It’s no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs were a bit porous on the blueline this past season. That group still managed to help propel the Leafs into the postseason though, which is no small feat.
The principal need for the Leafs this summer is to upgrade their defensive core. Ideally, they get a mix of players who are stay at home defensemen and mix them with some smooth-skating players who can sort their way out of trouble with a quick breakout pass.
If the Leafs hope to continue their run of recent success, making some changes this offseason is all but essential.
Locking up Zaitsev
Nikita Zaitsev was an incredibly valuable find for the Leafs. The Russian blueliner was scouted and signed by the Leafs after spending a considerable amount of time honing his skills in the KHL.
It was an excellent find by Toronto, as he was only a rookie in name alone when he made his NHL debut at the beginning of the 2016-17 season. Zaitsev was reliable and after adjusting to North American ice, he became one of the Leafs most steady defenseman.
Lamoriello on thought process behind term length / cap hit / structure of Nikita Zaitsev's 7 year / $31.5 million extension #Leafs #NHL pic.twitter.com/UiAuSDSnG2
— Dave McCarthy (@DaveAMcCarthy) May 2, 2017
Zaitsev was recently resigned to a seven-year, $31.5-million dollar contract that will pay him an average of $4.5 million per season. The young Russian had a great season and put up 36 points in 82 regular season games and was second on the team in ice-time, where he averaged 22:01 per night.
He’s an important piece of the Leafs blueline and resigning him through his prime years was a smart move for the organization. The hope is now that Calle Rosen, the Swedish defender the Leafs will sign after the World Championships, will follow suit and potentially develop along the same career path.
Within the Organization
Any good NHL team knows that upgrading their team can take them down a multitude of different avenues. The next move the Leafs will make will be to look internally, specifically at a few players on the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.
There are three players of relative note. The first is Rinat Valiev, who played ten games for the Leafs back in 2015-16. The next two are Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen, who were both drafted in 2015.
The Leafs brass will be keeping a close eye on all three as they move into the second round of the playoffs, but one skater, in particular, has caught the attention of most fans.
That would be Dermott. The former Erie Otter is seen as the most NHL-ready prospect on the blueline and has been on a mission so far in the Marlies postseason run.
He has excellent passing accuracy, can get the puck out of dangerous spots pretty consistently and rarely turns it over. He can also throw his weight around if the occasion calls for it.
He’s still young and will need some time to throw on some muscle and develop a better point shot, but rest assured, Leafs management is keeping a close eye on Dermott and expects him to be knocking on the door to make the big team next season.
Free Agents and the Entry Draft
It’s always worth considering what the free agent market may hold. One prominent name that has been thrown around is Karl Alzner. The former first round pick is a defensive defenseman currently playing for the Washington Capitals. He would instantly help the Leafs defensive woes, but his price tag will need to be considered.
Other potential options include Michael Stone, Dmitry Kulikov and former Maple Leaf Cody Franson.The Leafs will also need to look at resigning at least one of their key bottom pairing defenseman in either Roman Polak or Matt Hunwick.
Cal Foote is another guy worth considering come draft day. Big, responsible, a bit mean, and a righty.
— D.J. Llewellyn (@DJ_Llewellyn) May 4, 2017
Over to the draft where the Buds are slated to pick either 17th or 18th overall. They should be focusing on adding a top notch defenseman to the system, with notable names like Cal Foote, Nick Hague, Juuso Valimaki and Erik Brannstrom all hovering around that area.
It will be an interesting summer for the Leafs, who many pundits believe are only a few key defenseman away from being serious contenders.