It’s no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a faulty defense core, but the problem is what to do about it. There are many solutions to a single problem, many of them easier said than done. Each have their benefits and disadvantages, but what way should the Leafs go? Should they look to the upcoming defense loaded draft? Should they be making calls at the deadline? Is the solution in one of the best free agency coming in 2019, or is it all still developing in the organization under everyone’s noses?
The 2018 draft looks very similar to how the 2012 draft was structured, with lots of defensemen being taken in the first round. 2018 sports names like Rasmus Dahlin, Adam Boqvist and Quinn Hughes but the Leafs won’t get a sniff at players like those. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be eyeing up around the early to mid 20’s slot at this years draft if everything keeps up for the team. The Leafs could be looking at players like Jett Woo of the Moose Jaw Warriors, Ty Smith of the Spokane Chiefs or Evan Bouchard of the London Knights. All three are puck moving defensemen with Evan Bouchard being at the top end of high risk-high reward type player and Jett Woo likely being more steady defenseman of this grouping. The advantage of going through the draft for the Leafs is they can hand pick the exact defenseman they want and the one the organization needs. The biggest disadvantages is it will take time for the player they select to be able to fill that role.
The Leafs have been a part of trade rumors for a defenseman for a long time now, and one of the most common names to come up is Colin Miller who is having a career year in Vegas offensively, his advanced stats look good on the surface (his corsi for % or cf% is sitting at an amazing 55.5%) but starting in 60% of the time in the offensive zone and his quality of competition cf% is 2nd lowest on the team, meaning he faces the easiest opponents and it seems he is being played sheltered minutes. Two players that have never really been brought up as trade but would be a fantastic fit for the Toronto Maple Leafs would be Brett Pesce of the Carolina Hurricanes, and Ryan Ellis of the Nashville Predators. Brett Pesce just signed a 6 year, $4.025M extension this past summer that hasn’t even kicked in yet and is sitting at the ripe age of 23 Pesce not only has an great 53.9 cf% while logging over 20 minutes a night, he does it while facing the highest quality of competition cf% on the Hurricanes defense core meaning he faces the best players, and gets majority of his starts in the defensive zone. He seems like a perfect fit in Toronto. Ryan Ellis needs no introduction though, his work in last years Stanley Cup run speaks for itself. Ellis is not one people think of when talking about trades, but the Predators have played without him the entire year and are sitting 2nd in the Central division and 3rd in the Western conference. With the way Dante Fabbro is playing at the World Junior Championship now is the best time to convince the Predators they can go on without him to add some more scoring touch. He is not only able to play on the penalty kill in Nashville, but also be a terrific powerplay player as well. With Ellis you are getting an amazing defender all around that can fill the role you need, but can fill other roles too. The advantage to trading for a player is there is no development period and the organization knows the exact player they are getting. The downside is the team will have to trade away a good piece to get a good piece, especially with a player to the quality of Ryan Ellis.
Free agency can sometimes be a risky endeavor for teams, overpaying for a coveted free agent like the Leafs did with David Clarkson in 2013 who was coming off an over performing year. The 2019 free agency is filled with incredible defenseman like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Drew Doughty, and Erik Karlsson but it also has other fantastic defense such as previously mentioned Ryan Ellis, Jay Bouwmeester or Ryan McDonagh. Guys like Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty need no introduction. Either of them would be phenomenal on the Leafs blueline, but the fact is all most of these defensemen will resign before they hit July 1st 2019, and even if they do get there both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be either needing new contracts or having extensions start that year. This means the team wouldn’t be able to afford a guy like Erik Karlsson who fully intends to get paid his full worth. There are many upsides to free agency such as being able to name your price for the player you are signing as well as not giving up anything for them like in a trade, but the disadvantages are large too. Like the previously mentioned, you can overpay for players, most of which are a lot older because younger players are still restricted free agents, and are not guaranteed anything and if it falls through the team could walk away with nothing.
The easiest option is looking to within the organization. The Leafs have players like Travis Dermott, Timothy Liljegren and Andrew Nielsen all playing in the minors. Liljegren is having a great WJC so far and has been playing sound hockey. He has been growing defensively. His big flaw when he was being scouted is he took a lot of risks. In a recent interview he attributed that to the pressure of being his NHL and always trying to make something happen on the ice because of that. Since being with the Marlies he has been able to settle in to his role not having to impress a person watching him specifically in the stands, and has been able to play his own game. Still producing offensively he is beginning to show why he was projected to be a top 5 pick in the early rankings for the 2017 draft again. Travis Dermott is the most NHL ready player the Leafs have in the minors other than Kasperi Kapanen. Dermott likely would have gotten the most recent call up even instead of Martin Marincin if he weren’t returning from injury that night. Dermott has been a terrific player at both the OHL and AHL level and has worked hard to become the player he is. He has shown time and time again why he is vital to the future of the Leafs. If any of these players prove to be the player that’s needed this is the best option, but both management and fans need to be patient and be willing to work through growing pains if this is the route that happens.
Of all these scenarios, the most likely is waiting for either Liljegren and Dermott are ready to make the leap full time. In the meantime Lamoriello will likely wait. His team is currently sitting at 10th in the NHL. Sure the team goes through cold streaks, but they go through better hot streaks. They continue to win with their electric offense so it doesn’t make any sense to break up their offense in a trade while that is what is winning the team games. The Toronto Maple Leafs are still in a rebuild is a thought that the fanbase needs to keep in mind. There is no reason for any quick fixes like overpaying in free agency or giving up a major piece in a trade. Time will only make this team become even better than they already are.