Maple Leafs defenders on October 22, 2017
|Morgan Rielly||Nikita Zaitsev|
|Jake Gardiner||Connor Carrick|
|Ron Hainsey||Roman Polack|
|Andreas Borgman||Vincent LoVerde|
|Calle Rosen||Timothy Liljegren|
|Martin Marincin||Justin Holl|
In case we’d forgotten, right-shooting defenders are hard to find.
The term on this group is worth focusing on. Holl and Valiev are both on expiring RFA deals. So are Carrick and Marincin. The young guys — Dermott, Liljegren and Nielsen — have at least two more years, and maybe more as some can and will slide. Of the NHL regulars, only Rielly and Zaitsev have term. Everyone else has one more year after this, except Polak and the aforementioned Carrick.
So when prophesying doom, it’s important to remember this doom is all very flexible. It’s possible that anyone could come in at any point into this group and supplant anyone not in that top two. The likelihood of that happening at the Gardiner - Hainsey ice time level is small, however, at least before the summer.
But good heavens, that’s a lot of depth. And it opens up the question of a potential trade in the near future. The Marlies are not short-handed by any means. They sat Martin Marincin today after he played yesterday.
To compare, Vegas has 10 defenders on their active roster, although one is on IR, and they also have two players in the minors — Shea Theodore and a guy who is not Shea Theodore. They have some junior and European players who are their real defenders of note. No one is under contract for longer than one more year, and most deals expire this summer.
The other extreme, Pittsburgh, has five defenders signed to at least two more years after this season. The cheapest is Matt Hunwick at $2.250 million.
Los Angeles, who are dropping by on Monday, seem positively indecisive about their defence corps compared to Pittsburgh. They have some players signed to term, and they’re bringing along a host of middle-aged guys (25-26) as they try to transition to a younger and faster team.
Obviously, an expansion team like Vegas is going to have an ephemeral roster. The Penguins are in ‘how long can we contend’ mode, they’ve picked the horses they’re going to ride in races years down the road and they’re committed to them.
The Maple Leafs are at neither end of the spectrum. For all the hand-wringing over Ron Hainsey, and I’ll cop to liking him just fine so far, he wasn’t picked to see the Leafs through to the next lockout and beyond. He’s a temp whose contract runs out just exactly when the Jake Gardiner decision needs to be made.
And now it’s time to wring the hands a little harder, I suppose, over Roman Polak, who is even less of a fixture on a buriable one-year deal. I think that’s fine if you enjoy that. I’ve personally had my fun so far this season watching the Swedish semi-rookies play hockey. I’ve found it interesting, so interesting in fact, that I’ve watched them more than the games. Let’s talk Swedish youth.
They don’t play much. This is the all-situations ice time, and you will note that Borgénrick is dramatically separated from the top four. As detailed in the post on signing Roman Polak, no one but Hainsey and Zaitsev have been playing PK minutes to speak of.
Next, I looked at the usage of Borgman and Rosen. I was looking at them in comparison to rookie Will Butcher of the New Jersey Devils, and the similarities are striking. They have all played heavily skewed competition so far. They face top lines very seldom, and most of the time they face fourth lines. Mike Babcock has managed to keep his third pair away from better quality defenders as well, something not true of Butcher.
The Leafs rookies’ teammates are even more interesting. Borgman and Rosen play with lower level forwards as well as against, but wait, therein lies the flaw in judging quality of teammates by relative ice time values. By ice time, the third line is Tyler Bozak’s line. And the third pair has played with them or the fourth line most of the time.
Both of those lines face the lightest quality of competition, the fourth much lighter than Bozak’s. So far, Babcock has used his need to carefully use Bozak’s line, and the inability of the fourth line to do much beyond keep pace with other team’s depth (which is their job), to give a very light ride to the three young defenders on the third pair.
So, I ask you: How tired is Ron Hainsey right now? Will he be able to play an annoying trap team like the Sens as well as he did on Saturday after two more months of this? How about after six more?
Is this sustainable? Either in terms of special teams or five-on-five play?
Now, forget all that and zoom in; look at Roman Polak in isolation. Don’t think about usage or special teams, just zoom right up and say, wow, he’s not very good. True, true. He’s never going to improve, either. But what is not very good in real terms?
What he did last year was play an even rotation against league average competition with a fairly even level of teammates while participating in some defensive play that resulted in this:
Red is more than league average from that spot, blue is less. So when he was on the ice, there was a mixed bag of shots allowed near the net, but a lot of the traffic was point shots. The Leafs as a whole do much better than that, and have so far this year.
Well, I would hope so! If Roman Polak was a defensive genius, surely he’d be someone else’s second-pair guy.
Here’s Carrick this year:
The smoothing of the shapes is new, the concept is not, and red near the net is still bad. Carrick, by the way, is producing this red menace paired up with Borgman, who is better than this, and Rosen, who I’m blaming for a lot of that mess on the left side. And remember, Carrick, by virtue of the fact that he’s getting a ride-along with the semi-rookies, should be the strongest one on the third pair, and he just hasn’t been. He is not the veteran who can bring along a new guy.
All of the Leafs depth defenders offer something different in terms of skill sets. Passing, transition, offensive ability, their shot, their defensive zone execution — it’s all unique for each guy. And their special teams experience is very different as well.
I refuse to re-litigate the Martin Marincin vs whoever debate. Of all of the above mass of depth, he’s offensively null, and that’s enough for me. Some combination of the other four, the four that have been rotating along in practice (Polak, Carrick, Borgman and Rosen), needs to be offensively complimentary and able to take at least Bozak-level hard minutes while achieving something like tolerable defensive results. They need to at least match Roman Polak’s age 31 season! So far they haven’t been.
What is the point of all these third pairing guys, anyway? Are the Leafs in a fight with Vegas for the best depth? Or are they just methodically mining for gold in a long list of ‘maybe he’s a player’ guys on tryouts? I think it’s a bit of the latter and a bit of a holding pattern until the Gardiner decision comes due, Liljegren is more than a total mystery box, and Dermott has a firm yes or no next to his name.
Perhaps what you want is for the Leafs to just play the mystery boxes, and surely Rosen and Borgman are yet to reveal their full value. Just play them, just give them a chance. When you look real close, and ignore the entire rest of the roster, its needs and its usage, that seems like a real fine idea. Get caught up in deciding who is better and ignore if any one of them is meeting a minimum standard. The Polak line? No? I think it has a ring to it.
I’ll tell you want I want. I want to stop talking about this mass of depth, play Ron Hainsey with Andreas Borgman so he can teach him everything he knows. Maybe Borgman will reveal himself to be more than just depth. (And I lied, I will discuss Marinicin. Is he the man for that job? I don’t think so.) But I think there’s a puzzle piece missing to make that happen.
It’s really easy when judging this move in advance of any actual game play to just distill it down to veteran versus rookie, or old guy versus the kid, and chalk it up to hidebound old GMs making terrible moves because they’re afraid of “new hockey”. This signing symbolizes everything that’s wrong with hockey!
But given we don’t know who is going to get played where and how much, I’m willing to wait and see how it goes. I’m betting Polak will play more than Mark Streit and less than Francois Beauchemin, but neither the Habs nor the Ducks planned for either result when those signings were made.
I’m don’t feel like Roman Polak is the best signing ever, but I do understand why it happened.
And maybe Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev can sit down once in a while. Of all the right side defenders on the Leafs, they’re the most important by a very great deal. Maybe we should pay more attention to them.