Where Should The Leafs Focus Their Search For A Defenceman?
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Welcome to the 2017 offseason, where the Toronto Maple Leafs look bound to acquire a defenceman. Back in December, this article looked at targets such as Ryan Ellis, Chris Tanev, Mark Pysyk, and Brayden McNabb. Four months later, the search for a defenceman is still ongoing, and this post will provide an updated look on potential fits going forward.
Please note: the order is in terms of likelihood, not by skill level. Big names such as Drew Doughty and Oliver Ekman-Larsson would be huge additions for any team, but the probability of an absolute blockbuster is rather low.
Offseason Defence Targets: In Order of Likelihood
Cody Franson — Free Agent: He’s 6’5, owns a right-hand shot, and even said that he would welcome a return to Toronto. Year after year, Franson’s team does far better at preventing shot attempts against when he is on the ice, but his defensive impact has flown under the radar while playing with poor teammates. Franson can play in all-situations, is a strong puck mover for a player of his size, and grew up a Leafs fan.
Since putting up 6 points in 7 playoff games with the 2012-2013 Maple Leafs, Franson ranks 23rd in corsi relative among 182 NHL defenceman with 2000+ minutes played. Simply put, his team performs far better when he is on the ice, and he would be a significant addition to the team’s depth.
Although he is not the #1 defenceman some are looking for, this appears to be the most likely addition, and there would still be resources left over to make another move.
Brendan Smith — Free Agent: He’s another player who excels in terms of shot attempt differential, and there’s a strong chance he will hit the free agent market this offseason. Although he owns a left hand shot, there is no harm in having a good defenceman on at all times, and the team could move Morgan Rielly over to the right side when needed.
Smith previously played under Mike Babcock back in Detroit, and averaged over 18 minutes a game in those final seasons. A left side featuring Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Brendan Smith would be among the better groups in the NHL, and this looks like a solid match if Babcock puts in a good word for him.
Kevin Shattenkirk — Free Agent: Here’s the marquee free agent everyone is talking about, and he’s a natural fit with a right-hand shot. He put up 56 points this year, and tops 40 points on a regular basis. Joining Toronto’s young roster at the start of their window of contention has to be tempting, and the team has the cap space to make this happen.
Pairing Shattenkirk with Rielly or Gardiner would immediately create an impressive first pairing. On the other hand, he is bound to cost a fortune, and this could significantly limit spending in later seasons. When we look at the rumoured Nikita Zaitsev extension or the huge contract Ilya Kovalchuk received in New Jersey, it is clear that Lamoriello carries a willingness to sign long-term deals. Shattenkirk should be familiar with the Leafs roster after the six game playoff series, and his addition could make Toronto a serious threat in the Eastern Conference.
Colin Miller — Restricted Free Agent in 2018: The Bruins already have Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, and Joe Morrow. If the team decides to deal from their surplus, expect Kyle Dubas to lobby significantly for his former captain in Sault Ste Marie.
Miller is just 24, and finished among the league leaders in both corsi and corsi relative this season. The question becomes: do the Bruins realize just how good he is? Miller averaged under 16 minutes per game this season, and moving him early would limit the risk of losing a good defenceman in the expansion draft. He offers a right-hand shot, and is an attractive under-the-radar type of addition given his age.
Josh Manson — Restricted Free Agent in 2018: Will the Anaheim Ducks look to move a defenceman prior to the expansion draft? If so, Manson would represent the perfect complement next to either Rielly or Gardiner. He’s exceptional in terms of preventing shot attempts against, and is only 25.
He already thrives playing shutdown minutes alongside Hampus Lindholm, and the Leafs could dangle one year of James Van Reimsdyk in return. These two teams worked out a major trade last offseason, and there is a chance that both sides deal from an area of strength yet again. If you have not already heard about Manson’s defensive abilities, make sure to watch him play in Anaheim’s series against the Edmonton Oilers.
Calvin de Hann — Restricted Free Agent: The Islanders also carry expansion draft questions with Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Ryan Pulock, and Travis Hamonic in the fold. Meanwhile, it makes sense to add scoring talent to pair John Tavares, especially while the team tries to convince him to stay in New York.
Although he’s a left hand shot, de Hann would be a major addition defensively, and would surely become a regular on the penalty kill. In terms of corsi relative, de Hann has been above average player every season of his career, and he will represent Canada at the upcoming World Championships.
Chris Tanev — $4.45 Million Cap Hit Through 2019-2020: This player was mentioned in this post back in December, but I will mention him again here. He’s the perfect fit for the Leafs, but Vancouver just lost Nikita Tryamkin and Philip Larsen to the KHL.
He’s excellent defensively and rarely takes penalties. In addition, he played with Morgan Rielly on Team Canada in last year’s World Championships, and could provide the team with a shutdown defenceman from the right side. It is tough to see Vancouver trading him unless they get a haul of young talent, but the Leafs do have a 2017 first round pick they could start with.
Jonas Brodin — $4.17 Million Cap Hit Through 2020-2021: The Wild have Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, and Jared Spurgeon to protect, which could make the 23-year old Brodin the odd man out. He’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career, and his age makes him a great fit with Toronto’s young core. The downside: he’s a left-hand shot, and the Wild could end up making a deal with Las Vegas to keep him in Minnesota.
Sami Vatanen — $4.875 Million Cap Hit Through 2019-2020: As discussed above, the Ducks have an excess of defenceman to protect, and already have Manson, Montour, and Bieksa to play the right side. Moving Vatanen would clear up cap space for the Ducks, and there appears to be a decent chance that he is traded.
He’s only 5’10, but can score at a 40-point pace over a full season. The Leafs probably look for more of a defensive stalwart, but this could be used as a potential plan B.
Ryan Pulock — Restricted Free Agent in 2019: Pulock, 22, only played one game in the NHL this year, but looks to be ready to play at the highest level. He’s a right hand shot, stands 6’2, and owns one of the hardest shots you will ever see. In addition, with 46 points in 55 AHL games this season, his offensive potential looks to be substantial. The question becomes: have the Islanders soured on him? As mentioned above, the Islanders have an excess of defenceman to protect, and it is tough to see how much value they place in his defensive abilities.
Honourable Mentions: Mike Green, Jacob Trouba, Tyson Barrie, Brayden McNabb, Mark Pysyk.
Buyer Beware: Karl Alzner, Roman Polak, Kris Russell.
The Big Picture
The Leafs are bound to add a defenceman, and adding Shattenkirk could instantly make them a potential juggernaut. However, big free agent contracts can turn out to be a real problem down the line, and the team could opt to add two defenceman for the price of one. Keep an eye on these targets in the coming offseason, and do not be surprised if the Leafs also look for strong two-way forwards to help the cause. With an improved group on the backend, the Leafs can become a serious contender in a hurry.