The Toronto Maple Leafs are right in the thick of the playoff race. It’s a fight that many people honestly didn’t expect them to be in at this point and time. The previous season saw the team finish dead last, which eventually paid huge dividends in the form of the first overall pick.
That selection turned into Auston Matthews, the teenage phenom who is currently taking the Leafs and the NHL by storm. He’s the Leafs leader in both points and goals and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Buoyed by Matthews and other super rookies, the team is clawing tooth and nail for the opportunity to make the postseason. Many predicted the Leafs would be a bottom five team in the league this year. Toronto’s rookies had something to say about that and decided to carry the team within striking distance of a spot.
If the Leafs hope to consistently make the postseason and be competitive in the coming years, they have some work to do, specifically starting this summer.
Upgrade the Defense
There have been many amazing moments from the Leafs this season. Matthews scoring four goals in his NHL debut. William Nylander with his first career NHL hat-trick against the Boston Bruins. Mitch Marner wheeling up the ice and setting up anyone in the Blue and White with a gorgeous seeing-eye pass.
Those were all good moments. However, there have been some moments that make you stare and shake your head in frustration. Blown coverage in the defensive zone that led to a scoring chance or a goal. The inability to clear the puck out of their own zone.
Maybe the most upsetting is the blown leads. The recent California road trip really punctuated this point. I realize that these are the mistakes of a young team who is trying to gain valuable NHL experience. They are tough lessons to learn, for both the players and the fan base.
One way the Leafs can help themselves out is by upgrading the defense this coming summer. The blueline has been one of the team’s weaknesses throughout the 2016-17 season. There are some good pieces on it such as Morgan Rielly or Jake Gardiner, but an upgrade is desperately needed.
A perfect target is Karl Alzner, who is currently anchoring the blue line for the Washington Capitals. Alzner is a rugged, shutdown defenseman who can play 25 minutes a night. He’s calm and poised and would provide a much-needed defensive presence.
Other potential options include a pair of Buffalo Sabres including Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson. Both are unrestricted free agents this summer who will be looking for new deals. The Leafs were linked to both at the deadline and it would be worth kicking tires to see if they would be a good fit for a blue line revamp.
Focus on Drafting A Stud Defenseman
The last few years the Maple Leafs have taken forwards with their first round picks. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as that has netted the Leafs the likes of Nylander, Marner and Matthews. Al three are playing a prominent role in the lineup this season.
It’s time for the Leafs to focus on drafting and developing a young and talented defenseman. Before we continue, it’s not to say the Leafs don’t have any young defense prospects already in the works. The most prominent are Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott, who are both plying their trade with the Marlies in the AHL.
The Leafs will probably be selecting in the high teens this upcoming draft. Three potential defensemen to take include Cal Foote, Nick Hague and Juuso Valimaki.
The comparisons are there, but Cal Foote doesn't feel any pressure following in his father's footsteps #NHLDraft https://t.co/TC1ME9xemb pic.twitter.com/wFJKkdxyk1
— FCHockey (@FCHockey) February 22, 2017
The Kelowna Rockets have developed some quality defensemen over the years. Famous NHL alumni include Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Tyson Barrie. Foote is a valuable right shot defenseman and typically plays a two-way game. He’s a decent skater and is able to play with an edge if necessary.
Hague is a giant at six feet, six inches and 207 pounds. He’s a smooth skater who is able to use his body positioning in either the offensive or defensive zone. He’s also able to play a physical game which is greatly benefitted by his height and weight.
Valimaki is a left-handed defenseman playing his draft year in Tri-City of the WHL. The Finnish rearguard is mobile, smart and positionally sound. He’s typically known as a safe player and one that likes to be the final line of defense whenever he’s on the ice.
The key to building a winning team is through the draft. If the Leafs are looking to contend for the future, drafting and developing one of these defenders would go a long way in ensuring their success.
A Solid Backup
Frederik Andersen has been asked this season to play more games than he’s ever played before. He’s the Leafs number one goaltender and is being trotted out on a nightly basis because of it. Unfortunately, Andersen can’t play all 82 games.
That’s why the Leafs need to acquire a valuable veteran backup to share the load with the Dane. They tried at the beginning of the year when they picked up Jhonas Enroth. That experiment went up in flames and Enroth was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks before too long.
The Leafs made a waiver claim and now have former Blue Jacket Curtis McElhinney backing up Andersen. McElhinney has been solid when called upon but he’s a UFA this upcoming summer with no guarantee he’ll be back.
It’s up to Leafs management to find a serviceable backup goaltender who could get Andersen some rest and the Leafs a few wins over the course of the season.
There’s plenty of work to do in the coming months. The Leafs will be worth monitoring over the summer as they are primed to make some big moves to shore up an already young and rising team.