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What Should the Leafs’ Third Pair Be?

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Are we doomed for this year?

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs third pair has caused a lot of consternation this year. For the bulk of the year, it has consisted of arguably the Leafs two worst defensemen in Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak. Their results were (as expected) not great, with a 48.05% CF%, but to fans, more damaging than their shot attempts were the very gif-able plays that led to goals against.

This pairing had become a little bit of a scapegoat for the Leafs poor defense as a whole, with fans criticizing the team for not upgrading on this unit, either internally or externally. The Leafs’ internal options included Frankie Corrado on the right side and Martin Marincin on the left side, who just recovered from a back injury. Both had their sets of fans arguing that they should be a regular in the lineup.

Corrado never got there, and was mercifully waived on Saturday. He's now on the Marlies, though it seems unlikely he'll get a callup, or suit up for the Leafs again. Marincin has, in lieu of Hunwick, but the results are so bad, he might find himself on the outside looking in quite soon. Since his injury, Marincin hasn’t looked great on a pairing with Polak, a partnership which has yielded notably worse results in three games than Polak-Hunwick (just a 44.44% CF%). Obviously, we don’t want to overanalyze 50 minutes of on-ice results, but watching them, there’s a very clear problem.

Neither can pass.

I believe that Marincin is a decent NHL defenseman, but he’s a very limited one. He’s a good enough skater for his size, but his true strength lies in the neutral zone. He’s a smart player who’s aware of his and the other team’s blueline, and his best asset is his ability to suppress controlled zone entries. However, he needs his partner to do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to transitioning the puck. It’s not an accident that the best pairing he’s been a part of this year is with Nikita Zaitsev (57.11% CF% in 116 minutes), and that he was Rielly’s best regular partner last year. He has skills, but he needs to be put in a situation that maximizes them.

Polak on the other hand... there isn’t much more to say about him that hasn’t already been discussed. He is what he is. Replacement level at even strength, a decent penalty killer, and someone who has stayed in the lineup for quite a while at this point.

So what are the Leafs options from here, to shore up their third pair internally? The claim of Alexey Marchenko adds some intrigue, as they’re certainly more likely to use him than someone like Corrado.

Return of Hunlak

I can hear your groans from here. But the fact remains that the Hunwick-Polak partnership was not as bad as Leafs fans say. They’re obviously below average... they’re a third pair, and are being played like one. But they’re not some unholy combination of Douglas Murray and Dan Girardi. It’s not a great third pair, but for Babcock, it’s the next best thing after good - they’re predictable. This would be a return to the devil we do know as opposed to the devil we don’t.

Debut of (Mar)MarMar

Pairing Marincin and Marchenko is probably what a lot of stat-friendly Leafs fans like to see. In theory, this is a good combination. Marchenko has relatively decent shot results in his past, and while his individual offense is non-existent, I value the former over the latter for defensemen, especially lower in the lineup. He also covers for Marincin’s weakness in puck transitioning, certainly more so than Polak does. Perhaps most importantly in terms of the likelihood of actually seeing this, Marchenko and Marincin can both play on the penalty kill, meaning we don’t lose a lot of special teams ability in removing Polak. Katya pointed out to me that this might have been a reason we never saw Corrado. He can’t kill penalties, and if you replace Polak with someone who doesn’t do that, you’re going to play one of your top four there, and risk injury to them.

So this is an option I’d like to see, at least given a test run.

Hunwick and Marchenko

Given the abject play of both Polak and Marincin in recent games (the Boston game is a notable lowlight), it’s possible Babcock just swaps both of them out, and pairs Hunwick and Marchenko together. I don’t really mind this either. Hunwick, to my eye, is the better of he and Polak, and I think he could put up decent results playing with someone who wasn’t a boat anchor. There’s not a lot of data suggesting how well this will work, but I’m open to giving it a try.

Of course, the above options assume we are keeping all of these defensemen for the rest of the season. That may not be the case - we have eight full-time NHL defensemen now, meaning two of them need to be press-boxed on any given night. Marchenko and Marincin both satisfy exposure requirements for the expansion draft, which gives the Leafs a little flexibility if they find an offer they like for either on the trade market (unlikely in the case of Marchenko, given that he was available for free quite recently).

If we do move one of these guys, the third pair will basically be settled by default. And in that case, we’ll be stuck with whatever is left for the stretch run and playoffs, if we’re so lucky.

Choose wisely, Mike.

All stats are via Corsica.hockey, and are 5v5, score, zone, and venue adjusted unless otherwise noted. Stats are current as of February 5.