Maple Leafs Free Agent Target: Karl Alzner
With the Toronto Maple Leafs currently knocking on the door of a playoff position, it seems strange that so much focus seems to be on next season. While many Maple Leafs fans would be thrilled to see their team in the playoffs, they are under no illusion that their beloved Blue and White machine is in the position to challenge for the Stanley Cup— not this season, anyways.
One of the main factors in the Maple Leafs faithful doubting their squad is the clubs well documented shortcomings on defense.
Currently, the Maple Leafs employ a top-six of Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner, Alexy Marchenko, Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak in their defensive pairings. It goes without saying, none of those defenseman are known as an elite defensive specialist, which is often why the Maple Leafs struggle mightily on the back end.
To be fair, with so many rookies in the lineup occupying forward positions, there is plenty of blame to go around in the defensive shortcomings department. That said, nobody was looking for the Maple Leafs forwards to master the art of the two-way game this season, so they get a passing grade— at least for now.
Once the playoffs are complete, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello will shift his focus to the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and, maybe more importantly, this summers Free Agent Market.
While there will be plenty of free agent defensemen available, few will fit the bill with what Lamoriello and Co. are looking for.
While Rielly and Zaitsev have performed decently for the Maple Leafs this season, one cannot ignore the statistics, and for Rielly, those statistics are a bit alarming. Sure, Rielly has put up decent offensive totals (3 goals, 19 assists- 22 points) but his minus-23 rating is among the worst in the NHL (730th out of 735 NHL Players).
Now, don’t get me wrong, plus/minus does not tell the whole story where NHL players are concerned. Rielly plays against the NHL’s best players, logs a tremendous amount of ice-time, is a valuable member of the power play and he exhibits excellent leadership on and off the ice— all great attributes.
To put plus/minus into perspective, Maple Leafs D-man Jake Gardiner currently sits at the opposite end of the plus/minus rankings sporting an excellent plus-23 rating. That puts Gardiner in elite company alongside the likes of Connor McDavid (+20), Zach Werenski (+18), Ryan McDonagh (+18), Brad Marchand (+18) and Norris Trophy favorite, Brent Burns (+23). Let’s be honest, despite the nice plus/minus totals, nobody will ever mistake Jake Gardiner for a top defensive defenseman.
At the end of the day, the Maple Leafs will be looking to upgrade their defense with two characteristics taking priority. First, they need a top-pairing defensive specialist. Second, they need experience and Leadership skills.
A quick look at this summers free agent list reveals some interesting names, such as, Dennis Wideman, Michael Stone, Kevin Shattenkirk, Michael Del Zotto, Trevor Daley, Dmitry Kulikov, Kyle Quincey, Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith and, the defenseman I would most like to see in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform next season, Karl Alzner.
While the offensive prowess of Shattenkirk, Del Zotto, Wideman and Daley may be of interest to the Maple Leafs, that’s not the teams most pressing issue— defense is.
With that in mind, the signing of Karl Alzner would make the biggest difference to the Maple Leafs next season and beyond. Without question, Alzner can deliver competent, consistent defense. He has the experience (both regular season and playoffs) and he has been a model citizen on and off the ice, demonstrating great leadership.
What will it take to sign Alzner?
At just 28 years old, Alzner is set to get a big increase on his current earnings. He’s a big, tough, experienced NHL defenseman in his prime who can play top-pair minutes. What’s not to like?
Clearly, when you look at Alzner’s skill-set it is apparent that the Maple Leafs will not be the only NHL team making a considerable offer to Alzner this summer. The Washington Capitals would love to have Alzner back, but they may not be able to fit him into their cap structure. If the Maple Leafs want to add Alzner to the fold, they are likely looking at a 5-year deal worth around $4.5 million per ($22.5 million five-year deal).
Of course, with so many NHL teams looking to upgrade their defense and the NHL salary cap expected to increase to around $75 million this summer, that number could easily rise to $5-$6 million per season.
That said, if it is money that motivates Alzner, the Maple Leafs are in the position to spend and they need to be bold. Capfriendly.com estimates that the Maple Leafs will have upwards of $17,204,166 in Cap Space this off-season.
Both Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick will be UFA’s in July, neither one of them will likely be back with the Maple Leafs next season. Zaitsev (pending RFA) will need a new deal and, besides Alzner, the Maple Leafs will need to promote another defenseman from the minors (Andrew Nielsen and Rinat Valiev come to mind as candidates), sign another UFA or make a splash via the trade market (which is always tough) to replace Polak and Hunwick.
If the Maple Leafs could sign Alzner and say one of Jakub Kindl, Kyle Quincey or Brendan Smith (can you feel the Detroit Red Wing love?) Lamoriello will have the Leafs in the position to improve their defensive depth (supporting the likes of Rielly, Zaitsev, Gardiner and Marchenko) while impacting the overall depth and leadership on the team.
There is no question that the Maple Leafs are a talented bunch up front. Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk and Zach Hyman represent an excellent start on a top-six.
The Maple Leafs are at a crossroads in terms of their rebuild. If they fail to make the necessary acquisitions this summer the team will not improve. Signing (or trading for) at least one impact defenseman is a must if the Maple Leafs are to improve. Forget about all the other noise that will come with free agency—Karl Alzner is the one defenseman that makes sense…