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Rebuilding the Maple Leafs: Part 2

Continuing our look at the Leafs' organization ahead of the rebuild commencing this summer.

"We just gave Babcock $50 mil and he STILL looks pissed off all the damn time"
"We just gave Babcock $50 mil and he STILL looks pissed off all the damn time"
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Maple Leafs organization is done for the 2014-15 season. The Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs, and both their minor league affiliates (the Toronto Marlies of the AHL and the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL) bowed out in the first round of their league's playoffs. The focus is squarely on the NHL draft and the future. Before Brendan Shanahan and his management team set about rebuilding the team, we will go through the organization and assess what the team's strengths, weaknesses and key needs are. Last week we investigated the goaltending, and today we will focus on the defence.

It can be argued that the Maple Leafs haven't really had a good defensive system since Pat Burns was the coach.

Since Burns' Leafs were built through a commitment to team defence (and, let's face it, a variant of the neutral zone trap), the Leafs have essentially eschewed defence and opted for an attacking stance that relied on its goaltending to cover for the inevitable mistakes. In general, when it worked and the team had good goaltending behind it (Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour), they were a formidable opponent confident to continue bombing forward. When it didn't, the team usually sucked.

As the Leafs enter into a rebuild phase, their defence is in shambles. A significant amount of money is tied to the old guard's view of defencemen; slow, physical, safe. Everything that was championed as the way the Leafs would be "difficult to play against" and "keep shots to the outside". The result was a group that was completely incapable of preventing teams from gaining the zone and who got next to no help from a defensively questionable group of forwards, a system that was completely ill-suited to the skillset of the team's defence, and a coach so opposed to risk I'm reminded of the Maude Flanders quote; "Ned doesn't believe in insurance. He thinks it's a form of gambling."

(Above is a War-on-Ice graph comparing CF% to CA/60 during the entirety of Randy Carlyle's reign as coach of the Leafs. The Leafs are so far removed from every other team, save Buffalo, during that span that the website includes an option to exclude the Leafs and other bottom teams in order to better understand what the other teams are doing. That's how bad the Leafs were at possession under Randy Carlyle).

(And here is the same graph under Horachek. Notice how the Leafs moved all the way towards the back end of the main group of regular NHL teams).

The Leafs have major holes to fill on the blueline, as well as a number of decisions to be made as they rebuild the group at all levels.

At the NHL level, the Leafs problem (particularly post-Cody Franson trade) is simple; they don't have enough top-four D, the ones they have are either not fully trusted or not fully capable of the role, and they have a large number of third-pairing and fringe NHLers, many of whom make too much money to justify that sort of role. The Leafs invested heavily in their defence through the 2010-12 drafts, so some help could be expected to come in the next year or two from that, but that's far from a certainty.

The graph above is an amalgamation of the HERO charts for Leaf defenceman. Basically I've taken the values for all the Leaf defenders that they track, and charted them all on the same stacked bar graph, with the axis lines matching those on the HERO Charts. The colours are cumulative; using the ESTOI as an example, the red segment represents the lowest value from the HERO Charts, the orange segment is second-lowest (and the orange bar would be fully represented as the red segment plus the orange segment) and so on). This way we can compare results across multiple defenceman on the same graph plot.

The colour legend is:
Brewer - blue
Gardiner - green
Phaneuf - purple
Polak - yellow
Rielly - orange
Robidas - red

(No other Leaf defenceman had enough data for their own HERO Chart)

The best piece of news for a rebuilding Leafs team is that arguably their two best defence are their two youngest. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are far from perfect defenders, but they fit the profile of the sort of players a team needs on its backline to succeed today. Both are excellent skaters, capable of carrying the puck out of danger areas and out of the zone. Both are not particularly physical, but instead use their skating and defensive positioning to tak away chances, and both contribute offensively.

Both are still developing and rounding out their games (referring to the HERO charts, Rielly did not score particularly well on the "against" metrics, but Jake Gardiner who played some of his best hockey once he was free from the shackles of Randy Carlyle's suppressed system, was nearly across the board ranked as a top four defender or better.

With Rielly entering the final year of his Entry Level Contract, and Jake Gardiner on a very reasonable contract that will take him through the rest of his 20s, these two should be the cornerstones of the Leafs D going forward.

As for the rest? There's very little that delivers on what is expected of them, based on both reputation and contract, and here is where the teams' problems lie.

(The first graph includes everybody who played defence for the Leafs this season, while the second filters out those who played less than 100 minutes of ice time).

Roman Polak is probably the closest to delivering on expectations. Polak's a classic "stay-at-home defender" that doesn't bring a lot in the way of offence but does succeed in preventing shots and chances against (and the graphs above support that position).

I didn't love the trade that brought Polak here, but he did what was expected of him, and he's far from the problem on the blueline. The problem is Polak's a guy that gives your defence depth and the options are either play him out of his depth or play someone else even worse in that spot. Polak's a UFA after this season so in a season devoted to rebuilding through youth, I could see Polak being a trade deadline target next season.

Stephane Robidas, on the other hand, appears to be done. He's a third pairing defender by virtually any measure, and looked completely overmatched higher up the line-up last season. The contract to bring him in carried lots of problems and a lot of unnecessary risk, and now we still have 2 years left on a 38-year old that is sliding under a contract we can't get away from.

Let's also mention the other fringe members of the Leafs blueline. Eric Brewer was a salary cap move acquired at the trade deadline, but he too, does not look to be long for the NHL at age 36, and as a pending UFA, I would not expect him to get a contract offer.

T.J. Brennan was re-acquired to aid the Marlies in their push towards the playoffs, and he got a brief tryout in the NHL down the stretch and didn't look out of place. Brennan's been an offensive dynamo in the AHL but his size and perceived defensive deficiencies have kept him out of the NHL, but at age 26 and a Group VI Unrestricted Free Agent, I can't see Brennan sticking around unless he believes he'll get a real chance at an NHL job.

The other RFAs on the Leafs blueline are fairly unremarkable. They traded Korbinian Holzer to Anaheim, and appear to have two more in the system to replace him in Andrew MacWilliam and Petter Granberg. It's commendable that both of these guys have overcome the odds against low-round, low-offence players to get a brief stint in the NHL, but Leaf AGM Kyle Dubas made a point of talking about how the Leafs top prospects were kept in the AHL to continue their development, and these were the guys they called up to the wreckage that was the Leafs' playing out the string.

I expect both will be qualified but they are at most third-pairing or seventh defenders, which now means we would now potentially have four guys under contract that should be playing third pair (Polak, Robidas, MacWilliam, Granberg), and we haven't even mentioned Brennan, or the likelihood of a prospet like Stuart Percy getting another crack at the NHL this season.

Tim Erixon is a bit of wildcard. He was claimed off waivers from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the deadline, and saw limited action in which he wasn't any better or worse than some of the other fringe guys mentioned above. He too, is an RFA.

Finally, that leaves us with the captain. With most of the veteran players on the Leafs roster, they can quite easily be separated into three categories; quality NHL players that should be kept unless a massive offer is received (Kessel, JVR), NHL players entering years of declining production that won't match their contract (Lupul, Komarov, Robidas) and guys who still possess value as NHL players but are luxuries a rebuilding team can no longer afford (Polak, Bozak). I have no idea which of those boxes Dion Phaneuf fits into and you could make an argument for all three.

One of the problems in trying to assess where Phaneuf is as a player these days is that there are a lot of factors to consider that might explain why he's not been the player many think he should be. Since arriving in 2010, Phaneuf has been asked to do everything.

Play heavy minutes, match up and shut down the other teams' top scorers, anchor the powerplay, be involved in offence, lead the team, play with a number of inferior defensive partners (especially since the departure of Francois Beauchemin), and if you could also keep the hitting and fighting in your game to keep the Don Cherry crowd happy, that would be great too.

They have in effect asked him to be a Scott Stevens, or a Chris Pronger. And while that was pretty much an impossible task to begin with, they also didn't give him the support of a Scott Niedermayer, or a Brodeur/Giguere in net to make things just that little bit easier.

The reality is that Dion Phaneuf has played A LOT of minutes over his career, and we've seen that when the minutes catch up to your body, the physical toll has something of a cumulative effect.

Things become a little harder and it's near impossible to reverse the trend. This is scary for Leafs fans because Dion Phaneuf just turned 30 years old and has six years remaining on a $7 million per year contract. If he's already showing signs of major decline in Year 1?

Here's the rub; it's virtually impossible for Phaneuf's value to be lower unless he is well and truly finished as an NHLer. if there's anything left to be salvaged and the Leafs sell low, or even worse, retain salary to move him, there's a very good chance that like virtually every other Maple Leaf to have left Randy Carlyle's system, Phaneuf's numbers will return to their previous levels (at least until the aging curve dictates some decline).

The game-changer here is last week's hiring of Mike Babcock, former coach of the Detroit team that was heavily rumoured to be a destination for Phaneuf at the trade deadline.

Phaneuf's a player with flaws. He still produces offence, but has had miserable shot suppression results for years (he barely registers on the HERO charts). He can be a physically intimidating force, but he's not really that type of player these days (and he's easily among the most hated players across the league).

He has a great shot and can rush the puck, but his mobility is also limited and struggles to play the puck in his own zone. He can match up power vs. power against other team's physically imposing forwards (some of his best hockey has been matched up against Evgeni Malkin), but not when asked to take on a speedy skill player like Crosby or Kane, or when he has a marginal NHLer (like Keith Aulie, or Korbinian Holzer, or Stephane Robidas, or Roman Polak, or Petter Granberg) strapped to him like an anchor.

The whole "leadership" angle is to me overblown, because Phaneuf's leadership only became something to question when the team was sliding (hat choices notwithstanding), but then the Leafs' obsession with "character and leadership" in its acquisitions the past two summers could easily have undermined his position in the dressing room.

On a young team building for the future, Phaneuf's veteran status and unquestioned role as team leader could alleviate many of these concerns, but so would just adding some goddamn talent to the team.

The biggest problem with dealing Phaneuf at this point? In 2011, the Maple Leafs traded Francois Beauchemin back to the Anaheim Ducks. It was a trade that at the micro level made sense; they received a great price for a useful player.

At the macro level that trade was a disaster because Beauchemin did specific things nobody else on the Maple Leafs was capable of doing, and five years later he has yet to be replaced. Last summer, the closest thing they ever had to a Beauchemin replacement, Carl Gunnarsson, was traded. They have not managed to replace him, either. This year, they also traded Cody Franson, a pending UFA looking for a contract the Leafs couldn't match given their situation.

To trade Phaneuf as well represents a complete clearing of the old guard of Leafs defence, Now, on paper that sounds like a good idea - clearly this team's defence was a problem, so let's start it from scratch.

However outside of Rielly and Gardiner there's not much left in the system that makes me certain for the future; maybe Stuart Percy, maybe Rinat Valiev, maybe Viktor Loov, but nobody I have near the same level of confidence in that Leafs fans had with a young Morgan Rielly or Jake Gardiner.

To trade all your best NHL defenceman without a real plan of how to replace him is a major factor for why Edmonton, despite its stable of young offensive talent, has remained in stasis at the bottom of the league and will draft 1st overall for the fourth time in six years.

After the deadline, I noted that the Leafs hadn't really embarked on their rebuild yet. They'd done the things that were easy; trading away unrestricted free agents the team was unlikely to retain, and had a financial situation fall into their laps that allowed them to manoeuvre away from the horrid David Clarkson contract.

But the core remains intact, and moving a guy like Phil Kessel, or Joffrey Lupul, or Phaneuf, would represent a moment that the team decided to chart a new course. If Pheneuf is the first to go, there better be a plan on how to take the next step.