The Leafs should consider signing Nicolas Meloche for defensive depth

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
11 months ago
As the Leafs’ roster for next season begins to take shape with more signings coming in, the realities of the cap crunch they are now in are what they will have to address before the new campaign commences.
Bringing in their new additions has resulted in the Leafs being 10% over the salary cap, which means cap space has to be shipped out the door in the coming weeks. But even once that is done, they will need to be smart with what they do with the limited space they have left regarding any other potential signings.
Combine that with only six roster spots left for Brad Treliving to use and the Leafs will need to search the bargain bin for their subsequent signing. Even after they free up some cap space, it would be in their best interest to find some cheaper options as depth.
Defensive reinforcements is one area the Leafs could look to address and one player that Treliving should consider signing is a blueliner be signed last summer when he was still with the Flames.
Nicolas Meloche is a right-shot defenceman who was most recently part of the Flames organization. The 25-year-old has great size for a player of his position standing at 6’3” and weighing 203 pounds. He was originally drafted in the second round by the Avalanche with the 40th overall pick in 2015.
Meloche spent this past season exclusively with the Flame’s AHL affiliate, the Calgary Wranglers.  He recorded 21 points (four goals and 17 assists) in 64 games while going scoreless in five playoff games. His last stint in the NHL was during the 2021-22 season when he played in 50 games with the Sharks and registered seven points (two goals and five assists). Additionally, he also had 54 blocks and finished second on the Sharks with 158 hits at a rate of 3.16 hits per game.
He is best described as a defensive defenceman who plays a steady two-way game, racks up a ton of hits, and doesn’t have a high offensive output. If that sounds familiar, that is the exact role Luke Schenn had when he was with the Leafs and his departure to the Predators leaves behind a hole for a player of his calibre. Although trading for his replacement is an option, the acquisition cost won’t be cheap and it might be smarter to sign a younger option on the cheap, which is where Meloche comes into play.
The Quebec native did not get to play in the NHL last year due to the already-loaded Calgary blueline while also giving him time to further develop his game. During his last stint in the NHL, he was put in a tricky situation given how bad the Sharks were at making clean exits out of the defensive zone that year. This was reflected in his advanced metrics at 5v5 from that campaign which all fall below average.
In fairness, the rest of that Sharks team was not much better across the board with the only regulars to have a positive possession percentage being Timo Meier and Erik Karlsson. Still, you would like to see him be a positive contributor regarding getting his team the puck at the time of possession and scoring chances.
This isn’t to suggest that Meloche is not worth taking a chance on because there is quite a lot to be had in him that could help result in a mainstay on the third pairing if he can further refine his existing game. He is a good skater for a player of his size, is steady in his end, makes high-percentage defensive decisions, and is not afraid to play physically.  He is also good at forcing accountability of opposing players, especially during net front battles, willing to drop the gloves if needed, and can get under his opponent’s skin to throw them off their game.
Given that the 2021-22 campaign was his rookie season, the lack of experience against NHL players was evident by his over-pinching and struggles to cleanly exit the defensive end. These both can be corrected with exercised patience towards the puck and decision-making, along with getting more reps at the NHL level. The offensive skillset that was prevalent during his QMJHL hasn’t exactly translated to the higher levels, but if can grow his confidence in helping keep the scoring pressure on should help with his evolution.
With where the Leafs are at, Meloche will not need to be heavily relied upon and should get a chance to continue his development with the Marlies. With his experience at the NHL level, he will find himself high on the pecking order for call-ups in the event of injuries and will easily slot onto the third pair.
He also won’t demand a lot as he is coming off a one-year contract that paid him $950K. His next contract will likely end up being around that number or less, and that makes him the exact type of young defenceman the Leafs should be looking to sign.
Meloche being a right-shot defenceman who plays a physical and steady game is the kind of low-risk bet that would be beneficial for Toronto to go after. His familiarity with Treliving should also help because the new GM should know we’ll what the 25-year-olds strengths and weaknesses are.
He certainly has his warts and still needs more reps to develop his game, but there is enough there that makes Meloche a player Toronto should consider signing as cheap defensive depth. It’s the type of low-risk-high-reward move that would be in the Leafs’ best interest to look into signing for under a million dollars.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com and Natural Stat Trick.
Salary information from CapFriendly.

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