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Let’s Get The Leafs A New Defenceman

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Six players the Leafs might look at to upgrade their back end.

St Louis Blues v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As we enter the mushy middle of the season, we have a decent idea of what the Leafs are: an offensively dynamite, defensively porous, high-pace team that’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and that probably won’t quite make the playoffs.

This is not a bad thing. As we’re all well aware, the Leafs are playing six rookies in their lineup, and they can expect a lot of internal improvement, especially at forward. At the same time, the growing consensus is that the defence just isn’t quite going to cut it. The Leafs have abysmal shots and chances against numbers, and a resulting goals-against problem that Frederik Andersen can’t totally cover for, despite his sterling play in the last month. Some of this is that our forwards are learning to play an NHL defensive game. Some is that our defence isn’t so hot. It’s possible the Leafs could have an elite forward group within two years made entirely out of players they already have under contract. The defence...not so much.

So let’s get somebody new.

I solicited suggestions for defencemen the Leafs might like to look at to add, and received a ton of serious and not-so-serious candidates. I narrowed them down to six, and looked at each in terms of what they might bring to us and our chances of getting him.

The Leafs Right Now

To avoid repeating myself, I’ll point to my report card for the Leafs defence, where I looked at each of the Leafs d-men in turn. In short: the Leafs have two high-quality left-shooting D, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Rielly is an offensive stud whom Coach Mike Babcock is trying to turn into a 1D; Gardiner is an underrated, superstar puck-mover. These two are guaranteed to be part of the group going forward barring a strange, and major, trade. Nikita Zaitsev, who shoots right, is a smooth skater and passer, and is getting a long look as Rielly’s partner. If the Leafs trade for a d-man, whoever they acquire will probably be joining with these three to form the Leafs’ new top four.

Before we look at who that new guy might be, though, there’s one big upcoming event that’s going to affect the trade market.

The Expansion Draft And What It Means For Defencemen

The Vegas Golden Knights will join the NHL next season, and the league will conduct an expansion draft in June where the new franchise picks a player from each team.

If you want the full rules of the draft, check out CapFriendly’s excellent FAQ and their related expansion draft tool, which is great for working out what teams will have to make which choices. I’ll save a bit of space and simply say that the setup makes it very hard to protect four defencemen.

This has a considerable impact, as teams with four or more good defencemen who are not exempt (Anaheim and Minnesota in particular) have some tough choices to make, because the best defenceman they leave exposed may well be lost for nothing in June. The thinking is that this may make trades for these players more likely, or that teams may make deals with Vegas where Vegas is essentially bribed with draft picks not to take certain players. Keep this in mind.

For the Leafs, the expansion draft isn’t that scary, since a ton of their core pieces are exempt. On defence, the Leafs are more or less guaranteed to protect Rielly and Gardiner. Zaitsev is exempt, so we don’t have to worry about him. As of this instant, the Leafs seem most likely to use the 7F-3D-1G setup, use their third defence protection on Connor Carrick, and expose Martin Marincin, though they could also sign Carrick, Hunwick, Polak or someone else to satisfy the exposure slot.

If the Leafs trade for a defenceman, and he isn’t expansion exempt, this probably means he’s taking up a protection slot. Depending on who the Leafs give up in the trade, this could have a couple of likely effects:

-Exposing both of Carrick and Marincin (7F-3D-1G)

-Exposing all of Matt Martin, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Kerby Rychel, and Josh Leivo (8S-1G)

I’d bet on the first one, but you can mess around with the expansion tools yourself. The Leafs are in a pretty good expansion draft position, but this does mean that the Leafs shouldn’t make a move just to make a move on defence; it would probably mean they lose a slightly better extra defenceman as a consequence. We want a clear upgrade.

More significantly, the ex draft will hopefully shake someone lose who can help us. A couple of teams may be bothered enough by the thought of losing a good d-man for nothing that they become more willing to deal.

What Do We Want?

So: we want a defender to add to a top three of Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev. Ideally he would be a right shot, because the Leafs’ two best defenders are left shots. Our top three are also all excellent offensive defencemen, so a defender who can compensate for where they are less able—shots and chances against—would be ideal.

At the same time, the Leafs play a hyper-aggressive system where defencemen are encouraged to pinch to maintain a cycle and to skate with the puck. Beyond that, the NHL increasingly punishes players who aren’t mobile. So our defensive RHD had better be able to skate.

Let’s roll.

Kevin Shattenkirk

St. Louis Blues, age 27 (born January 29, 1989), shoots right, 6’0”, 209 lbs.

Current contract: $4.25M AAV, expires UFA in summer 2017

Pardon me while I swoon. Kevin Shattenkirk is the dream candidate for anyone looking to upgrade on defence. He’s been a stalwart defender for a series of Blues teams that could have, but never did, win a Cup. He was apparently on the verge of being traded at the 2016 draft, and his agent was surprised that he wasn’t. The Blues probably don’t have the cap space to give him the massive raise he wants; they have a defence group more or less set with Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Carl Gunnarsson signed, with young gun Colton Parayko needing an RFA deal this summer. So Kevin looks primed to move.

The Player

Shattenkirk may seem like a bit of an odd choice, because he was initially considered more of an offensive defenceman than a defensive one. He routinely clears 40 points and scored an impressive 14 goals last year. He’s accustomed to having the puck and very good at playing with it, and he’s a powerplay quarterback; that might make him seem duplicative of skills the Leafs’ D already have. But he has other assets too.

Shattenkirk has an impressive impact on the already-impressive Blues’ defence group. He and regular partner Gunnarsson dominate in limiting opposition chances. In fact, if you look only at defencemen with 100+ minutes at 5v5 this season, Gunnarsson and Shattenkirk are 1-2 in the league in cutting down adjusted CA60. The pair are almost as dominant in chances against and expected goals against. Some of this is a benefit of playing for the Blues, who are a superb defensive team with great defensive forwards, but not all—Gunnarsson and Shattenkirk have much better defensive numbers than their fellow St. Louis d-men, including Pietrangelo and Parayko. They’re somewhat less offensively-oriented, but Shattenkirk nets out to being the best Blues d-men in adjusted CF%. If the Leafs want a RHD who can control the pace of the game and limit opposition chances, Shattenkirk is almost certainly one of the top three options in the NHL.

The eye test may mark out Shattenkirk as less of a defensive defenceman than the numbers do—he’s not huge for a defenceman, and he’s been criticized in the past for his struggles in clearing the net and his defensive lapses. But the general chatter around him is that he’s reached a new level defensively in the last two seasons, and that (like most d-men) he’s much better on his natural right side. According to his coach and GM, Shattenkirk is a huge help in leaving the zone, something the Leafs have definitely struggled with this year. With the pace-pushing, aggressive style the Leafs are developing, Shattenkirk fits the spot.

The Acquisition

The Leafs are only going to trade for Shattenkirk if they can guarantee an extension with him. Most teams would feel the same way, although he would make a spectacular deadline rental for a team primed to go for a Cup. Shattenkirk has more or less total control over his future, and he’s determined (sensibly enough) to make sure it’s exactly what he wants. Shattenkirk is an American, and there are rumours he’d like to head to his home state of New York, where the Rangers would struggle to afford him. Shattenkirk also apparently vetoed a trade to Edmonton, so he doesn’t want to live in a frozen hellscape. Whether he’d want to live in Toronto is a different question, and one we can’t answer.

Assuming Shattenkirk is willing to take his talents north of the border, the question is whether the Leafs should outbid everybody and offer him $Texas. Guessing UFA contracts is a mug’s game, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shattenkirk clear $7,000,000 a season for six or seven years. Do the Leafs want to be the team that writes him that cheque?

I think they should. If you subscribe to the theory that a rebuild should go from bottom to top in three or four years, Shattenkirk is the kind of aggressive move you want to make. You put the value saved on ELCs and RFA contracts towards maximizing the talent on your team. Even if you think Shattenkirk’s contract is in and of itself an overpay, if it leads to a team that collectively has the best possible bang for the buck, it’s worth it.

Pay the man.

Chris Tanev

Vancouver Canucks, age 26 (born December 20, 1989), shoots right, 6’2”, 185 lbs.

Current contract: $4.45M AAV, expires UFA summer 2020

Multiple people suggested Chris Tanev, and ultimately the question with him seems to come down to one thing.

How smart is Jim Benning?

The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward

The Player

Chris Tanev is a fancy stat darling because he’s that rare commodity: a “defensive defenceman” who’s actually, you know, good at defence. While he doesn’t produce a ton offensively, he has an enormously positive effect on all the Canucks’ defensive numbers whenever he’s on the ice. In the past year he’s worked as a partner for Alexander Edler on the Canucks hard-minutes pairing, and he’s played quite well. Further, the WOWY (with-or-without-you) stats have Edler getting much worse away from Tanev, while Tanev gets better away from Edler. On the most basic level, if you put Tanev and Rielly’s Hero charts together, they look ideally suited to cover each other’s weaknesses.

As with so many people who net out to good fancy stats, Tanev is mobile and a puck-mover, rather than a purely physical presence—he’s tall, but as you’ll notice, he’s mighty lean. But he’s the paradigm of the modern defensive d-man. Observers describe him as rarely making a mistake, and he rarely takes penalties—a very impressive feat for a defence-first player. If the Leafs want a safe, sound defensive presence—something Babcock seems to be searching for—that also wows in the possession department, Tanev’s our guy.

The Acquisition

Chris Tanev is probably the Canucks’ best defenceman, and he’s on a good contract for several years. He’s currently injured, but unless the Canucks think this has broken him, that shouldn’t bear on his long-term value; it’s not like the Canucks have any excuse to be thinking short-term right now. So why would Vancouver put him on the market?

People seem to hope Tanev will be underpriced for basically two reasons: his point totals are a shade better than Martin Marincin’s, and the Vancouver front office is popularly considered very dumb. If the Canucks think Erik Gudbranson is a top four defenceman, maybe they’re totally incapable of correctly evaluating talent.

I hate to say it, but I doubt this. At his current age Tanev could plausibly be useful to either a win-now Canucks team (lol) or a rebuilt one in a few years; he’s been a top-pairing defender for them in recent years; and most significantly, Jim Benning signed Tanev to that deal he’s on now. While I am a firm believer that laughing at Jim Benning is good for the soul, he broken-clocks his way to a few good decisions every now and then, and Tanev seems to be one. This isn’t to say a trade for Tanev is impossible, but the Canucks probably know enough to hold onto him unless the price is very high.

(But one thought: if the Canucks do decide to start rebuilding, I think the Leafs should start shopping 2018 picks...and a fit where we sent something west for Tanev would be worth pondering.)

Brayden McNabb

Los Angeles Kings, age 25 (January 21, 1991), shoots left, 6’4”, 212 lbs.

Current contract: $1.7M, expires UFA summer 2018

Everyone wants to take defencemen whose names start with M off the Kings. McNabb, Muzzin, and Martinez were all suggested to me as d-men the Leafs might target. This is due to two factors: the Kings have been Corsi gods for several years now, and they are now in cap hell. The thinking is that the Kings are going to have to dump salary, and that the Leafs might be able to take advantage.

The Player

McNabb makes for an appealing add in so many respects. He’s big, he’s a CA monster, he’s in his prime, he’s inexpensive, and he presents as the kind of nasty, shutdown d-man that never goes out of style. With the caveat that his team is phenomenal at this sort of thing, McNabb is the best adjusted CA60 defender in the league since the start of 2015-16 (minimum 20 GP.) Cuts right down on shot attempts. Sounds neat!

The downsides: the nasty streak means he takes a bunch of penalties, he shoots left, and his numbers have been goosed by playing with Drew Doughty. McNabb is by no means just a passenger, but playing with one of the best defenders in the world on the best possession team is a warning sign if he’s going to move off-side on a run-and-gun gang of youngsters. Still, McNabb has shown some skills that might serve the Leafs well, and his play with the puck is decent enough that he’s not going to be a pylon. If Mike Babcock thinks he can integrate Brayden McNabb, well, hell, why not?

The Acquisition

The Kings have every reason to want to hang onto McNabb, because he’s cheap. They need cheap defencemen as they try to win one more Cup in the twilight of their expensive core. We might be able to nabb him (sorry) if we were willing to take on salary as well as the player himself, but that’s tricky, which makes this a good time to discuss Martinez and Muzzin, who are more expensive.

You know what? I bet we could get Alec Martinez for a song. You know what else? I do not want him. Martinez is going to turn 30 next July, and his WOWYs on defence are screamingly worrisome when he gets away from Jake Muzzin (and again, he shoots left.) He’s signed for four seasons after this one at $4M per. Martinez looks like a poison pill to me. Non grazie.

Jake Muzzin I would take in a Los Angeles second, but I can’t see L.A. trading him. Muzzin is excellent, on a great contract, and lovely in so very many respects that I’m afraid to get my hopes up by talking about him more. L.A. is in a cap crunch, but they should be fine with regards to the expansion draft on D, because anyone claiming Martinez would be doing them a favour and Doughty-Muzzin-McNabb are the obvious protection choices. Muzzin is the kind of core piece you really need to hang onto.

Which brings us back around to McNabb: is there a deal there where we take on a bad contract and pick up Brayden in the process? I don’t think so. All of the Kings’ bad contracts—and hoo baby do they have some bad contracts—have at least three years left on them. The ideal situation for us would be a Brooks Laich/Milan Michalek situation where only one expensive year remained; the Kings don’t have that. Fringe forwards Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford each have three seasons left after this one on their deals, and the ghastly Dustin Brown and Martinez deals go even longer.

Essentially, the only trades I can draw up with L.A. are ones where we’re obviously swindling L.A. or they’re unloading toxic waste on us. So with regret I have to say: I don’t think there’s a fit where we get a defenceman from Los Angeles.

Jared Spurgeon

Minnesota Wild, age 27 (born November 29, 1989), shoots right, 5’9”, 164 lbs.

Current contract: $5.188M AAV, expires UFA summer 2020

[gazes hungrily]

Jared Spurgeon may seem small and expensive. Forget about that.

The Player

He’s a tenacious, positionally sound, offensively capable, big-minute defenceman, and he can skate. A move to acquire Spurgeon would be a sign of exactly how progressive the Leafs are willing to be, because Spurgeon would historically have been considered too small to be an effective defensive defenceman. But the evidence indicates Spurgeon is having a very solid defensive impact in his minutes with Ryan Suter (and his WOWYs actually show him looking even better away from Suter than with him, though I wouldn’t get too carried away with that.) The Wild are not all that great defensively, despite what people say (Devan Dubnyk makes them look much better than they are.) But Spurgeon moves the numbers, and The Hockey Writers, of all people, pay him the curious compliment of calling him a “courageous little bugger.”

Also, just watch this pass. Damn.

The Acquisition

When I did that section on the expansion draft back up near the start of this piece, Minnesota was who I meant. The Wild are screwed. They have five defencemen to whom they’re financially committed (Ryan Suter, Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, and Marco Scandella). They have three NMCs at forward (Parise, Koivu, Pominville) that preclude them from running the eight skater setup—otherwise they’re going to expose three of Eric Staal, Nido Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle. So the Wild are probably doomed to lose one of Spurgeon, Brodin, or Dumba.

Even assuming the Wild just resign themselves to losing a good defender, they probably also want to clear some salary, because Nido Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund are about to require new contracts. And hey, if Minnesota wants some inexpensive high-end wing prospects, well, we can certainly include those in a deal.

None of this is to say we’re somehow going to pick up Spurgeon for a roll of quarters and some lint. Minnesota is aware he’s good, as he’s playing on their top pair, and we aren’t going to get him a deal where the centrepiece on our side is Tobias Lindberg or something. Further, Minnesota might sensibly decide Spurgeon is one of the d-men they want to hang onto, in which case Toronto might move to targeting the young, exciting, but flawed, Matt Dumba. (Right-shooting, 22, still working on the defensive end.) But at the least, Lou should give Chuck Fletcher a call and see if there’s a deal to be made.

Mark Pysyk

Florida Panthers, age 24 (born January 11, 1992), shoots right, 6’1”, 200 lbs.

Current contract: $1.125M AAV, expires RFA summer 2017

The Florida Panthers have gone all-in on analytics, as literally everyone in hockey keeps saying, and that means trading for players like Mark Pysyk.

The Player

Puck-moving, smooth-skating, low-mistake defenceman (tired of hearing that yet?) The wrinkle with Pysyk, and the thing that probably scares people off, is his injury history, which has featured stories like this. His health—apparently good so far this year—was likely a factor in Buffalo’s decision to flip him to the Panthers for Dmitri Kulikov.

As you can see above, Pysyk is one of those defencemen who has a universally positive possession impact while not producing many points himself. He may not be a top-pairing guy—at least he hasn’t been yet—but you can find tantalizing looks at him, like this one from a year ago. This quote is the kind of thing that makes both nerds and coaches swoon:

...If you look at his skill set, he is so good at his first pass, so good at skating and breaking up passes, getting his stick in passing lanes, and winning battles with his stick along the wall, that what you see is the result for everyone else on the ice with him.

Mmmm. That sounds awful nice.

The Acquisition

The Panthers aren’t going to miss a trick because somebody has a better grasp of possession numbers than they do, but they pretty clearly have three defenders to protect for the expansion draft (Aaron Eklbad, Keith Yandle, Jason Demers) and I can’t imagine they view Pysyk as untouchable. If the Leafs find themselves unable to make a bigger deal, Pysyk could be right in their wheelhouse.

The health issue is going to overhang Pysyk until he turns in multiple healthy seasons, and it both increases the risk in acquiring him and likely reduces the cost. (Also, if the Leafs do pick up Pysyk, they’re going to have an immediate decision to make on an extension, given he goes RFA in summer.) Still, he looks attainable, and I certainly believe he would cost less than the first four defenders on this list.

Ryan Ellis

Nashville Predators, age 25 (born January 3, 1991), shoots right, 5’10”, 180 lbs.

Current contract: $2.5M AAV, expires UFA summer 2019

Nashville always seems to be spoiled for defencemen, and this year is no different, as Subban-Josi-Ekholm-Ellis is a fantastic top four. Should we try to pry loose the fourth member of the quartet, Ryan Ellis?

The Player

WOWYs have a way of jolting you sometimes. Ellis has historically had fantastic possession stats, and yet they decline precipitously—with an incredible drop in CA—when he’s separated from regular running mate Matthias Ekholm. Ekholm’s numbers also get worse (though not to quite the same degree) and Ellis doesn’t totally fall off the map--and WOWYs are hardly conclusive evidence of anything. But it worries me a little.

Putting that aside, Ellis has been slick, small puck-mover, sometimes accused of doing too much. Unlike all-possession, low-production players like Tanev and Pysyk, Ellis is an offensive defenceman with a good shot (he put up ten goals last year, and eight the year before.) No one’s saying the Leafs need more offence, but Ellis would add goals from the back end, and goals are nice. Assuming his time with Ekholm is more representative than the time without it, he’s had a good impact on the attempts coming back at Nashville’s net, too.

Like so many players on this list, Ellis is currently injured. Hopefully it’s nothing serious (it’s listed as “upper body”, so take that as you will.)

The Acquisition

You’ve probably guessed where it’s going at this point: if the Preds only protect three defenders, Ellis may be the odd one out, which may make him available. I can’t help wondering whether the Leafs would be all that interested in a defender who is both reputationally and maybe actually more offensive than defensive, and who is undersized. But he’s not expensive and he’s got his points.

David Poile is in win-now mode, and he’s made major trades in pursuit of that. The Leafs have a major asset for any team hoping to win now—James van Riemdsyk—but I can’t say I’d quite be willing to pony him up for Ellis. You may disagree.

Honourable Mentions

Dougie Hamilton: The Hamilton possibility got talked to death a few weeks back and seems to have receded. It’s hard for me to conceive of the Flames actually trading him, but I agree with this article: the Leafs need to be in on Dougie Hamilton if he’s available.

Josh Manson: I originally intended to include Ducks d-man Josh Manson in this piece, but he’s been talked up already by PPP fanposter Osman. While I wasn’t quite persuaded by the trade in the article, Osman’s logic is sound that Manson is the kind of defenceman we want, and he’s certainly worth a look. Anaheim, as noted, is in a hellish mess trying to protect key d-men Lindholm, Vatanen and Fowler, because has-been Kevin Bieksa has an NMC and has to be protected. Manson should certainly be on the market, unless the Ducks make a deal with Vegas.

John Klingberg: Dallas Stars defender Klingberg was suggested for this piece, and while I would be beyond ecstatic to get him, I can’t see any way he would be available—even given his somewhat down start to this season. Klingberg has shown signs of being an elite 1D, he’s on a great contract, and the Stars have virtually no defence depth. It isn’t happening.

Jordan Subban: There’s another Subban brother, and he is an extremely interesting-looking, right-shooting, 21-year old d-man for the Utica Comets of the AHL. Katya put the idea of trading for him into my head about six weeks ago and I’ve been dreaming of it ever since. Problems: he’s expansion-exempt, and the Canucks (who have his rights) have no sane reason to trade him given he’s damn near the best player on their AHL team.

Jason Demers: I don’t think the Panthers want to give up their big free agent acquisition so soon, which is why I focused on Pysyk instead. He would be a neat add if they did, though, albeit on a bit of a pricey deal.

Michael Stone: I wouldn’t be averse to giving Stone a look if he reaches free agency this summer, but he doesn’t really fill the hole we have beyond being a RHD—he’s better on offence than defence, where his numbers are less than dazzling. He’s big, at least, if the Leafs think he can be adapted to their system.

Dan Girardi: If the Leafs trade for Girardi, I will resign my Leafs’ fanship. I’m serious. I will cheer for Golden Knights and follow their rise to, I dunno, getting relocated in 2028.

As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about the idea of signing Shattenkirk or making a trade for Spurgeon; if that or another big trade isn’t on the table, I think the Leafs should aim for a smaller acquisition like Pysyk. The trade landscape may change considerably come summertime, but there’s certainly dealing to be done if the Leafs are interested.