Optimizing an already solid Leafs defense core ahead of the trade deadline
Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
By Nick Richard9 months ago
The Leafs have been lauded for their improved defensive play all season long, with many pointing to it as the main reason this team will present a stiffer challenge to Tampa Bay when they inevitably face off in the opening round of the playoffs once again. With that narrative taking shape as the season has progressed, it has spurred debate over what general manager Kyle Dubas should be focused on adding to this Leafs team ahead of the trade deadline on March 3rd.
That debate has quieted – at least a little bit – since the Leafs took a home run swing in acquiring forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari late last Friday night, but should Dubas still be looking at avenues to upgrade his blue line?
Anyone who has followed this team closely over the last few seasons has undoubtedly noticed a greater commitment to responsible defensive play in 2022-23, most notably from the forward group. They are playing as a five-man unit more consistently, with forwards supporting the play in all three zones, and it has helped to limit the time they spend defending in their own end. Gone are the days of all three forwards flying the zone early, leaving their defensemen with limited options to break the puck out cleanly. For that, both the players and the coaching staff, namely Sheldon Keefe and Dean Chynoweth, deserve credit.
A deeper look at the numbers, however, shows that the Leafs are actually giving up more than they did a season ago in terms of scoring chances. In 2021-22, they ranked fourth in the NHL at 2.25 xGA/60 at 5v5, but their team SV% at 5v5 was the fourth worst in the league, landing them in 22nd place in actual goals surrendered per 60 minutes. So far this season, the Leafs rank 10th in the league at 2.5 xGA/60, but a massive improvement in 5v5 SV% (9th in the league) has helped them climb to 5th in the NHL in actual goals against per 60 minutes. Simply put, goaltending has been the biggest difference for the Leafs so far in 2022-23.
That’s not to say the Leafs are a poor defensive team by any means, but there is still room for improvement. A common theme in Leafs losses this year has been their inability to handle heavy forechecking teams, stop the cycle, and move the puck out of their own zone with possession. It may have never been more glaring than it was in Toronto’s 5-2 loss to the juggernaut that is the Boston Bruins just before the All-Star break, and while it’s never a good idea to make too much of small sample sizes, it’s safe to say that game exposed a weakness on the Leafs’ back end. Ultimately, Toronto’s road to playoff success will be going through Boston if they can get past another strong forechecking team in Tampa Bay. That has to be front and center in Dubas’ mind as the deadline draws closer.
To say it has been a difficult couple of years for Jake Muzzin would be an understatement, but he played a key role in last year’s first-round series against the Lightning as a physical, cycle-stopping presence who made life difficult on Tampa’s forwards down low in Toronto’s zone. Even with Muzzin giving the Leafs solid minutes in the playoffs, it wasn’t enough to withstand the Lightning attack and their ability to wear down the Leafs’ defensemen on the forecheck, and with Muzzin out of action for at least the rest of this season, the Leafs’ lack of a big-bodied, butcher type of defenseman is even more pronounced than it was last playoffs.
As it stands today, Rasmus Sandin and Conor Timmins are occupying the sixth and seventh defensemen roles for the Leafs, but they offer very similar skill sets. Both players are strong puck movers, at least when given adequate time and space, but neither of them are particularly strong skaters. Timmins is the bigger of the two, but Sandin plays a significantly more physical style of hockey – something that should set him apart from Timmins, but Sandin’s small stature betrays him too often when he faces pressure on puck retrievals or has to battle for space in front of the net with bigger, stronger forwards. Sandin and Timmins are both quality players, but their strengths and weaknesses make them somewhat redundant in a lineup that features Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano, and an emerging Timothy Liljegren.
That hasn’t presented itself as a major concern on most nights, as the Leafs are simply more talented than most of the other teams in the league, but when push comes to shove against Tampa or Boston, being able to pivot to another option that alters the mix on the blue line could prove crucial. Below Sandin and Timmins on the depth chart is Jordie Benn, who brings a lot of the elements the Leafs would like to add to their lineup, but his overall ability limits his effectiveness, and he isn’t a player who Keefe will feel comfortable rolling out every night in the playoffs should the need arise.
The biggest roadblock for the Leafs if they are looking to make an addition on the back end will be their lack of trade capital, especially after they shipped out four draft picks, including a first-rounder, to acquire O’Reilly and Acciari. That takes them out of the running for a player like Jakob Chychrun if they were ever really in it and almost certainly rules out other big names like Dmitry Orlov or Vladislav Gavrikov. The Leafs do have a bit of wiggle room under the salary cap, and there are moves they could make to free up more space if need be, but it doesn’t sound like they’ll be shopping at the top of the defenseman market.
There are still a few interesting names floating around that would fit the bill for the Leafs, though, with Jake McCabe being the most notable of the bunch. He is a physical presence who has proven capable of handling top-four minutes, and he has put up some solid underlying numbers despite playing on poor teams, but the rumored asking price for the Chicago blueliner remains high. A big part of that asking price is the fact that McCabe isn’t a pure rental, and he remains under contract at a $4 million cap hit for two seasons after this one. That team control and cost certainty could make McCabe a player that Dubas is more willing to shell out for, especially if the Blackhawks are willing to retain some of the remaining salary, but that will be a difficult deal to put together.
McCabe would instantly bump Sandin and Timmins down the depth chart while diversifying the blue line and lightening the workload for the rest of the group but even beyond him, there are options for the Leafs if they truly want a different look on their third pair.
Former Leaf Luke Schenn looks to be on the move in the coming days, and his combination of physicality and championship experience would be a welcome addition, but he feels like more of a sentimental target among the fan base than a realistic target with rumors of a reunion in Tampa Bay swirling. A recent injury to Mat Barzal could steer the Islanders into sell mode, and Scott Mayfield would also check a lot of boxes for the Leafs while carrying a cap hit of just $1.45 million. Carson Soucy is putting together a nice season while playing on an expiring contract for Seattle, but he has been a healthy scratch a few times recently, so the Kraken could be willing to move him despite currently holding down a playoff spot. Nick Seeler is another under-the-radar option who has put up impressive defensive results on a bad Flyers team, but he is signed cheap for next season and could be difficult to pry out of Philadelphia. Mike Reilly is also an intriguing option, and he could be on his way out of Boston to facilitate a trade for the aforementioned Gavrikov. If the Leafs could entice the acquiring team into flipping him while retaining a bit of salary, he would slide right into their top-six on the blue line. An O’Reilly, Rielly, Reilly combination would be fun for broadcasters!
In a vacuum, you could argue that Sandin and/or Timmins bring as much or more to the lineup than some of the names listed above, so making a move to address the blue line isn’t imperative, but bringing in a player who offers a different skill set than what they have in house is something the Leafs should be exploring.
The additions of O’Reilly and Acciari have lengthened out Toronto’s forward group in a significant way, providing Keefe with an array of options when he is filling out his lineup card. It doesn’t feel like they have that same depth or versatility on the blue line, but there are still plenty of potential fits available on the trade market. With a little over a week remaining before the trade deadline, you can bet that Dubas is investigating each and every one of them.
(Statistics from Evolving-Hockey.com, contract details from PuckPedia.com)
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