Saturday, June 14, 2014

Leafs Off-Season Game Plan: Defence

Despite great goaltending, the Leafs allowed the fifth most goals in the league last season. Sadly, that isn't surprising. The Leafs haven't been better than 18th in goals allowed since the start of Lockout I.

Finally, they have some goaltending, so the bulk of the work will come in revamping the defence (and hopefully firing Randy Carlyle). It won't be easy, but there are plenty of options out there, many of which don't include trading Jake Gardiner.

Key Objectives

Find a tough-minutes eating defenceman

The Leafs need at least one top-4 defenceman, although realistically they could probably use two. The problem is it's hard enough to find one quality top-4 defenceman. More importantly, the Leafs need one who can take on tough defensive assignments and free up Dion Phaneuf for some more offensive minutes, because asking Phaneuf to play in an extreme defensive role like Zdeno Chara or Shea Weber isn't working.

Increase mobility from the backend

Between Paul Ranger, Mark Fraser, and Tim Gleason it's amazing the Leafs ever moved the puck out of their own zone. Strong mobility from the backend is able to neutralize a forecheck and start the transition back to offence in a hurry. The game has changed from the days when a group of bruisers comprised a stout defence. Saying that...

Avoid Douglas Murray and Brooks Orpik at all costs

This one is hard because you know Dave Nonis is waiting to blow out the market for both these guys, despite the fact that both haven't lived up to their defensive reputation in years. Adding a couple more contractual anchors that move like boat anchors is a sure-fire way to make sure the Leafs remain one of the worst defensive squads in the league.

Buyout Tim Gleason

It was a gamble hoping Gleason could regain his shutdown form after two straight down(right ugly) seasons and it didn't work out. Gleason started off in Toronto decently enough, playing a physical game that convinced Carlyle to give him plenty of defensive zone starts, freeing up Phaneuf for less heavy minutes in the process. It didn't last, and over the last 20 games of the season Gleason was more often than not playing less than 15 minutes a game. He isn't worth anywhere close to his $4 million cap hit. Buying him out would free up a little over $3 million in savings this season and over $2 million next season. Afterwards the Leafs would only have two years of dead money at $1.33 million a year.

Free agents


Paul Ranger

Signing Ranger to a one-year deal for $1 million was a worthwhile gamble to see if the former top-pairing defenceman could slide back into a top-4 minutes role four years after his last NHL game. It didn't work and it's highly unlikely that Ranger will be back.

TJ Brennan

It's amazing that the worst defensive unit in the league couldn't at least give an audition to the AHL's best defenceman. Brennan may have his shortcomings, but he can move the puck and has a rocket of a shot. He scored 72 points in 76 games for the Marlies this season, finishing fourth in league scoring. At the very least he could have taken Phaneuf's minutes on the power play and allowed the captain to have some more gas in the tank for the tough minutes Carlyle buries him under.

Unfortunately, a small, offense-first defenceman was never going to get a shot with Carlyle, especially not with Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly already in the line-up, which is a shame because it's hard to believe Brennan would have made the Leafs any worse. And for all his perceived defensive shortcomings, Marlies coach Steve Spott told Michael Traikos that he has "no problems with his defensive game." Brennan will understandably be looking for a team willing to give him a real opportunity to play in the NHL, and that won't be Toronto.


Cody Franson

One of Nonis' better moves was not caving in to Franson's contract demands after one quality season, instead forcing him to take a below-market one-year deal to prove it wasn't a shortened season fluke. Points-wise I'm not sure it was a fluke, but this year Franson proved he couldn't really handle top-4 minutes defensively. Instead, it looks like he's the same player he was in Nashville: a bottom-pairing, soft-minutes, power-play specialist, albeit one who can hit. It would be wise to trade Franson now and let someone else pay him the $4 million he seeks.


Stuart Percy

A first-round pick from a couple years ago, Percy just finished his first full season in the AHL. He might need a little more seasoning, and hopefully some bigger and more important minutes, but he's not far away from making a contribution.

Petter Granberg

Granberg is one of the few right-handed defencemen the Leafs have, which may become doubly important if Franson is dealt this off-season. He's been described as Carl Gunnarsson with more size and physicality. He's a safe, stay-at-home defender and could be one of the first call ups for Toronto or perhaps the seventh defenceman.

Andrew MacWilliam

Once described as "the future Mark Fraser". Do not want.



Mark Fayne

At 27, Fayne is one of the younger free agents this year and he's also been used in a shutdown role for the past three seasons—and has done an excellent job in that role. He's mobile and can move the puck. He hasn't put up many points in his career, which might work in Toronto's favour and depress his cap hit. He's the ideal candidate to be used in a defensive role—say with Carl Gunnarsson—thus leaving more offensive minutes for Phaneuf, who could then be paired with Gardiner, someone who moves the puck better than Gunnarsson. It's always hard to predict what guys will go for in free agency, but maybe Fayne can be had for somewhere around $3.25-$3.5 million a season.

Tom Gilbert

He's made his team better when he's on the ice pretty much everywhere he goes, although he also for some reason has become a whipping boy in a few of those stops (looking at you, Edmonton). He just finished a season playing top line minutes with Brian Campbell, but Campbell isn't coming with him from Florida. Still, he would be a worthwhile pickup, although he won't be signing for $900,000 again.

Ron Hainsey

Unspectacular, yet sturdy. Registered a nice season after taking a cheap one-year deal after being overpaid in his first trip to unrestricted free agency. He's 33 and could be after his last multi-year contract that stretches past three years which is a little off-putting. At the right price and term, he's a decent option as a second-pairing guy. Too bad the right price and term rarely apply to unrestricted free agency.

Dan Boyle

Although his rights belong to the New York Islanders at this point, there is no guarantee Boyle signs there. He's looking for a two-year deal and according to Darren Dreger has the Maple Leafs high on his list. Although Marc-Edouard Vlasic snatched the shutdown role from Boyle, the veteran still led the team in ice time, thanks to huge power play minutes. He's a definite upgrade for the Leafs and could be a solid acquisition if the Leafs are able to find a cheaper shutdown defender (like Fayne).

Anton Stralman

Contract negotiations with Dan Girardi received more media attention, but Stralman was quietly one of the Rangers better defenceman and his loss could really be felt next season. He's received some easier minutes playing behind Girardi and Ryan McDonagh but has pushed the play forward at a ridiculous pace; the Rangers over the last two seasons have controlled over 56% of all shot attempts with Stralman on the ice. The next best Ranger defender is McDonagh at 53%.

Matt Niskanen

He stepped up big time with Kris Letang's absence for most of this season. He logged over 21 minutes a night, a career high, and notched 46 points, another career high. He's looking at pretty big money and that means the Leafs will have a harder time adding a top-flight centre and another top-4 defenceman. He'd be a solid addition but the Leafs have too little cap space and too many holes to fill to make Niskanen their premier signing.

Stephane Robidas

Breaking your leg twice in your contract year isn't the best way to build value, so there might be a slight discount for Robidas. He's been used primarily as a shutdown defender in his career and has done a pretty good job in that role. Like Boyle, he's also 37, which usually means injuries are a concern, although apart from last year he has been very durable throughout his career.


Dmitry Kulikov

According to Elliotte Friedman, the Leafs and Panthers came incredibly close to pulling off a trade for Kulikov, with one of the teams backing out. It's entirely possible the two revisit the talks. Florida has a lot of young talent down the middle and could use some offense on the wing to complement it. Maybe Joffrey Lupul is a piece they would be interested in.

Kulikov has been a top-4 defenceman so far in his career, although he's been more of a No. 4 and hasn't been used on a shutdown pair. His development has stalled a bit in Florida and a change of scenery could be helpful. However, the last two seasons he has been a positive possession player.

Kevin Bieksa

Alex Edler is apparently going nowhere, which is a shame for the Leafs because he's been a strong defender throughout his career (despite what his ugly plus/minus numbers suggested last year). But maybe that means Bieksa is the defenceman that is dealt out of Vancouver as it seems likely the team is prepared for a shakeup and they have a glut of defencemen. Bieksa is a hardnosed player who has been a strong possession player throughout his career despite getting hard defensive assignments.

Christian Ehrhoff

His contract lasts forever, but his cap hit is quite manageable at $4 million. Plus, thanks to the cap recapture penalty it is the Sabres that would feel the sting should Ehrhoff retire early. If Ehrhoff retires in the summer of 2018, once the actual salary he is being paid drops to $1 million, the Sabres would face a cap penalty of $3.33 million a season while the Leafs get off free.

It's hard to look good on an awful Sabres roster but he makes them much better when he's on the ice and would add a quality puck-moving element to the Leafs defence. He's still capable of chipping in around 30-40 points a season and can play on both special teams units.

Sample Roster via Cap Geek

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