Hockey is upon us tonight, and for all the new hockey fans, it’s time I give you the last lesson of your Toronto Maple Leafs tutorial. I’ve already covered the team itself and the players up front, but today, we’re looking at the players and roles tasked with keeping the puck out of the net.
For many, many years, the Leafs have been absolutely horrendous at defense. I became a fan in 2011-12, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single year where the Leafs were very good at keeping the puck out of the net that wasn’t propped up by stellar goaltending. But this year, that might finally change.
For the first time in a while, the Leafs have the potential to actually ice a complete lineup of NHL calibre players without a single bad defenseman on the team. There are a couple question marks for that, but for now, we remain hopeful. Not just that, but the addition of TJ Brodie gives Morgan Rielly a good defense partner, and the Leafs a good top pair. With Jake Muzzin being able to carry whoever plays with him on the second pair, having good defensemen in Justin Holl and Travis Dermott will probably make it an elite second pair. And the leftover from that will get to play with one of Zach Bogosian, Mikko Lehtonen, or Rasmus Sandin (or Martin Marincin if you’re team chaos).
It should give goaltender Frederik Andersen a bit of a break, as he’s faced the most shots out of any goalie since joining the Leafs in 2016-17. That should do him plenty of favours as he’s on the wrong side of 30 and age will start to factor in his play. He’s also coming off the worst season of his NHL career, so fans are a bit on edge as to what he’ll do this season. He’ll finally have a steady backup in Jack Campbell who might even be able to give Freddie more rest than he usually gets in a season, so this might be the kind of season that Andersen needs to rebound.
The penalty kill
Remember what I was saying about the power play being really good for the Leafs? Yeah, that’s not the same with the penalty kill. In the past four seasons, it ranks 15th at 80.6%, which isn’t the worst, but the past two seasons, it ranks 22nd at 78.8%. Not good.
Some of that can be chalked up to bad goaltending (particularly last year), but also some of the personnel is to blame. We may finally be looking at not having a pylon like Ron Hainsey or Cody Ceci there all the time, and instead have actually competent defensemen playing it. Muzzin, Brodie, and Holl are for sure locks, and while we may see Bogosian get some time there, I’d imagine Rielly and Dermott will get some time as well.
Up front, the main penalty killers look to be Hyman, Mikheyev, Marner, and Kerfoot, with Matthews supposedly going to get some reps in as well. I’d imagine that will turn into a bigger role as Matthews’ defensive game evolved significantly last year, so he could be a huge contributor there, and him and Marner being on the same unit could create some havoc and lead to some potential offense as well. No promises, but it definitely looks like the penalty kill will be much better this year than past years.
Now, let’s look at the blueliners and goaltenders who will likely get some ice time this season.
Rielly is our golden boy. He’s the longest tenured Leaf, grown to become one of the leaders of the team, and is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. Oh, and he’s also pretty outspoken about gay rights (at least, by a hockey player’s standards) and is dating a Canadian athlete even bigger than him, figure skater Tessa Virtue. He isn’t the best in his own end, but he plays solid in tough competition every year, and he also hasn’t had a competent defense partner in his career up to this point, so there’s still a slight chance he can improve there. Regardless, he makes up for it with his ability to move the puck up the ice, create offense, and man the point on the main power play unit (although he didn’t last season because he gave it to Barrie because Barrie was having a bad start, and Rielly wanted to see his teammate do well. Seriously, what a gem). He’s also a very strong skater, so it allows him to jump up in the rush and create offense that way as well.
For most of his time as a Leaf, Freddie has been “the guy” in net, and very consistent at being a great starter for the Leafs. That changed last year when he had the worst season of his career. There’s a chance that, at 31, it could be a sign of aging, but it could also just be a bad season, because that happens, and goalie are voodoo. Luckily, he only has this year left on his contract, so if he has another bad season, we can cut ties with him. We probably will anyways due to a lack of cap space, so basically enjoy him while you can. Before his previous season, he was considered one of the best goalies in the league, and consistently very good at giving the Leafs quality starts so that their offense could get the job done. His playoff performance is shaky, but I don’t think 25 games is enough of a sample to go off of to really write home about. Regardless, he’ll be the difference between the Leafs being an elite team or scratching and clawing their way into the playoffs like last season.
Muzzin is one of those defensemen that pleases everybody. For the Don Cherry’s out there, he’s a big, tough defenseman who hits, blocks shots, and clears the net. For the stats savvy people out there, he consistently has elite defensive metrics year after year, and usually props up his partner very well (he’s the reason we managed to get rid of Nikita Zaitsev’s contract). He also is still really good at transitioning offense up the ice, and also has a booming shot when he uses it. All you need to know about him is that more often than not, the team will be safe when Muzzin’s on the ice. That is, until age kicks in and he starts to struggle more, but hey, let’s hope we get a Cup out of it before then.
Brodie is a recent addition to the team, being the biggest splash the Leafs made in free agency this offseason, and is a significant addition to the blueline. There was a time where he was one of the better defensemen in the league, but he definitely won’t reach that level again. Like Muzzin and Rielly, he is also very good at driving and creating offense at well, so don’t expect one of those defense-only defensemen that Rielly has had to play with in the past. The biggest question mark surrounding him is that his play in Calgary wasn’t the best away from Mark Giordano, but his partners also weren’t the best, so I wouldn’t be too concerned just yet.
Holl has been the Leafs biggest underdog story, going from not getting an NHL contract after getting drafted to being developed on the Marlies to become a solid shutdown defenseman for the Leafs. Now, that’s not entirely him, but he is good enough to excel playing alongside Muzzin as opposed to being carried by him. Without Muzzin, he’s still an excellent defenseman, but he creates flexibility in the lineup. He’s not going to get a ton of points, but he can still drive offense, and he suppresses shots and scoring chances very well as well.
Now entering his fourth season, Dermott has played very well in his minutes, he just unfortunately has been stuck in a bottom pair role his whole career. Part of that has been coaching, but part of that is also the fact that there’s been incredible depth on the left side for defense (Rielly and Jake Gardiner for the first half, and Rielly and Muzzin for the second half). When he has played up in the lineup, he’s still played quite well, particularly shining last season when injuries to Rielly and Muzzin late in the season made him and Holl the top pair, as well as playing in a top four role after Muzzin’s injury in the playoffs. He drives play very well and prevents scoring chances, we just haven’t seen him do it for a long period of time in a bigger role. He’s supposed to get some time on the right side this year, so hopefully that means he gets more minutes this year… finally.
Campbell got traded to the team last season when Freddie got hurt, and the Leafs were in desperate need of backup goaltending (more on that later). Campbell came in and played six games for them, and played pretty well, something the Leafs haven’t had for a few years there. He’s also a backup goalie that the Leafs can actually lean on more and hopefully stop running Freddie into the ground every year, so that he’ll be better for the playoffs. He’s also a really, really nice guy, so you literally can’t hate him, it’s not allowed.
Another European signing for the Leafs, Lehtonen has the nickname “Finnish Bobby Orr” which shows a lot of promise, but probably also brings a lot of expectations. He led the KHL in scoring, and has a booming slapshot, so when he draws into the lineup, he’ll likely get power play time. Other than that, we don’t know a lot about how his skills will translate to the NHL, but as long as we don’t sign him to an unnecessarily long contract, we’ll be good.
Sandin was a first round pick in 2018, and has surprised by already cracking the lineup last season, and playing pretty well. His underlying numbers weren’t ideal, but that comes with entering the NHL as a 19 year old defenseman, and he still produced well. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops this year with the depth on the blueline, but I’d imagine injuries will give him a shot down the line.
Every year, the Leafs always have one defenseman who can’t actually play defense, but gets played in a bigger role than they should be because they hit and block shots. Bogosian has all the makings to be that guy. His career numbers aren’t the best, so there’s cause for concern, but he also played well in Tampa on their cup run, so maybe it’s just because he played in Buffalo. At the very least, he’ll be an important veteran presence for team trying to get over the hump.
Dell was a free agent signing this season as the Leafs looked to shore up their goalie depth a little bit more this season. He’s not the greatest, but he’s still a solid NHL option, and is better goalie than what the Leafs had for most of last season beyond Freddie.
Marincin’s become something of a meme at this point. He’s good at denying scoring chances and preventing zone entries, but once that puck’s on his stuck, oh boy, you’re in trouble (except for that one time a year where he scores a goal). Somehow he manages to sign a one year extension every offseason, so the legend of Marincin continues.
A first round pick in 2017, he was supposed to be a top 5 pick until he fell to the Leafs at 17 because of mono. While he hasn’t made the strides we were hoping for, he’s still got the tools to become a solid NHL defenseman, just not with the top 4 ceiling we may have been hoping for when he was first drafted.
Rosen joined the Leafs a few years ago as a European signing, and is a really good depth option for them should the 10 people ahead of him get hurt. He doesn’t look out of place in the few games he’s gotten at the NHL, but he’s not going to blow you away either.
Remember when I said the Leafs were desperate for backup goaltending last season? Yeah, it’s because we had this guy and he was pretty bad. We ended up trading him to Colorado for Calle Rosen (who we also had traded in the prior offseason in the Kadri trade… yeah, it’s a whole thing), where he had to play some playoff games due to injuries, and surprised everyone by playing better than he usually did. He’s back now, but thankfully as our fourth goalie on the depth chart, so we probably don’t have to worry about him playing too much *knocks on wood*.