Back in 2014, which seems like some other millennium, not less than three years ago, Roman Polak was acquired by the Leafs in a summer trade with the St. Louis Blues.
The Leafs sent St. Louis Carl Gunnarsson and a pick, retained salary and got back a third pairing defender. To say the PPP reaction was hostile to the deal is an understatement.
The Leafs have sent Carl Gunnarsson AND the 94th overall pick to the St. Louis Blues for Roman Polak. Whatever goodwill Dave Nonis garnered over the past 24 hours is now gone, and we can only hope that he is fired soon.
For the record, Nonis lasted until April of the next year. Which means Polak outlasted him by a considerable amount from that point on, jaunt to California last year notwithstanding. Polak has played in two Leafs playoff games, and Nonis only ever got to watch seven in all his years in management.
First impressions are hard to shake. Roman Polak was the man that many fans didn’t want on the team. He is not a puck-carrying defender. He is not a shooter, and his offensive efforts reveal themselves in a consistent amount of points over his career that never rises very high. He is not the type of defender fans wanted. And it’s easy for that to be seen as personal and for it to get personal.
When the Masterton Trophy nominees were being announced a few weeks ago, and the Toronto chapter of the PHWA chose Morgan Rielly, I had the idea to propose that Polak should have been the choice. I think that’s even more valid now than I did then.
The point of the Masterton is to recognize perseverance and dedication to the sport. And Roman Polak has always had that. Rielly very obviously does too, but it’s easy to be dedicated when you’re great or even when you’re good. But what about the serviceable? The type of players who can’t rise to greatness and who we end up calling grinders?
Last year at the trade deadline, when the Leafs had nothing going for them but losing for Auston and trading away all the assets that weren’t nailed down, Achariya covered Polak’s history very well.
Polak's best playing years were 2009-2010 and 2011-2012, where he played 78 and 77 games, respectively, earning a career high of 21 points in 2010. He is prone to a pattern of playing every other year shortened by injury since making the NHL full time, which has an interesting correlation to the sheer number of shots he tends to block.
She talks about his changing role under Mike Babcock: reduced minutes, a slightly more offensive role, and more shooting paired with less hitting. What we now understand over a year later is that Babcock is very good at putting players in a position to succeed. The more good players he has to chose from, the better the fringe ones seem to do.
But at the time her view of his play seemed not just accurate, but a clear picture of his limits as a player:
My own eye test notes that he heads straight for the scrum along the short boards, finishing his checks and digging the puck free whenever he can, which is good. But after he's dug the puck free or finished his check, there's a moment or two of hesitation while he tries to read the play before he turns to move back into position. During that hesitation, someone else usually has the puck and is skating away with it, either for the good of the Leafs, or not.
It’s easy to let a player’s performance be confused with a player’s nature. They played poorly becomes they are bad. And fair enough, often that’s true.
So when the Leafs brought Roman Polak back this season after his trade to the San Jose Sharks last year, the reaction wasn’t overwhelming positivity. The news broke late on the day on July second, just three days after the day of when all the things happened. After the Subban trade, the Hall trade and the really bad news that Steven Stamkos was staying in Tampa, the mere signing by the Leafs of a third pairing “good man in the room” defender barely raised anyone’s pulse.
A bit of a puzzling move, however this could mean the Maple Leafs believe some younger defensemen need more time to stew with the Toronto Marlies, and they had to fill out the D depth. Though players such as Connor Carrick and Frankie Corrado will have to clear waivers if they are to join the Marlies.
No one cared because he was “at least not Kris Russell” and the expectation was he’d be traded at the deadline again.
And now here we are. Roman Polak wasn’t traded, he played the whole season, he was playing well in the playoffs, and the rug has been yanked out from under him. His season is over.
Dedication to hockey isn’t about just outlasting bad management and your critics. It’s something else altogether.
Polak, who turns 31 in a few days, has been playing hockey his whole life like everyone else in the NHL. He started out in his local club team in Ostrava, Czech Republic, but when that team dropped down a level while he was a junior, he moved to a better team. Roman Polak, you see, is a high calibre player in a country as small as the Czech Republic. His world is different there. The view of him is different.
He represented his country three times as a junior and has two bronze medals, one for the U18 team and one from one of the two WJC tournaments he played in.
He started out with St. Louis in the NHL, so opportunities abounded to go to the World Championships after they were beaten out, and he did that. He played in the Olympics in 2010, and then injuries or the rising profile of younger players back home started keeping him off the national team.
He played for the Czechs in the World Cup of Hockey this summer though. He did that after playing to the very last day of the NHL season the year before with the Sharks. He put in 79 regular season games and 24 playoff games last year, and then he played all the exhibition games for the Czechs leading into the WCH, and played in all three of the tournament games as well.
And then, in a surprise to most of us, while the Frank Corrado soap opera went on and on, he played 75 regular season games this year.
He doesn’t play an easy game. It’s not a bit of a skate and a few passes up to the forwards. And as injuries piled up on the team, his minutes would rise. As the potential disaster of the injury to Nikita Zaitsev hit the team at the worst possible time, he really picked up the minutes.
Two playoff games seems like a poor reward for all of that and for all of that “good in the room” stuff that I don’t doubt is real. I don’t think he’s in it for that kind of reward. I think he’s in it for each game, everyday, the team, the game itself. Hockey.
I don’t think the first part of his season this year was very good. But the latter half, as Zaitsev learned his way, as Carrick took hold of some more minutes, as his role solidified into third pair stalwart, Polak improved. And then Babcock decided high-risk, all-in offence needed more aggressive play from all the defenders.
Four-on-four play became three up and one back, and one of the three was often a defender. Five-on-five became a game of defensive pinching to the point where a Leafs defender swooping in behind the net like he’s Victor Hedman doesn’t even warrant notice.
Who would have thought Roman Polak would become an offensive pinch artist? Well, not an artist, no. Not even a craftsman. He’s always been a working man at the game. A man who puts in a workmanlike performance. And in a workmanlike way, Polak gamely went along with the new way of doing things.
I almost want to make a joke: he might not have game, but he is game to try. And don’t mistake me, I’m not laughing at him, I’m recognizing that the lunch bucket king of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a real player who they will miss come Monday’s game because he is game to try.
The Leafs have some options to replace Polak. Martin Marincin sure surprised me with how he took over the role of Polak’s replacement with Jake Gardiner in Saturday’s game. He took it right from Connor Carrick while the Leafs were in the process of beating the Washington Capitals the hard way. Alexey Marchenko is a righty, and if you keep him down on the third pair, he does okay, so he can come on the team if Zaitsev isn’t ready.
Polak, unlike Marincin and Marchenko, is a completely predictable player. Surprise-free. And for the Leafs facing a team who wants their home-ice advantage back, who will get it in whatever way they have to, his heavy game might well be missed as well as his fully predictable play.
Polak’s playoff Expected Goals For percentage at five-on-five is 54. That’s third highest for defenders, and seventh on the team right now. And yes, that is the Jake Gardiner effect™. Somewhat. But his regular season number was over 50 percent on a team that struggled to keep above 50-50. His shots against numbers in the playoffs and in the regular season are not good, but hidden in all those shots is an effective quality of play that leads to good things happening. In a completely predictable way.
If Nikita Zaitsev is back and in good shape to play, we may never notice the difference with Connor Carrick moving onto the third pair.
But Roman Polak dedicated himself to the Leafs this year, and gave them all he had in every game. I said once that if Polak failed at something on the ice, it was because he could not succeed, never that he didn’t try. And that’s dedication to the game.
Polak’s dedication is a way of life that Babcock wanted personified on the team, on the ice, all the time. He likes that so much, it won’t be a big surprise if we’re writing another story this summer about Polak and a contract extension.
We will find out the fan opinion of him then, but for now, I’m sorry he’s missing the rest of the playoffs.