The Toronto Maple Leafs simply cannot consider themselves a Stanley Cup contender with their back end in the state that it is in. The team is good but what’s stopping them from being great? The Leafs defence. As the old saying goes, “Offence wins games. Defence wins championships”.
Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello have conspired in “The Shanaplan” to put together a powerful, young and talented team. They managed to snag one of the best coaches to ever step behind the bench, Mike Babcock. Then with a stroke of luck and much skill, the front office managed to scout and draft some of the top young players in today’s game. Top young players including the Leafs franchise centre Auston Matthews. The skilled and versatile playmaking winger-wanted-to-be-centre Mitch Marner. Second generation Swedish NHL talent William Nylander. Up-and-coming right wing snipper Jeremy Bracco. Not forgetting to mention, 2016 4th round pick Adam Brooks and 2016 second round pick Travis Dermott who are having strong 2017-2018 campaigns playing for the Leafs American Hockey League affiliate team, the Toronto Marlies.
The Leafs brass has recently brought in veteran players like accomplished forward Patrick Marleau from the San Jose Sharks and recent Stanley Cup-winning defenceman Ron Hainsey from the Pittsburgh Penguins to bring some leadership to one of the league’s youngest teams. Add that in with the drafting of highly sought after right-handed defenseman Timothy Liljegren in 2017. The Buds are looking pretty good. But it is a far stretch to say they are “great”.
What’s the nature of that David Suzuki?
In past years, the teams that have hoisted Lord Stanley over their heads have been solidified with solid back ends.
Most recently being the Pittsburgh Penguins that won back-to-back Stanley Cups. They had a backend that included the likes of Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Ian Cole. Their top four was solid and hands down the reason why they were able to make a run at the Cup, let alone win it.
Pittsburgh’s defence was able to push their opponents to the boards and not allow them to get clean shots on net. Making goaltender Matt Murray’s job much easier. It is much easier for a goaltender to keep their team in the game if they can see the puck.
With the star forwards like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin knowing they had a good defence behind them, the snipers knew that they could afford to take chances in order to get the puck in the back of the net.
What’s the problem with the Maple Leafs back end?
Although the Leafs back end is somewhat promising, it is not a deep system by any means. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev keep the Leafs afloat. Connor Carrick, Roman Polak, and Martin Marincin all have their issues that make it hard for their teammates and their coaches to rely on them in big situations.
Connor Carrick has some upside. Carrick is a good skater. He has a nice offensive touch with him, but the blueliner lacks sound defensive skills. He often fails on his coverages and leaves too much room on the ice for opponents to work with.
Martin Marinčin at best a seventh defenseman on a Stanley Cup caliber team. He is average at best. In the past, when he played for Edmonton, he had upside. Now, not so much.
As good of a puck-moving defenceman Jake Gardiner may be, he has a tangible habit of turning over the puck in his own end. He often pinches back up on the blue line. That often leads to two on one opportunities for the opposing team. But that is Jake being Jake.
As a result of the Leafs weak blue line, the Leafs star players are not trying to make the big plays they need to make. The Leafs studs are too concerned about backchecking to cover their defensemen that often try to pinch at inopportune times in the game.
Along with the forwards feeling the pressure to back up their defenseman, if that isn’t bad enough, goaltender Frederik Andersen feels the pressure even more. He knows that if he does not stand on his head, most likely that will result in an “L” in his win/loss record for him and his team.
How does this problem get resolved?
The Maple Leafs have numerous trade chips at their disposal. One of the biggest trade chips being pending unrestricted free agent winger James van Riemsdyk. van Riemsdyk says that he wishes to stay with the Leafs beyond the 2017-2018 season. That being said, word around the league points out that the asking price for a young right-handed, top four defencemen would be a roster player and at least a first-round draft pick. Not to mention, prospects. Not the greatest idea, eh?
It has yet to be determined what road the Leafs wish to take moving forward. The general consensus is that the Leafs are still in the midst of the “process”.
Leafs fans would love nothing more than to see a big move being made this season to solidify the Blue and White’s chances at winning the Stanley Cup, but what Leafs fans must remember is that they have a very promising defenceman in their minor league system. That defenceman is 2017 first round draft pick, Timothy Liljegren. Some scouts have compared Liljegren’s game to that of Sens elite defenceman Erik Karlsson. Liljegren possesses all the skills that the Leafs need on their back end. Although he has some growing to do, Timothy Liljegren could very well develop into that top pairing defenceman that the Leafs have been yearning for.
Leafs fans need to face the facts
Leafs fans may not like the idea of waiting for Timothy Liljegren to develop his game into something special. They most likely want to see action now, but that is not a great idea. Fans do not have to look too far back in the franchise’s history to see how trading young prospects and draft picks for veteran players and one-year wonders that are in their final “prime” years plays out.
Honestly, as much as many people would like to see Drew Doughty sign as an unrestricted free agent in 2019. It is probably not going to happen.
The Leafs salary cap will also make it hard to even contemplate signing Doughty. The Leafs will have to lock up Mitch Marner, William Nylander AND Auston Matthews in the coming years leading to 2019. It would be way too hard to get a defenceman like Doughty in today’s NHL salary cap era. Does not mean it cannot happen. It just means that Leafs fans have to be careful not to get their hopes up.
How does the story end?
Moving forward the Leafs have a solid group of forwards. A top-notch goalie in Frederik Andersen. Not to mention, a good front office and experienced head coach running the team. The rebuild has been kick-started after the Leafs 2016-2017 playoff appearance against the Washington Capitals. Great things are starting to happen, and the future is looking hopeful for Leafs Nation. But the keyword in this equation is “patience”. The Leafs are still technically “rebuilding” despite their current success. They have a young defenceman in Timothy Liljegren. He is waiting to take his next step to becoming a top pairing defenceman.
The foundation for a Stanley Cup team is laid out for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In time, the Leafs will be contending for Lord Stanley. Before Leafs Nation knows it, Auston Matthews and company will be bringing the Cup back home.
Take a deep breath and respect the process, Leafs Nation. Your time is coming.
TORONTO, ON – JULY 7 – Timothy Liljegren skates during the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie camp held at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence on July 7, 2017. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
View the original article on Last Word On Hockey: Toronto Maple Leafs Defence Search Continues, “Patience is Key”