The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the NHL’s worst defensive teams in 2016-17.
With 234 pucks bulging their twine, the Leafs’ goals against per game mark of 2.85 was the ninth highest in the league. Further, factor in the ridiculous number of shots which they allowed against per contest – 31.9 – and it becomes quite clear that much improvement is needed on Toronto’s blue line.
One major reason for the team’s lack of success defensively was their virtually non-existent depth.
Not only did the Leafs boast an incredibly young blue line outside of Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick but they had a slim few defenders capable of hopping into the lineup in the case of an injury. The two most common substitutes – Martin Marincin and Alexey Marchenko – both performed admirably during their limited playing time, however, neither ultimately project to develop into stable players at the NHL level.
If Toronto wishes to enjoy sustainable success long into their future, significant upgrades must be made to the team’s defence-core. Now, this doesn’t mean simply adding experienced defenders who can play a depth role but, rather, capable young players who will be able to develop and grow alongside the franchise’s existing young talent.
Fortunately, steps have and continue to be made in order to address this issue.
In order to supplement this glaring need, the Leafs have done their best to improve their franchise in terms of both their skill as well as depth.
Most notably, the organization inked two excellent young defence prospects in Calle Rosén and Andreas Borgman. Of considerable Swedish Hockey League experience, both should see time with the Leafs at the NHL level in the near future following continued development. Given their immense potential, each young ‘Swede could play a major role in Toronto if provided adequate time to acclimate to the North American style of game.
More recently, Toronto nabbed Ron Hainsey on a two-year deal. As a veteran defender and stabilizing presence, Hainsey’s experience and leadership should do wonders for the team’s defence-core as it continues to adapt and attain consistency at hockey’s highest level.
In addition to these recent acquisitions, the Leafs also have a number of prospects who continue to progress in various developmental leagues. Of particular note are Timothy Liljegren, Travis Dermott, Andrew Nielsen, Rinat Valiev, and Justin Holl. Although Liljegren, Dermott, and Nielsen are undoubtedly the more promising of those listed, both Valiev and Holl possess the skills to, potentially, play a depth role with the team down the road.
The Long Shots
So, although the addition and development of those listed above could address Toronto’s depth issues, which defenders are ultimately capable of making a legitimate impact in the near future? And, perhaps more importantly, which player will able to secure the team’s final opening on defence as one of the franchise’s most critical seasons in recent history approaches?
Well, when the 2017-18 campaign begins, I don’t expect to see any of Nielsen, Borgman, Valiev, or Holl on the Leafs’ roster. While all remain relatively young and in good standing within the organization, I feel as though more playing time is required of all four within the American Hockey League before they can stick their landing at the NHL level.
Now, this isn’t to say that none of those listed above will see time with the team next year, only that they will not begin the campaign in a full-time role with the organization at the NHL level. Unless one of these defenders enjoys an excellent training camp and preseason with the team, the entire group will surely open up the coming season with the Marlies.
The Two True Contenders
So, if the likes of Nielsen and Borgman, amongst others, will not begin the coming season at the NHL level, this certainly begs the question of who, in particular, will.
In my opinion, Toronto’s final opening on the blue line will be filled by either Dermott or Rosén. Yes, I know, neither of these two are right-handed shots, however, the Leafs won’t have an elite right-shot defender to legitimately consider until Liljegren’s arrival which remains at least a year away.
The Sturdy Standout: Travis Dermott
Firstly, let’s begin by making the case for Dermott.
Although he has only one season of professional hockey under his belt, Dermott was highly impressive with the Marlies in 2016-17 and quickly became one of the team’s more dependable players. A standout in the eyes of Head Coach Sheldon Keefe, Dermott stepped into the AHL and had little trouble adjusting, as he was a capable force at both ends of the ice. Unfortunately, a lower-body injury forced Dermott from the lineup for a considerable period of time – a rather unlucky situation and one which impacted the Newmarket, Ontario, native’s individual development.
As a highly intelligent two-way defender, Dermott is successful due to his ability to think and analyze the game at a high level. Capable of deciphering the intent of his opponents and able to react accordingly, Dermott plays a shutdown style in his defensive zone while, at the same time, standing as a legitimate threat in the offensive end.
In short, Dermott’s style is tailored for the professional ranks. Although he shot the lights out during his days with the Erie Otters of the OHL, Dermott’s refined and calculated approach has resulted in tremendous prosperity early in his young career.
At just 20 years-of-age, Dermott has plenty of time ahead of himself to further develop and would certainly benefit from considerable experience in the NHL. As a former second-round pick of the team, Dermott could easily progress into a top-four defender at hockey’s highest level, and especially so if the Leafs provide him with ample opportunity to succeed.
The Sensational ‘Swede: Calle Rosén
Although Dermott is an excellent option to fill Toronto’s final void on the blue line, the recently signed Rosén is also a legitimate choice, as his considerable professional experience could give him the deciding advantage in the matter.
Not a great deal was known about Rosén when he signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Leafs in May of 2017. Although it was widely rumoured that Toronto had coveted his services, Rosén’s skill-set and playing style had remained largely unknown to the North American audience.
So, what exactly does the Växjö, Sweden, native bring to the ice?
Well, of solid size, Rosén is a fantastic skater who combines his speed and agility into a reliable style. As a strong puck-handler of incredible composure, Rosén can carry the puck up ice before either passing it off or pounding a hard shot on net. In possession of a powerful release, Rosén’s shot has the ability to overwhelm opposing netminders and can create rebounds with startling frequency for his fellow teammates.
More than capable at both ends of the ice, Rosén is a consistent defender who has no significant weaknesses in his game. Capable of shutting down a developing play defensively before transitioning the puck to his forwards, Rosén is an all-around threat whose complete game should transition well to the NHL level. Further, with nearly 100 games of SHL experience in hand, Rosén’s acclimation to North America should be far less tumultuous than that of most.
The Final Decision
Although both Dermott and Rosén are equally deserving of securing the final opening on the Leafs’ blue line, it goes without saying that only one could begin the 2017-18 NHL season with the team.
So, while Dermott is an incredible young defender whose play seems to improve substantially on an annual basis, my choice as Toronto’s sixth defenceman is none other than the newly inked Rosén.
Slightly older at the age of 23, Rosén’s SHL experience – and success – simply cannot be ignored and will ultimately be crucial to his prosperity as a rookie at the NHL level. As a mature and seasoned skater, Rosén projects to adapt far more quickly to the NHL game than Dermott and, in doing so, will provide the Leafs with a calming presence on their bottom-paring in the immediate future.
Sure, the likes of Nielsen, Dermott, and Borgman could retain individual potential greater than Rosén, however, at this time, Rosén is the most well prepared to tackle this immense challenge. Likely skating with Hainsey on the third pairing, Rosén would be asked to play on the right side, where he will face yet another challenge in his initial campaign.
Yet, what about Marincin and Marchenko? Well, Toronto has arrived at a point in their rebuild where they must make a number of difficult decisions. Although each of the three have made varying contributions to the organization, the Leafs must now decide whether or not they hold a distinct place within the team’s future. If not, General Manager Lou Lamoriello must move on from these prospects and allow the many others waiting eagerly in the wings to absorb much desired playing time.
So, while Rosén is my choice to crack Toronto’s lineup to begin the 2017-18 campaign, his selection would be anything but a definitive decision for the Leafs. Although he is arguably the most NHL-ready defender within the organization, such will not necessarily be the case in the not so distant future as others – namely Liljegren, Dermott, and Nielsen – continue to develop and improve.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.