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Should the Leafs try to sign Kevin Shattenkirk?

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A debate on the marquee free agent of 2017.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As everyone knows by now, the Leafs are a very talented offensive team with clear defensive weaknesses. As the Leafs’ two best defencemen—Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly—are both left-hand shots who usually play left side, the obvious hole is for an top-pair right-shooting defenceman.

Enter Kevin Shattenkirk, who played most of his career with the St. Louis Blues before being flipped to the Washington Capitals at the deadline. Shattenkirk is undeniably the best right-handed defenceman on the market this summer. Whether he would be willing to sign with the Leafs, I do not know; the rumour is that he wants to play in the northeastern United States. Assuming he would consider the Leafs, the question is whether the Leafs should make a competitive offer for his services. The running ballpark figure for Shattenkirk’s contract is considered to be about $7,000,000 AAV for seven years; we’ll assume this is about what he’ll cost.

The Case for Signing Kevin Shattenkirk

Kevin Shattenkirk is both an elite offensive defenceman and an elite defensive one.

Shattenkirk has produced at least 42 points per season in each of the last four seasons, and that’s despite some rough injuries. As with many high-scoring defenders, some of that is powerplay production—but he’s also great at even strength. Of the 111 defenders to play at least 3000 minutes over the last three years, Shattenkirk ranks 14th in primary points per 60 at even strength. Any way you slice it, Shattenkirk is a superb offensive producer.

Let’s pause on that for a second. A lot of people are going to immediately dismiss KS’s scoring by saying “we have enough offensive defencemen.” This is a mistake, even before we get to Shattenkirk’s defensive numbers. Jake Gardiner’s career high in points (43, this year) is the only time any of the Leafs’ current top three have ever cleared 42 points the way Shattenkirk consistently does, and none of them has come close to KS’s high of 56 this season. He would still be the top offensive defenceman on the team, and he’d almost certainly add the most goals. The Leafs already score a lot? Great, then they’ll do even better scoring more. Having more offensive production is always a benefit to your team, and additional goals for are as worthwhile as fewer goals against. The Leafs can make room for Shattenkirk on one of their power play units, and do very well adding to a strength.

But, okay, we’re here for the defensive improvement. Here’s Shattenkirk’s hero chart.

Oh, hey, look, he’s amazing at shots against.

There’s no tenable argument against how good Shattenkirk is at preventing shots. Remember that sample of 111 3000-minute defenders from before? In Fenwick against per 60, Shattenkirk is first. He’s fifth in CA60, if you prefer that; sixth in expected goals against. And this is the class of NHL defencemen who he’s going up against.

At this point the argument against Shattenkirk seems to become the he doesn’t feel like a defensive defenceman, even though those pesky numbers keep saying that he’s really good at not getting scored on. And you know what, he doesn’t feel that way. Jake Gardiner doesn’t feel like a good defenceman to a lot of fans, but the team does a hell of a lot better with him on the ice than with him off it. We know Shattenkirk makes his teams better too.

In order to argue against the numbers, people move to two other objections: he played in a low-event system in St. Louis, and he played primarily second-pair minutes behind Alex Pietrangelo.

There’s a lot to counter those points. For one, these objections are overstated: quality of competition tends to even out over time, to a large extent. Shattenkirk could hardly have done better in the minutes he was given; you can’t really ask him to finish extra-super-duper first in FA60 instead of merely first. He was also playing with noted competent-but-unspectacular partner Carl Gunnarsson, so it’s not like he was being carried. If you want to object to him playing (very well!) in a dull system instead of the Leafs’ very high-paced one—then you might also suggest St. Louis was suppressing Shattenkirk’s CF60. Get ready for that to jolt ahead in Toronto. In fact, you might note here that Shattenkirk being so mobile, and so good at handling the puck, is a much better fit to play in Toronto than a classical defensive defenceman. Do you really want to watch someone who can’t skate churn ice as he tries to keep up with Nylander? No, you want someone who knows how to handle the puck, whose coach and GM describe him as a master of exiting the zone, who is going to add talent while fitting the Toronto setup.

But there’s another thing: who are you expecting to walk through that door?

Plenty of the objections to Kevin Shattenkirk seem to be that he isn’t Drew Doughty. No, he isn’t. Tell you what, give the L.A. Kings a call and see if they’ll give Doughty to you. I’ll wait here.

Huh, they said no? Weird. Shattenkirk is probably a top-15 defenceman in the NHL, and he shoots right. If you’re saying that’s not good enough for you, then you have to create a plausible way where the Leafs get someone better. And that’s mighty hard to do.

Moving right down the list: I don’t care how he’s looked with Washington, tied to Brooks Orpik like a lead balloon. We have years of his career in St. Louis, we don’t need to take a tiny sample and run away with it.

The next objection is cost, because $7M x 7y is a big, scary number. What those people seem to look past is that Shattenkirk only costs money. That means you aren’t trading Mitch Marner or William Nylander (hi, TSN!) It means you aren’t even trading Kasperi Kapanen. Yes, money is not nothing, and the salary cap will squeeze us. But that’s life. If you want good players, they don’t tend to be free. Shattenkirk costs the commodity we can most afford to spend.

Ah, but the draft! The Leafs need to build through the draft, not free agency, people say, in the tones of a priest telling teenage boys not to masturbate. This seems to imply that the Leafs are right on the verge of drafting a top five defenceman in the NHL if they just behave themselves and are smart. The truth is you have to draft high—something the Leafs will hopefully not be doing in the next few years—or you have to get lucky. The Leafs have drafted two elite defenders in the last 22 years. The most recent was Anton Stralman, who took years to become elite, and was traded long before he did so. The other one was Tomas Kaberle...who never got enough credit while he was here...because fans wanted someone who felt better defensively. Sigh.

The timeline is the final, and maybe the most important, reason to sign Kevin Shattenkirk. The Leafs are good now, and they will only have Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on cheap entry-level contracts for two more years. In that period, the Leafs can put out one of the deepest forward cores and one of the deadliest top four defence groups in the league, and they can contend for the Stanley Cup. The window opens earlier than anyone thinks—think of how quickly Chicago and Pittsburgh went from last to a Cup—and it may close earlier, too. If you can put yourself into the contending tier of the NHL, you do it when you have the chance.

Kevin Shattenkirk is that chance.

The Case Against Signing Kevin Shattenkirk

I went to visit Micah McCurdy, and I’ve brought you back a chart.

If you’re trying to figure out what this means: the red line is league average, and the blue bar graphs are the amount of time the player spent playing with, or against first fowards, second forwards, third forwards etc. Then the same for defence.

You may notice that on the competition scale, Shattenkirk is playing notably less of his ice-time against top-six forwards. In short, he’s absolutely owning his opposition..who are frequently third and fourth lines. Good work, Kevin.

And while Shattenkirk has a nice enough heat map, you’ll notice his chances and expected goals aren’t quite as lovely as his shots. Some things are getting through. And how much of it is his super-defensive partner, Carl Gunnarsson?

None of this means that Shattenkirk is a bad player. It only means that you can expect him to be not quite as good in a different environment. If you pair him with Jake Gardiner, whose heat map looks like a supernova exploded in the high slot, you might find they underperform their doubtless-excellent CF%. Maybe you’re okay with that—after all, if you’re putting up 60-40 shot splits on your top pairing, you’re still probably going to win a lot of hockey games, even if the 40% of shots against you are dangerous. Quantity, in the end, rules. But can Shattenkirk guarantee that level of excellence will follow him from a Hitchcock-trained club in St. Louis (via Washington) to firecracker Toronto?

That’s where the Washington experience—where he’s produced points, but has struggled in the playoffs—is suggestive. Small sample, yeah, but what if it’s reflective of what he’s like freed from the system in St. Louis? Shattenkirk’s defensive talent comes from playing most of the game in the other team’s zone. He may not have as easy a time doing that in Toronto.

The numbers back up the idea that Shattenkirk is at least a good top four defenceman. The problem is, if that’s all he is once he gets here, do you want to spend the money? True, the Leafs may have a window opening, but they also have a decade of competitiveness ahead of them to think about—basically the whole stage where Matthews, Nylander and Marner are in their 20s. A seven-year contract would take Shattenkirk to age 35 by the end, and into the stage where we would expect some meaningful decline. If the Leafs are capped out in 2023, and they’re paying $7M to an aging and merely okay Kevin Shattenkirk, you’re going to regret that deal.

It may be that the Leafs can’t get anyone better than Shattenkirk without trading someone they aren’t willing to trade. And it’s true that any player drafted this year would probably take several years to have a top four impact. But that doesn’t mean they can’t improve while being careful. The league still undervalues decent possession defenders, and you can find them without paying a ransom. The Leafs could put together a competent six D next year without breaking the bank or selling the farm. And ultimately, their best hope of getting a player of the really top flight calibre may be to trade for a young player and develop him. Does Morgan Rielly (who is still only 23) have more to give? What development can we hope for out of Connor Carrick, or Travis Dermott, or Andrew Nielsen? Maybe they don’t project as top pair guys—but as the case above pointed out, once upon a time, neither did Stralman.

Signing Shattenkirk is a gamble. It’s a trust in the numbers over the eye test, sure; but it’s also a belief that the best time to start moving aggressively towards contention is this summer. The Leafs can maintain flexibility and keep progressing, without making the kind of commitment Shattenkirk would require. Trust in the front office to keep making the little moves correctly, and recognize it’s not time yet to make a big one.


Should the Leafs offer Kevin Shattenkirk a serious contract this summer?

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