It’s time to stop procrastinating.
The Toronto Maple Leafs need to find a top-pairing defenceman. And they need to do it before the start of next season.
After losing 7-4 to the Boston Bruins in Game 7, it’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback and blame Jake Gardiner and his dreadful minus-5 rating as the reason why Toronto’s season once again ended early. But if you want to point fingers, direct them towards GM Lou Lamoriello, who failed to fill the team’s big black hole at the trade deadline.
In hindsight, the Leafs didn’t need to acquire Tomas Plekanec. They needed a defenceman. Well, two of them, actually.
It’s why Boston — not Toronto — is playing Tampa Bay in the conference semifinals starting Saturday. And why a team that set franchise records for wins and points in a season is no closer than they were a year ago to a Stanley Cup.
It doesn’t matter how many goals Toronto scores or what line combinations head coach Mike Babcock puts out on the ice. The Leafs aren’t getting out of the first round with this collection of mediocre defenders. Barring another Vezina-worthy season from Frederik Andersen, they might not even qualify for next year’s playoffs.
Toronto, which allowed the fourth-most shots (33.9 per game) in the NHL during the regular season, averaged 35 shots against in the playoffs. The 2,211 pucks that flew Andersen’s way this year were by far the most in the league, which made his .918 save percentage all the more impressive.
And yet, everyone knows that this cannot continue. Not if you expect this team to take that next step and become Stanley Cup contenders.
That means finding a No. 1 defenceman, even if you have to move heaven and earth — and perhaps William Nylander — to get one.
It’s why this summer might be the most important since Lamoriello was hired three years ago. While management has done a masterful job in building a playoff contender through drafting and developing, it’s far from a balanced product. Up front, Toronto has so much depth that there are literally not enough jobs to go around. But it’s a different story on the backend, with Gardiner, Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev playing too high in the line-up.
The challenge for Lamoriello is using the Leafs’ strength at forward to address the weakness on defence.
Yes, they could try and sign a pending free agent such as Washington’s John Carlson or Detroit’s Mike Green. But the better options might be on the trade market, where Vancouver’s Chris Tanev and Calgary’s T.J. Brodie could be available. Heck, if the Leafs want to make a big splash, they could put together a package for Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson or Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty.
Any one of them would be an upgrade over what Toronto currently has. Of course, it could mean saying goodbye to a player such as Nylander, Connor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen.
It’s a delicate dance. Edmonton faced a similar dilemma two years ago, when they sent winger Taylor Hall to New Jersey for defenceman Adam Larsson in a trade that has since blown up in the Oilers’ face. Others have fared better.
Tampa Bay, which like Toronto had more forwards than roster spots, acquired defenceman Mikhail Sergachev from Montreal in exchange for forward Jonathan Drouin. A few years ago, Nashville traded defenceman Seth Jones to Columbus for centre Ryan Johansen in a deal that has worked out for both franchises.
Even with James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Plekanec heading to free agency, Toronto is overflowing with depth up front. Expect Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to move up in the line-up, while players such as Josh Leivo, Frederik Gauthier and Miro Aaltonen could get longer looks at roster spots.
That doesn’t mean they want to lose Nylander, who could be the team’s No. 2 centre next season and a potential top-10 scorer. But when looking at why this team failed to get out of the first round for the second year in a row, it begins and ends with their lack of top-end defencemen.
Even on a night when Gardiner wasn’t playing his best hockey, he still logged 24 minutes of ice time. Only Hainsey played more. Why? Babcock had no other choice.
The Leafs don’t have a minute-munching veteran like Zdeno Chara or a potential Norris Trophy candidate in Charlie McAvoy. They don’t even have a triggerman on the point with a big booming shot like Torey Krug.
What they have is a No. 2 defenceman in Morgan Rielly, a first-round prospect in 18-year-old Timothy Liljegren, who is still probably another year or two away, and a collection of defencemen who probably would be on the third pairing on other teams.
The Leafs are hoping that Zaitsev will rebound after a sophomore slump of a season and there is the expectation that rookie Travis Dermott will be even better in Year 2. But Hainsey celebrated his 37th birthday last month, while Roman Polak is running on fumes and will likely soon be out the door as a free agent. So unless this team gets some major help, things probably won’t look any better next season.
That might mean losing one of their core forwards. But if it makes them better defensively, it could be a case of addition by subtraction.
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