Defense Continues To Be Maple Leafs’ Achilles Heel.

October 15th, 2017 No Comments

Throughout the 2016-17 NHL season, the biggest question facing the Toronto Maple Leafs continued to be defensive depth. Sure, this team could skate. Yes, this team could score. But the Leafs struggled to keep shots on goal down and pucks out of the net.

Shift to  game two of the 2016-17 NHL Playoffs against the Washington Capitals and things got worse for the Maple Leafs when veteran defenseman Roman Polak went Flying into the air, breaking his leg on impact. Some say the Maple Leafs Playoff fortunes changed when Polak went down, I happen to agree.

Polak, 32, was not the Leafs’ best defenseman on most nights, but he might just be the defenseman with the most heart and his fearless pursuit of the big hit made him popular with fans and teammates alike. Polak isn’t flashy. Polak will only score on rare occasions. But he hits, he competes and he is not afraid to clear the dirty areas of the ice. In a word, he’s gritty, and the Leafs currently lack that on the backend.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 2017-18 season and the loss of Polak can be felt on the ice. Nursing a broken leg which required 13 screws to repair after that memorable playoff exit, Polak was signed to a PTO by the Maple Leafs. While Polak did play some brief minutes in the pre-season, it was obvious that he wasn’t ready for NHL duties. As much as many fans want Polak back, the truth is, Polak may never make it back to the NHL.

The addition of veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey will help to off-set the loss of Polak, as will the additions of Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman. Question is, are these additions enough to catapult the Maple Leafs from playoff pretenders to Stanley Cup contenders?

On the surface, the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 record through five games this season suggests that the Maple Leafs are just fine. That said, if you’ve been paying attention, you know the Maple Leafs defense has been exposed in numerous games, which is to say their defense has been…mmmm, not good…absent.

Thus far, outside of the game against the New Jersey Devils in which the Leafs lost 6-3, Toronto has been able to outscore their opponents. Despite worries about shots against, the Leafs sit one below the league average of 159 with 158 shots against through five games. Not great, but not the end of the world…yet. Where the Maple Leafs are really struggling is on the Penalty Kill (79.17%) and in terms of save percentage, which is amongst the league’s worst (8.80).

If you have been watching the Maple Leafs play, you know that many of their defensemen are struggling with their positioning (often blocking Frederik Andresen’s view of the puck), the system (often caught out of position) and a lack of comfort with their partner (there are a lot of new faces in the lineup). Add it all up and you have a defense that, despite a decent compete level, has yet to put it all together.

So, how does Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock clean this up? Babcock and his staff are going to have to drive his system into the heads of his top four defenders. Morgan Reilly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey must improve their attention to detail and continue to evolve their games if the Maple Leafs are to see improvement from the backend. It’s really that simple. Those are the players that will see the majority of the ice time. Those are the players that will be on the ice in key situations. They need to collectively be the wall that Babcock is demanding they be.

Let’s face it, Babcock is not afraid to make changes to his lineup from game-to-game. That means we should see a steady diet of change on the bottom pairing until two defensemen click. It could be Rosen and Borgman, could be Borgman and Carrick, could be Carrick and Rosen. Nobody really cares as long as two defensemen emerge as a legitimate third pairing.

Heck, we might even see Travis Dermott before long, and what about Timothy Liljegren? Could he be ready in a month- I’m not convinced of that, sorry! One thing is for certain, if the foursome of Rosen, Borgman, Carrick and Dermott cannot get it done, Babcock and Co. will be on the hunt for a defender/s that can get the job done. Time is ticking, this season is too important to waste time waiting for your 5-7th defensemen to catch on.

Babcock has always been a fan of saying that if your team is not in the playoffs by the American Thanksgiving (November 23rd this year) your team is done. That means the likes of Borgman, Rosen and Carrick have less than 19 games to get it together or there will have to be changes. In many ways, I feel a move will be inevitable. If the Maple Leafs are serious about becoming a Stanley Cup contender, they will need to upgrade their defense.

Yesterday, I had my say on whether or not the Maple Leafs will be able to land that coveted top-tier defenseman. The verdict- It won’t be easy and if Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello is able to land a top-flight defenseman it will likely come at a hefty price. Think about what it cost the Edmonton Oilers to land Adam Larsson out of New Jersey (Taylor Hall). Is Lou Lamoriello ready to make a similar move at this juncture?

So, which defenseman should the Maple Leafs be targeting if their current crop cannot get the job done? One suggestion would be to kick the tires on veteran defenseman Mike Green from the Detroit Red Wings.

Once thought to be one of the most talented offensive defensemen in the NHL, Green (32) has quietly put together two solid seasons with the Red Wings, posting 21 goals and 78 points over that time span. Green is not without his flaws. His defense is just average, he is no longer an elite skater and he is somewhat injury prone. What Green could offer the Maple Leafs is even strength offense (he scored 11 even strength goals last season), leadership (13 NHL seasons, 8 trips to the playoffs), size (6’1”, 207) and the ability to play well over 20 minutes per game (averaged 23:33 last season).

Is Green the perfect fit? No. But he checks off a lot of boxes, would likely come at a decent price (he’s a pending UFA this summer) and he plays a similar system in Detroit as Babcock coached so it shouldn’t take him long to get going in Toronto.

Of course, the catch will be the price tag. What will it take to land Green out of Detroit? We will leave that up to Lamoriello to negotiate, but from my seat, I think Detroit would be happy with a prospect and a second or third round draft choice. It’s a hefty price to pay, but if the Maple Leafs want to augment their roster before American Thanksgiving you may have to pay a premium to avoid waiting until the NHL Trade Deadline.

For now, we will have to wait and see how the season plays out and whether or not the Leafs are able to improve from within. Something tells me the Maple Leafs will be making a move sooner rather than later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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