Predicting the Maple Leafs’ Bottom Defense Pairing

There was no shortage of offseason moves fashioned by general manager Kyle Dubas and his staff this summer. The Maple Leafs have a new bottom-six center duo, a couple of new right-shot defenders, a couple of backup goaltending candidates and a wealth of league-minimum contracts that were handed out to depth players, most of whom will suit up for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies this season.

There were blue line additions, Tyson Barrie and Codi Ceci, and there were also subtractions in Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev. Further complicating matters down the defensive depth chart is Travis Dermott’s shoulder injury that required surgery in mid-May. We know who the top four will be in the form of Morgan Rielly, Barrie, Jake Buzzin and Ceci, however, Toronto’s bottom pair on defense will be open spots in September’s training camp. Let’s have a look at some of the candidates for these roles before deciding on the best bet to fill them.

Left Side

Ben Harpur

Harpur was the less-talked-about piece acquired from the Ottawa Senators in the same deal that brought fellow blueliner Cody Ceci to Toronto. A veteran of 103 NHL games in parts of four seasons with the Senators, Harpur stands at 6-foot-6 and weighs in excess of 220 lbs, size head coach Mike Babcock adores on his bottom pairing, especially in a penalty-killing role. Harpur is on a one-way deal with a $725,000 cap hit for the 2019-20 season. With just one goal and seven points across those 103 contests, his role will be limited to a stay-at-home style while contributing on the penalty kill.

Ottawa Senators Ben Harpur Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Former Senators defenseman Ben Harpur was an additional piece added to the deal that brought Cody Ceci to Toronto. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

Martin Marincin

Maple Leafs fans are familiar with Marincin by now, for better or worse. Seemingly a Babcock favorite given his lengthy tenure with the club and repeated second (and third) chances despite mostly suspect performances on the blue line, Marincin also has the size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) that the Leafs’ bench boss covets on his bottom pairing and penalty killing group. He re-upped with the Maple Leafs in the offseason on a one-year, one-way deal worth $700,000. With just four goals and 30 points in 201 NHL games, Marincin’s role is almost identical to that of Harpur’s.

Kevin Gravel

Gravel, a 27-year-old former member of the L.A. Kings and Edmonton Oilers, was brought on board this summer on a one-year, one-way deal that carries a cap hit of $700,000. The Michigan native has skated in 106 career NHL contests across parts of four seasons, tallying a goal and 12 assists to go along with a minus-two rating. Quite similar to Harpur and Marincin, Gravel’s role will be of the limited variety given his skill-set, mostly for defensive zone draws and on the penalty kill. Another big body at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, Gravel fits the Babcock bill in turns of size, at the very least.

Rasmus Sandin

By far the sexiest pick among Maple Leafs fans, Sandin is coming off one of the most impressive rookie defensemen seasons in AHL history. At just 18-years-old entering the season, Sandin posted 6 goals and 28 points across 44 regular season games – despite dealing with a pair of injuries – with the Marlies before tallying 10 points – all assists – across 13 postseason contests.

The smooth-skating Swede was the club’s first-round pick in 2018, number 29 overall. The Leafs scoffed at promoting him last season when Dermott was first sidelined with the shoulder injury, however a strong camp could earn him a spot on the big club at just 19 years of age, at least to start.

Right Side

Justin Holl

Holl was actually a full-time member of the Maple Leafs last season, although he skated in just 11 contests and spent the remaining 71 games watching from the press box. Another big body at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Holl gained quick fame as a Maple Leaf in just two games in the 2017-18 season by becoming the first Maple Leafs defenseman in 100 years and just the sixth of all-time to score two goals in his first two NHL games on consecutive nights.

Justin Holl Maple Leafs
Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl quickly entered the record books in his first taste of NHL action in the 2017-18 season. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

That said, offense isn’t the name of Holl’s game at the NHL level as he recorded just one assist in 11 NHL contests last season despite tallying a solid 7 goals and 28 points across 60 AHL games in the 2017-18 campaign.

Jordan Schmaltz

Acquired this summer in a deal with the St. Louis Blues that sent left-shot defenseman Andreas Borgman the other way, Schmaltz has skated in 42 NHL games in parts of three seasons for the Blues, tallying five assists in the process. The older brother of Arizona Coyotes forward Nick Schmaltz, Jordan is yet another member of this list who doesn’t possess much offensive upside from the back end. The University of North Dakota alum posted just two assists in 20 NHL contests last year while tallying a goal and eight helpers across 36 games in the AHL. He follows the trend of big-bodied depth additions to the Maple Leafs’ blue line this summer, standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing 200 pounds.

Timothy Liljegren

Similar to Sandin on the left side, fellow Swedish rear guard Timothy Liljegren will be given a shot to see if he can crack the lineup at training camp. The Maple Leafs’ first-round pick from 2017 (17th overall), Liljegren tallied 3 goals and 15 points across an injury-plagued, 43-game season with the Marlins last season. Liljegren was once a top-five projected pick in 2017, however his draft stock fell thanks to a bout of mononucleosis and a subpar performance on his return.

Marlies defenseman Timothy Liljegren
Maple Leafs prospect Timothy Liljegren has an opening to crack the opening night roster.(Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He hasn’t impressed in the minors at the level fellow Swede Sandin accomplished last season, however, his extra year of development in the AHL could give him a leg up on his good friend in terms of cracking the opening night roster.

Safest Bet


First of all, there’s a very good chance that at least the left side of the Maple Leafs’ bottom pairing will be interchanged to begin the season. In all likelihood, Marincin and Harpur will be in and out of the lineup based on performance as well as have a chance to remain with the big club once Dermott returns sometime in November. However, as we’ve seen time and time again in Babcock’s tenure, Marincin will likely get the benefit of the doubt, in part thanks to his work with the Marlies (from ‘Marincin an unlikely hero in Marlie playoff run,’ Toronto Sun, 05/26/2018).

Martin Marincin, Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock favorite Martin Marincin likely has the benefit of the doubt to start the season on the team’s bottom pairing. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Babcock appreciates Marincin’s work on the penalty kill and he likes his size. The same goes for Holl. Holl has shown some offensive upside at the AHL level, and while he won’t be asked to contribute anywhere but in his own end in the NHL, the fact that they kept him on the NHL roster for all of last season gives him a leg up on the competition. Furthermore, the competition on the right side of the blue line is notably weaker than the options on the left.

As for the Swedish youngsters Sandin and Liljegren, there’s going to be hesitation to throw young rookies into the fire in an Eastern Conference that contains dynamite offenses in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers, among others. This league is exceedingly tough on young defensemen, and this duo will be no exception. Injuries can always change the pair’s trajectory, and Sandin is close, but I expect further seasoning in the minors for both while the Leafs exercise the depth they noticeably acquired this summer.

While the top four has improved and should have fans excited, the Maple Leafs’ bottom pairing will remain bland and boring, at least for the time being.