Maple Leafs Will See Tight Competition for Defensive Roster Spots

While the Maple Leafs have an overabundance of forwards fighting it out for a half dozen roster spots, things are much quieter on the defensive side of the roster. According to CapFriendly, the Maple Leafs have 49 contracts signed, counting Joshua Ho-Sang’s PTO. Of those contracts, 15 of those players signed are defensemen. Ultimately, both the Maple Leafs, and the team’s AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies will be staffed from this pool.  

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Are the Maple Leafs Happy with their Organization’s Defensemen?

The first thing the high number of defensive signings tells us is that the Maple Leafs can’t be satisfied that they have enough defensive depth to cover both the NHL and AHL. However, at the same time, the high number of signings means they’re close to reaching the contract limit of 50

Most teams don’t want to use all their 50 contracts, because it limits future dealings. For example, you can’t trade one player and bring back two in return.  That said, we’re sure Brandon Pridham, the Maple Leafs’ salary-cap guru, has a handle on that.  

Fifteen Defensemen to Fill Seven or Eight Maple Leafs’ Roster Spots

As it stands, the Maple Leafs have 15 defensemen signed to potentially fill seven or eight roster spots. The ideal situation for an NHL team to carry eight defensemen. That way, there’s a left-side and right-side defenseman in reserve, without having to worry about waivers. With the Maple Leafs being as close to the cap as they are, carrying eight defensemen might be a luxury they can’t afford. 

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are also waiver-exempt players to consider, because these players can move back and forth freely between the NHL and AHL. Unlike the forward situation, where the team only has one player who might be NHL-ready that is waiver exempt (Nick Robertson), the Maple Leafs have more waiver-exempt options available on defense. 

What Defensive Jobs Are Available on the Maple Leafs?

To discover which defensive positions are already filled, all we have to do is to look at the expansion-draft-protection list. In the expansion draft, each team had the option of (a) protecting either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, for a total of 11 players; or (b) protecting eight players from any position and one goalie, for a total of nine players. 

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The Maple Leafs choose the second option so they could protect four defensemen. That’s a pretty clear indication of who’s important to the Maple Leafs’ roster. Those four defensemen were Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, and Justin Holl. 

That these four players were on the expansion-draft-protection list tells us that, barring trades or injuries, the team has four defensive roster spots covered by those four players. That most likely leaves three spots open.  

Who’s Available for the Final Three or Four Defensive Spots?

First, we’ll look at the incumbents and then the newcomers to assess their possibilities. 

Incumbent Defenseman #1: Timothy Liljegren

Timothy Liljegren was drafted with much hype as the 17th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He’d been listed as high as third on some scouts lists until mononucleosis sidelined him for a large part of his draft year. 

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Marlies
Timothy Liljegren, with the Toronto Marlies (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Liljegren has had a longer journey through the minors than most people expected; and, the road to becoming an NHL-regular player hasn’t yet materialized. To be honest, there’s no guarantee he’s there yet. His four-season AHL development seemed to stall, and he’s had mixed results in the 13 NHL games he’s played.  

Fortunately for the Maple Leafs’ organization, Liljegren seemed to find his game last season with the Marlies. He could be ready for, at the least, a part-time role with the team. In fact, general manager Kyle Dubas has stated he wanted to give Liljegren some NHL time this season. 

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If Liljegren is to make it, training camp will be crucial for his success. However, he’s still waiver-exempt; and, it might be tempting for the organization to give him more time with the Marlies because it’s easiest. If he is to make the Maple Leafs’ roster, that means someone else must be put on waivers. The fact that Liljegren can move up and down freely might actually work in his favor, because he could see playing time with both the Maple Leafs and the Marlies. 

Incumbent Defenseman #2: Travis Dermott

Travis Dermott went from possible expansion-draft target to being re-signed for two more years by the Maple Leafs. Looking back at his career, he went from playing juniors for the Erie Otters in 2015-16 to playing regularly for the Maple Leafs during the 2017-18 season. At one time, he seemed destined for a top-four role with the Maple Leafs. Then, his career trajectory seemed to stall. 

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

Specifically, his injury at the end of the 2018-19 season caused him to lose the entire summer of 2019; and, he never seemed to recover. His ice time fell from over 17 minutes-per-game in 2019-20 to just over 13 minutes-per-game in 2021. 

He was even a healthy scratch at times last season. One thing in his favor is that he can play either the right-side or the left-side on defense. Furthermore, he can move up the pairings if needed.

Incumbent Defenseman #3: Rasmus Sandin

This is Rasmus Sandin’s season to show what he can do. Sandin has the tools to be a good defenseman. Because it also appears that Morgan Rielly will be gone at the end of the 2021-22 season (if not before), the Maple Leafs and Sandin need to see if he can even partially fill Rielly’s skates. 

We expect to see him getting more power-play time. He’ll start on the third pair, but we expect to see his ice time slowly increase as the season progresses. However, Keefe must be careful. Because Sandin has played only 42 NHL games, including regular season and playoffs, and still must be sheltered. His two giveaways in the Canadiens’ playoff series suggests his inexperience. 

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Although it’s expected that Sandin will have gained a full-time role coming out of camp, that’s not a given. He’s still waiver-exempt; and, if he has a bad camp, which we don’t really expect, he could still find himself in the AHL. 

The Newcomers on Defense

Defenseman #1: Brennan Menell

The Maple Leafs acquired the un-drafted Brennan Menell from the Minnesota Wild for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. The condition is that Menell must play 30 games with the Maple Leafs this season. Menell is smallish, in terms of NHL defensemen, at 5-foot-11 and 175-pounds. He’s also skilled and appears NHL-ready. 

Mennell played five games for the Wild last season, and averaged 13:39 of ice time. He didn’t score a point. However, over the past three seasons, he put up great AHL numbers for the Iowa Wild. In 210 regular-season and AHL playoff games, he scored 15 goals and 120 points. 

Brennan Menell Minnesota Wild
Brennan Menell, with the Minnesota Wild (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Mennell is now 24 years old, but he’s not waiver-exempt. He could conceivably make the team if he has a killer training camp. If the Maple Leafs decide they want a skill player as their seventh defenseman, he could be that player. 

Defenseman #2: Carl Dahlstrom 

Carl Dahlstron was drafted as the 51st choice by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound left hander played 49 games for the Blackhawks before being claimed off waivers by the Winnipeg Jets in October 2019. He played only 15 games for the Jets before being traded to the Vegas Golden Knight with a fourth-round pick for Paul Stastny.  

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Although Dahlstrom is not waiver-exempt, last season with the Golden Knights he cleared waivers. He was signed by the Maple Leafs to a two-way contract on July 28th and might just be the reincarnation of Martin Marincin. Similar to Marincin, he’s not physical for a bigger player and averages less than a hit each game. However, if the team wants size in their seventh defenseman, Dahlstrom could be their guy.  

Defenseman #3: Alex Biega

At 33-years-of-age, Alex Biega has had a professional career that’s spanned 11 seasons (seven in the NHL). In short, he’s no spring chicken. He’s smaller for an NHL defenseman, standing 5-foot-10; but, he’s a solid 200 pounds. He’s also physical. During his 241 NHL games, he’s totalled 619 hits.  

Biega’s experience and physical play, along with the fact he’s a right-hander, could give him an advantage competing for the seventh spot on defense. He’s on a two-way contract and could also fill a physical role for the Marlies, but he’d have to clear waivers first. 

Our Predictions for the 13th Defensemen for Opening Night

The two players we expect to see step on the ice as the third pairing for the Maple Leafs on October 13 against the Canadiens are Sandin and Dermott. 

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The question is, will Timothy Liljegren be the seventh defenseman on the roster on that date? Or, will one of Biega, Dahlstrom, or Menell have that honor?

[Note: Again I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]