Granted, it's a good problem to have, too many wingers, an excess of depth, too many defenders…. Wait, what?
While we've gotten used to talking endlessly about defensive shortcomings on the Leafs, there is now an excess of defencemen. There might not be anyone I think is an elite top pairing man, but there is a good trio at the top and enough extras with four through six potential to staff more than one team.
This defence group will staff more than one team. Someone is going to the Marlies who is either NHL-capable or near enough. Someone else, or perhaps two someones will be sitting in the press box and rotating in and covering for injuries.
The Leafs management have told us who to expect as the top four and how they'll be paired up. This isn't a normal way for the most closed-mouth team in the league to behave, so they either have a hell of an ulterior motive, or they really think it's just this obvious.
Likely door number two is the reason, but regardless, here are the announced top four:
- Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zaitsev
- Morgan Rielly - Ron Hainsey
Both Rielly and Hainsey are experienced at playing their off side, so having two lefties there who both switch should be interesting.
I'm not sure there is a distinct first pair and a second pair here, however. I know fans love their hierarchies and people, being what we are, can't seem to see a list without assuming it's ranked by some value criteria. I actually picked the alphabet for the left side man to chose how to list them.
I think we're going to see the G-Z pair play with the offensively more gifted lines against lighter competition where their play-driving ability will be used to augment the frightening Leafs offensive pace and skill. This is not your shut-down pair.
Is the R-H pair, though? They are the nearest thing the Leafs will have. Neither of these guys is Drew Doughty, just like Gardiner isn't Erik Karlsson. But both Hainsey and Rielly have been down the heavy minutes road, and they aren't the best ever at it, but they are the best at it the Leafs have.
Rielly has spent two years playing heavily skewed competition -- skewed enough that even I think it matters. Most of the discussion around quality of competition, in my opinion, grossly overstates the impact of it. The single biggest effect to results on the ice is quality of teammates.
When it comes to being a shutdown pair, the thing that matters is who the shutdown forwards are. The better they are at their job -- whether they are a dedicated line or just the guys Babcock throws over the boards against Sidney Crosby on a given night -- the defence with them will have more chance to succeed.
The top two are what they are, so what that leaves us with is the third pair to decide on, and this is where the options multiply.
Martin Marincin and Connor Carrick seem like they have the jobs sewn up, and yet, that's not how this team operates. The Leafs don't generally make decisions in advance of training camp, and they don't pick based on next man up or whose turn it is to be Given a Chance™. The final decision on this third pair will be who works well with whom, and the whom includes the forwards, not just the other defender.
How well they work will also depend on how they will be used. If the third pair is just meant to go out in support of the fourth line, grind it out in the defensive zone, then you might want different guys than if they are going out in support of an offence-only line that might never see the defensive zone unless they get lost and end up there by accident.
Look at it like this: You are going to rent a car for your holiday. You don't pick the same type of car to go drive down backcountry gravel roads as you do to drive around the city.
But here's the problem with all this cleverness about usage. On the road, the other coach is picking the route. So your third pair might need to be just a little bit more all-around capable than they need to be at home. (I think this just became a Jeep ad.)
The full list of contestants for this job of Leafs Jeep is:
- Andreas Borgman
- Connor Carrick
- Travis Dermott
- Martin Marincin
- Calle Rosén
No, Andrew Nielsen is not on that list, nor is Rinat Valiev or Justin Holl. Of those three, the one I'd call up if there's a mumps epidemic and the other five are all in the hospital is Vincent LoVerde.
So those five will battle it out for two to four positions on the active roster, depending on how many defenders Babcock wants in the press box. At least one of them gets cut. In my mind the most likely suspects to hit the AHL first are Rosén and Dermott, but I'm also concerned about the popcorn D. If Rosén or Borgman become the Swedish Frank Corrado (we have hashtags already prepared) then that's a mistake. They, like Dermott, need to play all the time, get in the groove and become ready to take some NHL minutes.
If the best way to do that is a lot of riding the elevator to the Marlies, that's fine. Only Carrick and Marincin are not waiver exempt, and it's a short trip. I can write a [Name] has been [Called up/Sent Down] story in five minutes.
That's the easy part of the roster to figure out. The forwards are the big mess.
Tomorrow I'll dig into that.