Offseason Changes to Leafs Defense

With the season over for the Toronto Maple Leafs, attention turns to the offseason and the expected changes to the Leafs blue line. The Leafs defense has been the talk of the season. Most of it has been focused on how it needs to be improved going into next season. Now it’s easy to say that the Leafs need to bolster their defense, but how will they go about doing that?

The simple answer is with new players on the blue-line. So let’s look into likely scenarios that the Leafs decide to take to better their defense.

Addressing the Defensive Need

Before getting into who the Leafs could end up with on defense next season, we first need to address the reality. It’s not as fun or thrilling as most would like to hear, but the only changes that will happen will likely be for the bottom pairing.

Kevin Shattenkirk (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

The reality is that it’s unlikely that the Leafs acquire a true number one defenseman, this offseason at least. Firstly, the only top-end defenseman potentially available on July 1st would be Kevin Shattenkirk. As much as it would be great to have him on the team, he just isn’t a fit for the Leafs. He’s an offense-first player and the Leafs need help defensively. A defenseman of that elite caliber that the Leafs lack would only come from a trade and it would likely involve one of their young stars going back in exchange.

For now, the focus is on giving the Leafs three defensive pairings that can be trusted when they step on the ice.

From Within the Ranks

Looking through the roster it’s possible that the Leafs needs can be at least partly filled internally.

To start the season the pairing of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak was scary to watch. They were a defensive liability every time they stepped on the ice and they both looked to be playing out of their depth. But down the stretch to the playoffs and during the playoffs they were both great.

Roman Polak (46) and Lars Eller (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s hard to think of that being possible with how horrendous they were to start the season, but they somehow turned it around. With that in mind, it’s possible that the Leafs bring back both Hunwick and Polak for next season. They will both be unrestricted free agents this summer and if they take a pay cut then it might be beneficial to bring them back for one more year.

Spares and the Toronto Marlies

It always seems to get overlooked because these two rarely played for the Leafs, but the Leafs have had two extra defensemen. Martin Marincin and Alexey Marchenko never played much this season and with somewhat good reason. Neither stepped up and impressed when their chance to play came.

Marincin at least looked decent in the playoffs when he replaced Polak after his injury. Other than that, both played forgettable hockey. The only reason why they are worth bringing up is because they are signed for next season and may be a worst case option for the Leafs. That’s assuming neither are taken in the Expansion Draft.

There are a couple of players from the Toronto Marlies that might get a shot in the NHL next season. Travis Dermott, Andrew Nielsen, and Rinat Valiev are the most likely candidates with Dermott sitting at the top. Dermott has unquestionably been the Marlies best defenseman and has especially shined during the AHL playoffs.

The only problem is that all of those defensemen, except Marchenko, are left-handed. So it could mean a lot of competition for just one spot.

To Europe and Free Agency

The other option is Free Agency. There have already been rumbling about certain players and players that some think would be a good fit with the Leafs. In terms of European players, it’s been reported that Calle Rosén could sign with the Leafs after the IIHF World Championships. It was originally reported by The Athletic that the Chicago Blackhawks and the Leafs are the frontrunners to sign Rosén.

Rosén is an interesting name to throw into the already large group of players that could fill the bottom pairing. He is still young at only 23 years old and has been a good defenseman in the SHL. It will be interesting to see where he decides to sign since the Leafs are pretty full on the left side. This is only an issue because coach Mike Babcock likes to have defensemen play on the side that corresponds to their handedness, which means only the bottom pairing spot is open.

A Few Free Agents

Waiting until the start of Free Agency is the last option for the Leafs. While there are a couple of names of interest that the Leafs could target, there aren’t any names that really stand out. Most are aging defensemen well past their prime, but among that there are three names that could be a fit for the Leafs.

Cody Franson has recently been brought up as a possible target for the Leafs. He’s a big man at 6-foot-5 who can bring some physicality to the Leafs and put up points. The only problem with this is that the Leafs have been through this before as Franson played for the Leafs from the 2011-12 season to the 2014-15 season before being traded back to the Nashville Predators.

Mar 15, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; Nashville Predators defenseman Cody Franson (44) before the game against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The only way that I see the Leafs taking a chance on Franson is if he takes a big pay cut since he isn’t worth the money he makes and has wanted in the past. His poor mobility and defensive play are still an issue that will likely hold the Leafs back from making a deal.

A cheaper yet similar option to Franson would be Eric Gryba. He’s coming off a contract where he made just $950,000 and he could be an option at that price. And just like Franson he’s a big guy at 6-foot-4 and with that brings the same mobility issues that the Leafs already have with Polak.

Karl Alzner would also be an interesting addition to the Leafs, for the right price. Alzner could help the Leafs defensive depth and stabilize the bottom pairing. The only issue would be the price. He’s coming off a four-year contract with the Washington Capitals that netted him $2.8 million a season and he is going to be looking for a raise.

Prediction Time

So with all that in mind, what will the Leafs’ defense look like next season? The Leafs top four are going to be the same as this season with the only changes coming to the bottom pairing. Dermott is undoubtedly the best option for the Leafs on the left and bringing Polak back on the right side wouldn’t be a bad idea.

The other options on the right side aren’t much better than Polak has been for the Leafs, but the only problem with Polak would be if he’s fully recovered from his leg injury he sustained in Game 2 of the playoffs.

The lack of options with free agents forces the Leafs to work with what they already have within the organization, and hopefully, that will be enough to make a difference on defense.