.92 Wt/Ht ratio.
Pateryn was actually drafted by Toronto back in 2008, but was traded to Montréal in exchange for Mikhail Grabovski. Pateryn was a pretty, late bloomer and didn’t become an NHL regular until last season. His Wt/Ht ratio is even better than Nemeth, at 2.97.
His contract is very similar to Nemeth’s, and more favourable by a factor of $250k, but is signed for an extra year. Realistically, that’s of benefit to the Leafs if he proves to be a good fit, as they won’t have to re-negotiate again for a while.
He is a quality depth defender, with a WAR so far this season of 0.5. While that’s not excellent, to be a 6th defender and not negatively affecting your team is a positive.
The Wild are not a basement team in the league at the moment, but with the loss of Mikko Koivu, they could see themselves as outside of the pack for this season. They still will most likely make the playoffs, though, so while Pateryn may be a prime target, he won’t come as easily as some others in this list.
Gudas will be no surprise to many, as many have fantasized about his impact as a tough-as-nails, right-handed defender that would completely solidify the Leafs’ defense. He cannot be talked about without mentioning that he completely fails to meet the criteria of being a “clean” player, as his carousel dangerous hits follows him around like a shadow.
His impact on the ice, whether by instilling fear or by actually playing hockey, cannot be doubted, though. On his own, he has added 1 win-above-replacement for the Flyers, and it should be mentioned that the model includes the idea that taking penalties negatively affects your team.
While he is the best player on the list, he doesn’t register as “heavy” as Nemeth or Pateryn, with a Wt/Ht ratio of 2.83, which is still over the NHL average of 2.75 for defenders.
His cap hit will also be a little harder to fit than Nemeth or Pateryn, as he comes with a $3.35M price tag for the next two years. At the expense of Jake Gardiner, Gudas could fit in under the cap with some smart management by Kyle Dubas and the cap guru, Brandon Pridham. How that will be done remains to be seen, though.
The Flyers have a very far outside chance of making the playoffs, with the Sabres and Hurricanes ahead by 4-5 points as they fight for the last Wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. As the deadline approaches, it may be in their best interest to sell off the assets they have in an effort to try again next year.
While Gudas may not be their most ideal asset to part with, the price the Leafs can pay may make it worth the loss.
Not the sexiest option on this list, Weegar represents the acquisition that would require the least pain to execute. His cap hit is just $900k for just this year, and the Panthers are so far behind this season that there’s no hope of coming back.
Weegar has had an impact similar to that of Pateryn at 0.5 wins-above-replacement. While this again is not sexy, it is enough to be an improvement on the Leafs’ defense. He also barely qualifies as “heavy”, being just slightly over the NHL average Wt/Ht ratio at 2.78.
Since Weegar’s deal does end at the conclusion of this season, his new contract will be worth investigating for the Leafs before acquiring him. Given that his season this year doesn’t seem all that different from his last, after which he earned his current 1-year $900k contract, something between $900k and $1.1M should be more than enough to bring back Weegar, should the Leafs choose to do so.
If acquiring one of Nemeth, Pateryn, Gudas, or Weegar doesn’t exactly excite you, that’s because these players are not meant to be big-splash-type additions. Any one of these acquisitions would be an improvement on the margins, while meeting the somewhat specific criteria of being a cheap, “heavy” player that a team may actually be willing to let go.
If the Leafs want to increase their defense’s talent level, avoiding pigeon holes such as “heaviness” would be one way to do so. Whether you agree with the premise of this post or not, adding that criterion limits the Leafs’ option on the trade market.
Regardless, improving the Leafs’ defense should be one of very few final tinkering efforts this management team makes heading into the trade deadline. It is imperative that this effort doesn’t hinder their future either, as an improvement on the margins isn’t worth sacrificing more in the future such as the potential impact of a Timothy Liljegren or Rasmus Sandin.
What are your thoughts? Would one of these players be worth the move? Was there a different good defender that is “heavy” you’d like to see the Leafs acquire? What about one who doesn’t qualify as heavy?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments!