When the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was certainly disappointing.
However, the Leafs were never supposed to legitimately challenge for an NHL championship – well, at least not this soon. As a developing young team in the midst of a long-term, comprehensive rebuild, most were expecting a prolonged period of ineptitude rather than sensational short-term success.
Yet, although Toronto had enjoyed unforeseen prosperity in 2016-17, their elimination at the hands of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals emphasized a number of glaring weaknesses within the team and its roster as a whole.
Primarily, the Leafs lacked adequate depth and skill on defence.
Come to the end of this past season, Toronto was one of the NHL’s poorest teams defensively. Surrendering the ninth-most goals in the league with 234, the Leafs’ 2.85 goals against per game was one of the worst marks in the NHL.
Fortunately, Toronto has already taken a number of steps to ensure that this deficiency does not develop into a long term inadequacy. To begin, the organization inked Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman to entry-level contracts. Further, the ‘Buds nabbed the highly touted Timothy Liljegren 17th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft – a choice which added yet another talented ‘Swede to their prospect cupboard.
However, pending an incredible training camp, none of the three mentioned above will begin the 2017-18 season at the NHL level. In addition, with both Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick potentially moving on in Free Agency, the Leafs will have two roster spots to fill on their back end – both of which on the third defence pairing.
So, with arguably no defence prospect ready for considerable playing time at hockey’s highest level, Toronto will have to seriously consider the coming free agent market and the vast number of UFA’s which it will possess. Luckily, there are a wealth of depth defenders who, provided the right contract and financial term, could make an immediate and substantial impact with the Leafs this coming season.
Here are five of the top free agents, sorted alphabetically, which Toronto must consider signing in order to add both depth and skill to their defence-core.
The fifth overall selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Karl Alzner has long been a staple on the Washington Capitals’ blue line. Blessed with fantastic size and a sound hockey I.Q., Alzner has played in 540 consecutive regular season games and is as reliable as they come.
Unfortunately, Washington’s blue line has become rather congested of late. While the team is certainly pleased to have an elite top-four in Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and John Carlson, the overwhelming skill home to the Capitals’ defence-core has left Alzner on the outside looking in. In fact, the Burnaby, British Columbia, native averaged 19:47 of ice time during the 2016-17 season – the second-lowest total of his career since establishing himself as an everyday player.
As such, it goes without saying that Alzner will hit the open market on July 1st in search of greater opportunity. One option which could appeal to the defender is none other than the Leafs – an organization long in search of an additional top-four defenceman.
In Toronto, Alzner would surely be provided with the opportunity to skate upwards of 20:00 per game and in a variety of roles. In desperate need of a strong yet stable blueliner, Alzner would be a perfect fit on a Leafs team in need of grit and intensity on their back end.
Francois Beauchemin is a seasoned veteran and one of the most experienced defenders set to become a UFA on July 1. With over 800 career games under his belt, Beauchemin has long been regarded as one of the most consistent and reliable defenders in the game.
In fact, it wasn’t long ago that Beauchemin skated for the Leafs. Signed by the club as a free agent in 2009, the Sorel, Quebec, native appeared in 136 games for Toronto and recorded seven goals and 38 points in the process. However, Beauchemin isn’t known for his offensive capabilities, as despite possessing a solid shot, the veteran prides himself on playing a defensively responsible style of game.
Although he is 37 years old and on the heels of a buyout, Beauchemin is as aggressive as they come and is more than willing to do whatever it takes for his team to record a win. With plenty of gas left in the tank, a return to the Leafs would surely be a comfortable one for the veteran, who could be a fixture on the team’s third pairing as well as a presence off of the ice in the dressing room.
Yet another highly experienced defender who could be on Toronto’s radar is Trevor Daley.
Fresh off of two consecutive Stanley Cup Championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins, it recently came to light that the Toronto, Ontario, native will, in fact, not return to Pittsburgh for the 2017-18 campaign. With nearly 900 NHL contests under his belt and an offensive edge to his game, could the highly coveted defender be eyeing a return to his hometown?
If so, Daley would immediately occupy a role within the Leafs’ top two pairings. Familiar with logging well over 20:00 of ice time per game, Daley would instill even greater energy and potency into an already lethal Toronto attack. A skilled playmaker with the ability to run a power play, Daley could be utilized in multiple roles and, in doing so, take a great deal of pressure off of the Leafs’ developing young defencemen at both ends of the ice.
Having recently concluded a six-year deal with an average annual value of $3.3 million, Daley’s desired price tag is one which could potentially put Toronto in a bind. Although adding Daley would be a terrific signing, the Leafs need to ensure they possess adequate cap space for the looming contracts of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner. If Toronto can persuade Daley to take a hometown discount, his presence on the team’s blue line would be of immense benefit.
Like Beauchemin, Dan Girardi also had his contract bought out following the 2016-17 season – a situation which has left the long-time New York Rangers defender in search of a new home.
In fairness, his cap hit of $5.5 million was large and, respectively, somewhat inflated given his particular skill set. With an additional three years remaining on his contract at the time of the buyout, the Rangers clearly assessed that the money to be freed up through Girardi’s departure would be better off spent elsewhere within the organization.
Now, this isn’t to say that Girardi is a poor defender, as his gritty style of play and willingness to block shots remains a highly valuable commodity in today’s NHL. So, if the Leafs were to consider signing Girardi, it would be done in order to obtain those exact traits. Ideally, Girardi could fill one of Toronto’s two openings on their third pairing. Utilized in a lesser role as well as on the penalty kill, Girardi’s presence would, like that of Beauchemin, be of great benefit to the Leafs on and off of the ice.
Although a great many dislike Girardi given his poor analytical statistics, at the age of 33, the Welland, Ontario, native remains an extremely capable and competent NHL defender. Perhaps overplayed while with the Rangers, inking Girardi and playing him in a less stressful role could pay major dividends.
Kevin Shattenkirk has long been one of the NHL’s most lethal defenders. An excellent puck-mover who can read and react to the play with ease, Shattenkirk boasts an overwhelming shot and one which has made him a fixture on the power play regardless of where he has skated.
At the conclusion of a four-year deal worth $4.25 million annually, Shattenkirk is looking to land a contract of immense value – a deal which could come quite easily given the weak free agent class of 2017. Undoubtedly searching for a multi-year contract, Shattenkirk should be able to command a long-term deal which will pay him upwards of $5.5 million per season.
As far as the Leafs are concerned, landing Shattenkirk is a long shot. Although the team has long been searching for a legitimate number-one defender and one who can lead a power play with ease, signing Shattenkirk to such a deal would risk the well-being of the team’s future. With a number of critical contracts to be negotiated in the near future, Toronto would surely not prioritize inking a free agent rather than one of their budding young stars.
As such, landing Shattenkirk is and will likely remain simply a dream for the Leafs. Unless Lou Lamoriello can concoct a trade or two and, in the process, move a substantial amount of previously committed salary, Toronto will be forced to pass on one of the NHL’s top defensive talents.
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at email@example.com.