Leafs Rebuild Must Turn Focus to Defense

There’s an old saying that has long rung true:

Defense wins championships.

Defense wins Championships, just ask the Los Angeles Kings. (Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE)

While it has never definitively been proven as true, with a number of offensively laden teams going on to secure the Stanley Cup in years passed, there has been a direction connection between team defense and success over the past five NHL seasons. In fact, the last five NHL teams to secure the Cup have all ranked in the top-2 in Goals Against (GA) in the season in which they secured their Championship.

In 2010-11, the Boston Bruins secured the Cup, allowing a mere 189 GA in the regular season, a number which translated to 2.30 per game and trailed only their Finals opponent, the Vancouver Canucks.

The following season of 2011-12 saw the Los Angeles Kings take the NHL Playoffs by storm, taking home the Cup despite making the playoffs as the Western Conference’s 8th seed. In the regular season, the Kings allowed just 170 GA and averaged 2.29 per game. The total ranked them second League-wide, trailing the St. Louis Blues.

The trend continued in 2012-13, as during the 48 game lockout shortened season, the Blackhawks once again took home the Cup, surrendering a diminutive 97 GA, or just 2.02 per game, an amazing feat of defensive dominance.

By now, I’m sure the trend has become quite clear.

(Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)
Is defense important? Just ask these guys. (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2013-14, the Kings were once again named Stanley Cup champs, their second in a three-year stretch and marked by a league low of just 168 GA in the regular season, while most recently in 2014-15, the Chicago Blackhawks took home Lord Stanley, their third Championship over five NHL seasons dating back to 2009-10. In the regular season, they allowed just 186 GA, or 2.27 per game, good for second best in the NHL behind Carey Price’s Montreal Canadiens.

So, as we have just seen, defense does in fact play a large role in the road to NHL success, if not a much larger one than the potential volatility of a given offense. In case you disagree, of the five Championship winning teams mentioned above, only the Bruins of 2010-11 and ‘Hawks of 2012-13 finished in the top-5 in League scoring the year they won the Cup. In fact, the Kings’ offense ranked a lowly 29th overall in 2011-12 and 26th overall in 2013-14, while Chicago’s offense ranked just 7th overall in their most recent victory.

Seeking Depth

But how does this all relate to the Blue and White, you ask?

William Nylander
William Nylander is the Leafs top prospect – at the moment. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Well, with the Leafs’ current rebuild well under-way, it is worth noting that, to date, the vast majority of their high-end prospects are primarily forwards. In particular, Toronto boasts the likes of Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, Brendan Leipsic, Nikita Soshnikov and Jeremy Bracco, while the list goes on.

However, the Leafs prospect pool on the blue-line is much more thin.

While Stuart Percy, Scott Harrington and Frank Corrado all possess decent upside and have seen time with the Leafs this season, in no way can they be considered elite NHL prospects. These three could quite possibly develop into NHL defensemen, yet likely will not become top pairing NHL defenders in the future.

Travis Dermott, who plays for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League and was a second round pick of the Leafs in 2015 also has a solid skill set, yet he is the only promising Toronto drafted defender playing in Junior. Otherwise, the most gifted prospective defenseman for Toronto appears to be Connor Carrick, who General Manager Lou Lamoriello considers an ‘A’ prospect.

Martin Marincin, Maple Leafs
Its not likely Martin Marincin will be a Leaf in the long-term. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Further, of those currently playing with the Leafs, it appears safe to say that Martin Marincin will not be with the team long-term, while Jake Gardiner, whose name has floated in and out of trade rumors for a considerable amount of time, could in fact stay put considering how well his game has progressed under new Head Coach Mike Babcock.

As a result, in reality, the only Leafs defenseman who retains true top pairing potential is Morgan Rielly. The fifth overall selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Rielly has all the tools of an elite defender, most notable of which is his incredible skating ability which allows him to enjoy success in both the offensive and defensive zones.

And while the Leafs will surely be looking for defensemen to fill in their second and third defensive pairings, it goes without saying that throughout their rebuild, which will endure over the next number of years, they will be looking to acquire the best players available, whether it be in trade, the annual NHL Draft or free agency, not merely players who can temporarily fill roster spots – especially when it comes to defense.

Defense First

Having determined that defense is quite certainly more important than offense when it comes to winning championships, and that while the Leafs are deep with young forward talent, they lack not only an elite defensive prospect but also depth at the position, the next step is to determine how the Leafs can address this issue.

Jakob Chychrun (Metcalfe Photography)
The Leafs will likely miss out on top defensive prospect Jakob Chychrun. (Metcalfe Photography)

Primarily there is the NHL Draft, which will stand as the Leafs’ major source for acquiring promising young players. Fortunately for Toronto they will not have to wait long to make an impact, as in 2016, the Leafs will enter the Draft with an incredible 12 draft picks, eight of which lay within the first four rounds alone.

As a result, the Leafs must turn their focus to drafting sound young defenders who, given time to develop, will help to anchor a young Toronto team throughout future success. Fortunately for the Leafs, the coming 2016 NHL Entry Draft is laden with ripe defensive talent, most of which will fall in the late-first round and throughout the second, where Toronto retains a number of valuable selections.

Sure, based on their current position and direction in League standings, the Leafs will likely miss out on the top defensive prospects the draft has to offer, namely Jakob Chychrun and Olli Juolevi, but given their wealth of picks, they will have a number of highly skilled d-men to select from in later rounds.

Here are a few in particular who the Leafs could covet at the coming 2016 NHL Draft:

  • Charlie McAvoy (Boston University)

Projected to be selected in the 15-20th overall range, the Leafs could use their first round pick acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins to select McAvoy with their second pick of the draft, which of course is conditional depending on whether the Penguins reach the Playoffs. If the Leafs do retain the pick however, McAvoy would be a solid selection. At 6’1″, 210 pounds, McAvoy is not only a sound defender but is also known for his ability to move the puck, while carrying an offensive edge to his game.

  • Logan Stanley (Windsor)

A massive young defender playing with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, Logan Stanley stands an impressive 6’7″, while he weighs in at 210 pounds. A second year player with the Spitfires, Stanley is not known for offense, which given the Leafs forward prospects will not be an issue, instead, he uses his large frame in a role as an excellent shutdown defender. Stanley could provide the Leafs with an intimidating force on the blue-line and is projected to be selected in the 30-35th overall range, likely where Toronto will use its natural second round selection.

  • Sean Day (Mississauga)

Granted exceptional status by the CHL as a 15 year-old, Sean Day has thus far failed to live up to his lofty expectations, yet has an incredible skill set. Most notable in Day’s game is his skating, which is often compared to that of the great Paul Coffey. At 6’2″, 220 pounds, Day has great size, and moves extremely well considering. He can also bring offense to the table. Projected the be a second round selection, he could fall to the Leafs with the second round pick they acquired from the Washington Capitals.

  • Victor Mete (London)

An elusive and mobile defender who plays with the London Knights of the OHL, Victor Mete is a player which Director of Player Personell Mark Hunter knows well from his role as the current Owner and Vice President of the Knights. At 5’10”, 167 pounds, Mete has room to grow, yet outweighs this deficiency with his sound defending and offensive upside. In his second season with London, Mete has averaged over half a point per game. Projected to be a late second or third round selection, the Leafs could nab the young defender with their natural third round pick in the Draft.

Sticking to the Plan

Clearly, there are a large number of highly talented defenders who will be made available to the Leafs throughout the coming NHL Draft, especially so considering the wealth of picks the Leafs retain this season.

Lou Lamoriello Maple Leafs
Lou Lamoriello and Leafs management have a specific plan in place, now they must follow through. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

However, it is important to remember that this is truly only the first year of a Leafs rebuild which will undoubtedly rage on for another three to five years into the future. Yes, at the moment the Leafs are extremely thin in terms of high-end defensive prospects, yet naturally, this will change as the years pass by and the Leafs continue to collect countless draft picks and prospects.

As we have seen, defense is essential to success in the NHL, and more particularly winning the Stanley Cup. While the Leafs already hold a large number of highly talented forward prospects, come the 2016 Draft, it will be time for Toronto to shift its train of thought to defense, if not goaltending as well.

If the Edmonton Oilers of the past ten years can be applauded for anything, it is that they have shown NHL clubs in similar circumstances how not to progress through a rebuild, selecting forward after forward while neglecting defense.

So, ultimately, if Toronto wishes to find success in the coming future, it has come time to turn to defense, as it is arguably the weakest position on the Leafs roster to date.