Maple Leafs Need to Build Strong a Defensive Core

There’s an old adage that says offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. That can be applied in  virtually all sports today, but the sentiment rings especially true when thinking about NHL hockey. The Toronto Maple Leafs are embarking on the first full scale rebuild in many years.

They have started to stock up on young and talented players, many of whom are in the forward ranks. William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Dmytro Timashov and the newly acquired, Tobias Lindberg, are all perfect examples. If the Buds get a top three pick in the upcoming draft, they will also more than likely be taking a forward.

Depending on their position, one of Auston Matthews, Patrick Laine or Jesse Puljujärvi could be available, and the Blue and White would be crazy to pass up on one of these complete players.

The Maple Leafs are having significant trouble scoring goals. That part of their game is not a secret by any stretch. That’s what all the forward talent being drafted and developed is aiming to fix. They still, however, need significant help on the defensive side of the puck in order to be considered a legitimately good squad.

Defence Wins Championships

If you look at the last five Stanley Cup champions, you see the Boston Bruins once and the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings twice each. What do all of those teams have in common? They all won the Cup on the back of strong scoring and rock steady defense and goaltending.

Boston had Chara anchoring the defense. The Kings have Drew Doughty, who is a perennial Norris candidate every year. Chicago has Duncan Keith, one of the best defensemen in the league right now. Let’s dive deeper into Chicago’s defensive core from last year.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Duncan Keith in action. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

They had the aforementioned Keith, who was a workhorse and their number one man on the blueline. Next up was Brent Seabrook, who compliments Keith nicely, and is always used in the toughest situations, whether that be tying the game with a minute left or holding the lead as his opponents pour on the pressure.

Niklas Hjalmarsson is as solid as they come. I’d even go so far as to say he’s one of the most underrated defensemen in the league today. He handles the top lines of the other teams and rarely looks out of place on the ice.  Combining him with Johnny Oduya, make for a solid pair of defenders who could form a shutdown pairing with little trouble.

Then there was everyone else. Kimmo Timonen, Trevor van Riemsdyk, David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey formed the rotating core of players who skated on the bottom pairings and would take the occasional shift. Each stepped up in their own way as the Hawks continued their march to the Cup.

Follow the Hawks Model

If the Leafs want to be successful in the future, following the model set by the Hawks is all but imperative. Three of their top defensemen, (Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson) were all drafted and developed by the Hawks.  The rest of their core was was then made up of players they traded for as they geared up for a deep run.

This is the role model for the Maple Leafs. They have a solid foundation in Morgan Rielly, who looks to  be one of the cornerstones of the franchise rebuild.

They also have Jake Gardiner, but he’s more of a boom or bust option most nights. The Leafs need solid defensemen, especially through the draft. They made a good start last year by selecting Andrew Nielsen in the third round of this past draft. He’s got a well-rounded set of skills and currently has 55 points in 53 games with Lethbridge this season.

The Toronto Marlies have some prospective Leafs defenders including Stuart Percy, Victor Loov and Scott Harrington. A decision on all three of those players will be made in the not too distant future.

Don’t forget about Russian sensation Nikita Zaitev, the experienced KHL veteran who will be making the jump to the Maple Leafs this coming summer. The smooth skating defenseman is only 24-years-old and possesses a complete repertoire to work with when he lands in Toronto.

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How about the trade market? Jacob Trouba would be an excellent candidate for the Maple Leafs to pursue. He’s 21-years-old and is a stalwart on the Jets blueline. He’s young, big and has the talent to play in any zone on the ice. The former ninth overall pick also shoots right, which is something the Maple Leafs could definitely use.

Defense wins championships. If the Maple Leafs want to build a strong team for the future, having competent and talented players patrolling the blueline is a must.