Reshaping the Maple Leafs’ Defense for Next Season

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t played well of late. Frederik Andersen seems tired and two Maple Leafs defensemen are out with broken feet. Maybe it’s time to take a break from the general sense of euphoria since Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach of the Maple Leafs on Nov. 20 and ask a difficult question. Does this team have the resources to make the postseason playoffs this season?

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It’s been a tough season in several ways, with the change in the coaching staff from the legendary Mike Babcock to the up-and-coming Keefe, to injuries to key players, to difficult roster moves associated with salary-cap issues that won’t go away quickly. Finally, the team’s core of young stars is exactly as the adjective suggests – young. The Maple Leafs ice the fourth-youngest team in the NHL.

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe
Former Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe, second left, celebrates with his coaching and training staff (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Obviously, anything can happen during an NHL season with a dynamic on-ice product. That’s the fun of the game. The Maple Leafs might be fortunate enough to make the postseason playoffs; and, if they do, because their offense has great firepower, their defense is adequate when everyone’s healthy, and Andersen can stop lots of rubber when he’s hot, the Maple Leafs would have a great chance for success.

Accepting a Realistic Scenario for the Maple Leafs?

However, as I’ve watched the team’s season unfold, I’m wondering whether Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas don’t already believe this year’s team is simply too young, both in age and in their organization, to be a Stanley Cup contender. By organization, I mean the way Dubas and now Keefe have created this team.

I believe that, because Babcock was the coach when the season began, his presence delayed building a team in the image Dubas had – for good or for bad – of how hockey should be played at the NHL level. It will take Dubas and Keefe another season at least to incarnate that vision. I also believe this year’s salary-cap has limited the team but, in the near future – sort of like looking back at the contract William Nylander’s signed last season, won’t seem as debilitating as people saw it in 2019-20. Simply stated, the salary cap will increase and when it does the Maple Leafs will have more room to stock their cupboard.

William Nylander, Morgan Reilly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammate William Nylander. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

For all its ups and downs, I’ve enjoyed watching this season’s team. But, when I look up from the short-term vision that’s this season, it seems more realistic that next year’s team will make the jump into contender status. In this postseason, I’m not so worried about the Boston Bruins, but if I’m honest I don’t think the Maple Leafs can beat the Washington Capitals or the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2019-20 playoffs. If I were a betting man, I’d go all-in on the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin.

Related: The Maple Leafs Are Going to Need Cap Relief

Obviously, as I reread what I just wrote, I realize the statement I just made is so typical of how Maple Leafs fans have been talking year after year after year.

So, What Should the Maple Leafs Do?

If, in fact, this season isn’t the season that the Maple Leafs have a long Stanley Cup playoff run, and the team’s leadership knows that right now, how should the team prepare for next year? Specifically, what’s the wisest course of organizational action to build a team next season that has the best chance to make the Stanley Cup playoffs and make a run in the Stanley Cup Final?

I believe next season’s changes must focus on building a strong defense. In this post, I’ll speculate about how that defense should be built. For several seasons, the team’s defense has been its Achilles’ heel.

Travis Dermott Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott (AP Photo/John Locher)

In contrast, I believe the team has enough offensive firepower in its big-four forwards. Captain John Tavares is good; goalscorer Auston Matthews and two-way genius Mitch Marner are growing their games; and, young William Nylander is finally beginning to look like he’s worth what he’s paid.

One more year of seasoning won’t hurt the forwards. But, how can the Maple Leafs build a solid team around these four good forwards?

The Maple Leafs Defense as It Stands Currently

Currently, the CBS sports Maple Leafs Depth chart lists the team’s left-side defensemen: Travis Dermott, Martin Marincin, Rasmus Sandin, and Jake Muzzin (injured). The right-side defensemen include Justin Holl, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Morgan Rielly (injured).

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Of those players, who’ll return next season? I believe the team hopes to keep all its left-shot defensemen. That means re-signing Muzzin to a new contract when his expires at the end of the season. In fact, there are rumors that these talks are beginning. From what I read, besides Muzzin being a steady on-ice influence, he shows leadership in the dressing room. Those aspects are things the team really needs more of. He’s a good soldier and a good example. That’s important.

On the right side, which has been an issue for the Maple Leafs and many other NHL teams, Holl has proved his value and has been re-signed. Rielly is an amazingly good defenseman and, when he returns from his injury, will reassume a defensive leadership role. Barrie and Ceci will likely move on. Even if the salary cap rises, there’s simply not enough room under the cap to re-sign both Muzzin and Barrie.

Cody Ceci Toronto Maple Leafs
Cody Ceci, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For Ceci, the jury seems to have delivered its verdict: both analytics and practical wisdom suggests that Ceci’s skill does not match his level of compensation. Obviously, it would be nice if the Maple Leafs could trade him for a prospect or two to a team at the trade deadline, but even letting him walk at the end of the season and erasing his salary would seem like a victory. I can’t envision complaints about that particular move.

What Defensemen Are with the Toronto Marlies?

The three Toronto Marlies’ defenseman currently with the Leafs (Marincin, Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren) seem to exhaust what’s currently available on the Marlies’ roster for being called-up this season or as part of the Maple Leafs roster next season. The only player I can see on the Marlies’ roster with a chance of making the team’s roster is Ben Harpur.

Who knows, Harpur might be a Justin Holl in the wings. This season, the surprising Holl proved to be a solid NHL defenseman and, as he should be, his strong play was recognized and rewarded with a new contract.

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Perhaps Harpur’s in that same position. I’d like to see the Maple Leafs give him a chance to develop at the NHL level, especially because, like Holl, he’s big. Harpur is 6-foot-6 and 231 pounds; Holl is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. Both have good size for NHL defensemen and the team certainly could use that size.

What Will Happen to Boost the Maple Leafs Defense?

Next season, Rielly, Dermot, Holl, Sandin, and Marincin are locked into contracts. I believe the team will sign Muzzin and trade or let both Ceci and Barrie leave. Based on that prediction, I believe the team should trade for a solid defenseman who comes with term on his contract. The team might take a chance on Liljegren if they think he has the skills to make it. However, if they think he lacks NHL potential they’ll need to add two NHL defensemen.

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As much as I’d hate to see either Kapanen or Johnsson go, I believe the Maple Leafs have solid players in Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, and Mason Marchment. I also like Kerfoot and hope he stays. Third, I think Spezza will remain a good fit for another season.

Jason Spezza Toronto Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Thus, I think two of the three young players (Kapanen, Johnsson, or Kerfoot) become trade pieces that will be useful to acquire a solid No. 5 defenseman. Whether it happens at the end of this season or in the offseason won’t really matter; it’s really a move for next season.

A New Maple Leafs Backup Goalie

After the team’s need for a No. 5 defenseman, I think they need a proven backup goalie. Those who’ve read my posts over the last year know I like Hutchinson. I think he could have been given a better chance – especially by Babcock. Keefe has given him better opportunities and Hutchinson has responded. Really, when you look at recent numbers and don’t focus on the won-lost record, you could even make the case that Hutchinson has played better than Andersen over the last while. I think that’s an aberration, but I also think it’s accurate.

However, I don’t think Hutchinson will remain as the team’s backup. I think they’ll sign another goalie during the offseason.

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Finally, should the Maple Leafs become sellers during the regular season, there’s a good chance two of the three of Kapanen, Johnsson, and Kerfoot will be moved for a defenseman. Over the next while, unless the Maple Leafs go on an extended hot streak as they did when Keefe first took over as coach, it will be interesting to see whether the team’s leadership believes it will or won’t be contenders this season. We’ll see soon enough.