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How is Mike Babcock filling the Z-shaped hole on defence?

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Who is taking over: Roman Polak or Connor Carrick, or is it more complicated than that?

Carolina Hurricanes v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

With Nikita Zaitsev out of the lineup, and two games in the books to look at, we can see how the Leafs are coping without one of their top four defenders. Zaitsev, on the year, is second only to Jake Gardiner in five-on-five minutes per game played, and first in all-situations minutes. Overall the play of the top four is very balanced with 1:20 per game played separating Zaitsev and fouth-place Morgan Rielly.

The usage of the top four defenders is very different to that of the third pair in terms of competition, score state, minutes, zone starts, everything is easier on the third pair. So the loss of Zaitsev for a few weeks to injury created a very big hole that needed to be filled.

For both games played so far and in the practice lines heading into tomorrow’s game against the Rangers, Connor Carrick is listed as the number four opposite Jake Gardiner. But is he? Has he suddenly gone from healthy scratch to top four defender, carrying an equal quarter load the way the Leafs usually run their core group?

Or is it really Roman Polak who is getting all of Zaitsev’s ice time?

First, the usual setup, looks like this:

Season to date ice time for defenders

Player All-Situations TOI/GP 5on5 TOI/GP
Player All-Situations TOI/GP 5on5 TOI/GP
Nikita Zaitsev 22.85 17.84
Jake Gardiner 22.41 18.11
Ron Hainsey 21.77 16.32
Morgan Rielly 21.50 16.46
Roman Polak 16.01 14.02
Andreas Borgman 13.95 13.18
Connor Carrick 13.94 13.31

And the last two games have broken down like this:

Most recent defender ice time

Player All Situations Penalty Kill Power Play 5on5
Player All Situations Penalty Kill Power Play 5on5
Jake Gardiner 44.48 1.02 2.12 35.52
Morgan Rielly 42.33 2.58 2.82 32.28
Ron Hainsey 40.73 10.32 0.00 28.37
Roman Polak 40.68 8.48 0.00 30.52
Andreas Borgman 35.43 0.00 0.00 33.32
Connor Carrick 32.93 0.00 1.25 30.03

I’m making you divide by two for the most recent games because I’m mean, but you can see that Gardiner and Rielly have stayed very constant in both all-situations and five-on-five ice time. Hainsey has actually been given a very slight break on both categories.

But to fill in for Zaitsev’s five-on-five minutes, Babcock has upped Carrick’s time to cover only a portion of it. Polak’s has only gone up by one minute per game, but look at Andreas Borgman’s minutes! He’s in second place these past two games in five-on-five minutes.

Polak is taking on the penalty kill time, which is dependent on how many penalties the team takes not how much the coach loves him, so beware reports of all-situations ice time used to make claims about coach’s feelings.

Carrick got a sniff at some power play time, but neither he nor Borgman are playing on the PK, but Borgman still leads over Carrick in all-situations time.

So just who is filling the Z-shaped hole? It seems like the answer is all three of the other defenders, depending on the situation. But, so far at least, Borgman is doing most of the extra five-on-five work.

It appears, at least so far, that Babcock is taking the injury to Zaitsev as an opportunity to quietly see if Borgman can handle more responsibility.