Now that we’re in a world where John Tavares is a Leaf, the next logical thing to do is what? Plan the upcoming domination and doom that will unfold upon the rest of the league? Spend countless amounts of dollars on JT gear? Foresee a possible trip to a Stanley Cup Final!?
No, actually. As soon as that deal was made official, the “Leafs got another forward and didn’t improve their defence” and “Dubas ruined the team’s cap situation” takes came out to play.
A few things on that: 1) It’s July, 2) Management isn’t blind to the fact that the blue line needs at least another guy, and 3) There aren’t many defenders who have been openly made available. And let me stop you before you mention Erik Karlsson.
On that note, there is a guy that’s been on my mind in Jared Spurgeon of the Minnesota Wild (have to thank Adam Wylde of the Steve Dangle Podcast for the initial nugget). PPP’s own Acting the Fulemin had him down as a POI back in 2016 when teams were gearing up for the Expansion Draft.
Chuck Fletcher could’ve been swayed to make a bigger move ahead of the event seeing as how Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville had to be protected running the risk of losing a key d-man. However, Spurgeon was left protected, Marcus Scandella and Matt Dumba to name a few were not, but the Wild chose to give the Vegas Golden Knights Erik Haula and Alex Tuch.
Now, that was two years ago. The Leafs will benefit from having a player of Spurgeon’s calibre now as much they would’ve then.
Current Defence Core
Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are still going to be the top dogs at Scotiabank Arena (gross). Both had career years offensively, as two of 19 defenders to reach the 50-point mark.
However, Reilly benefited from the defence-first boot camp Mike Babcock put him through the year before. The bulk of his underlying numbers improved despite playing against similar competition and with poorer teammates (possession-wise). Reilly spent the majority of the season playing with Ron Hainsey whereas last year, Nikita Zaitsev was his partner in crime.
Rielly (Season Comparison)
Speaking of Zaitsev, he didn’t have too good of a year either, and it doesn’t take analyzing stats to tell you that.
Battling through a broken foot and a concussion made him far from the defenceman he was the year before, making the simplest plays in the defensive zone at times look like a circus. That, in combination with bad luck or the wrong side of the force, is weighed down further by the fact he will be making $4.5 million annually for the next six seasons.
However, it’s important to note that his decline in production is as a result of seeing virtually no time on the power play. Zaitsev had 12 points in 164 man-advantage minutes in the 16-17 season vs 0 in 14 minutes this past campaign. But the Leafs will need a much better season from him.
The rest of the Leafs defence boils down to Travis Dermott, who looked good after a second half callup (except for in the playoffs), and Roman Polak, Connor Carrick, and Hainsey.
The veteran Hainsey rarely saw time away from Rielly on the top pair. He did, however, finish with his highest point total — 4 goals and 19 assists — since the 2009-10 season where he put up 26 points for the Atlanta Thrashers. The issue with Hainsey came down to a case of where and how he was used.
For example, staying out the full two minutes on the penalty kill, not the best idea. Hainsey has seen north of 20 minutes a night for the majority of his career, but you can tell it was catching up to him by the end of the season and into the playoffs.
Do you go into the next season with the same top pair? Babcock may not mind and neither will the rest of the league. So let me take you down a road for the blindly optimistic. Strap on your Armchair GM hats.
Spurgeon is a 28-year-old RIGHT SHOT defenceman who stands at 5’9”, 168 pounds. He’s also an absolute beast.
5v5 Comparables (17-18 Season)
Spurgeon finished the season a point shy of his total from the year before in 15 fewer games. However, he had the highest P/60 among all defenceman on the Wild who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5v5.
Another thing that sets him aside from the Leafs’ two top guys in Rielly and Gardiner are his shot generation (RelCF/60) and expected goal differential (xG+/-) where the latter is a predictive stat for scoring that factors in shot quality, location, and type. Spurgeon’s 16.18 was second in the league among defencemen at 5v5.
At the same time, he’s a superb skater and is as impactful defensively as he is offensively. Positioning and attention to detail are at the forefront of Spurgeon’s skill set in that department. He also produces pretty shot maps.
Here are Rielly’s, Gardiner’s, and Hainsey’s maps for comparison’s sake.
Spurgeon would also provide the Leafs with two things they could use more of: a slap shot option and more defensive zone entries with possession. Rielly and Zaitsev usually go for the snap and wrist shots in the offensive zone. Gardiner doesn’t have a go-to shot preference, but he gets more slappers across than any other Leafs defenceman.
Shot type since the 16-17 season
Just image all the one-timers...
The point on the lack of players who can break out the puck with possession out of the defensive zone wasn’t a joke. Via CJ Tutoro’s A3Z Player Comparison Tool, Spurgeon was in the 86th percentile of defencemen in percentage of zone exits with possession while Rielly and Gardiner were in the 47th and 40th respectively.
Spurgeon on the Leafs is automatically your best right-handed defenceman, and he plays a style of game that Babcock would fall in love with instantly.
It helps that he is on a pretty sweet contract that will see him make $5,187,500 for the next two seasons. With that deal comes a 10-team no-trade list, but hockey-wise, there’s no reason to expect the Leafs are on it.
Spurgeon’s also in every way shape and form Minnesota’s best defenceman and most likely one of the more important members of the team as Ryan Suter gets older. So playing with the idea that newly appointed general manager Paul Fenton is willing to listen, what would it cost for Dubas to nab Spurgeon from the Western Conference?
Probably Andrew Nielsen, Connor Brown and a second (holds up ‘Laugh’ sign).
Okay, in all seriousness, that’s the most difficult part of this discussion. Matt Dumba is in the same hemisphere as Spurgeon offensively, but struggles when it comes to his play away from the puck. If he improves in that area he could fill in permanently on their top pair.
Dumba did play nearly 500 minutes with Suter 5v5 and had better possession numbers than when paired with Jonas Brodin.
Coming up with trade scenarios isn’t really my thing, but maybe you can think of one.
Either way, the good ol’ cliché is you have to give up value to get value. Spurgeon is a player I would love to see on the team at some point. You add a good weapon and everyone can finally leave the Leafs alone about improving the blue line. Sounds like an attractive idea to me.