I have idly gone through the 2019 class of UFA right-handed defencemen. These are honest to goodness right-handed defencemen. You don't have to stare or tilt your head sideways or anything. No imposter left-handers who played the right in junior. No Ron Hainsey. These are simply all the right-handed defencemen on the UFA market and they represent the limit of what the Leafs can do to fix their lacunose blueline solely in unrestricted free agency this summer. I used CapFriendly to find these players, used Corsica Hockey and Evolving Hockey for a better analytical picture of what they offer, and used Evolving Wild's contract projection spreadsheet to get a sense of what their contractual demands might be like. I removed from consideration any player who did not play at least one game in the NHL in the 2018-2019 season.
Well, good news and bad news. Bad news is there's no incredible right-handed defenceman that can slot onto the Leafs' top-pairing with Morgan Rielly. No true diamonds in this rough. However, there are a couple of intriguing names that the Leafs could call on this week and next. There are a couple of players who could productively contribute to the Leafs' blueline on the right side at an affordable price while the Leafs sign their RFAs, hit the phones to talk trades, and weather the 2019-2020 cap-crunch. In this article, we will go over all the players on the market. We will go over the players to avoid and the unsexy depth players, as medium as unbuttered unbrowned toast, before looking at two viable targets for the Leafs.
Players to Avoid
First, the ugly. These are the players the Leafs should simply avoid. They are all not good or not good and too expensive.
Too Much and Too Bad
|Tyler Myers||29||6'8"||229||80||9||22||31||48.81%||-0.57%||47.57%||-0.3%||7 years, $6,055,556|
|Anton Stralman||32||5'11"||190||47||2||15||17||48.07%||-3.37%||47.98%||-5.6%||3 years, $4,475,273|
It's easy to look at Anton Stralman, one time darling of the analytics community, and think about what might have been if the Leafs weren't consistently outmanaged by spuds until the Shanahan era began. Sadly, his 2018-2019 season saw him banged up by injuries and much less effective on the ice. It's a neat exercise to imagine if the Leafs medical staff couldn't work magic with Stralman to return him to his former effectiveness, but the projected pricepoint for that gambit is one the Leafs want no part of. Budget's tight, so be frugal with your fantasies.
Myers is a bidding war the Leafs want no part of, and if they did, they couldn't compete, and if they could, they shouldn't.
Too Old and Too Bad
|Deryk Engelland||37||6'2"||214||74||2||10||12||50.4%||-5.14%||49.89%||-7.97%||1 year, $1,899,199|
|Ben Lovejoy||35||6'1"||205||71||2||7||9||47.07%||-2.11%||49.47%||-0.67%||1 year, $1,474,611|
|Dan Girardi||35||6'1"||212||62||4||12||16||50.25%||-1.75%||53.18%||0.27%||1 year, $1,423,056|
|Adam McQuaid||32||6'4"||210||50||3||4||7||43.31%||-5.3%||46.8%||-2.01%||1 year, $1,023,089|
Lots of familiar names around here for analytically inclined folk. So many memories! That's Derek "That's Per Year" Engelland to you, sir or madam.
All four of these players might fit under the cap at their projected pricepoints, but even the most basic look at their inability to drive play should convince you to look elsewhere.
Simply Too Bad
|Alex Petrovic||27||6'4"||216||35||0||2||2||48.69%||-1.76%||40.62%||-9.66%||1 year, $925,504|
|Luke Schenn||29||6'2"||221||26||0||2||2||45.31%||-1.01%||39.29%||-1.44%||1 year, $762,518|
|Nate Prosser||33||6'2"||201||15||0||0||0||50.67%||-2.39%||53.59%||-4.48%||1 year, $748,396|
|Zach Trotman||28||6'3"||217||13||0||1||1||48.68%||-3.34%||52.36%||-3.24%||1 year, $710,138|
|Cody Goloubef||29||6'1"||200||5||0||0||0||38.46%||-7.87%||48.21%||-0.1%||1 year, $737,406|
|Matt Tennyson||29||6'2"||205||4||0||0||0||51.85%||2.89%||40.32%||-10.74%||1 year, $677,760|
|Erik Burgdoerfer||30||6'1"||207||4||0||0||0||46%||-1.78%||45.86%||-0.52%||1 year, $714,958|
Poor Luke Schenn, once the chosen one to lead the Leafs' blueline. And poor Alex Petrovic, unfortunate plotpoint in the great unravelling of Peter Chiarelli.
All these players failed to drive play in a meaningful way and generally had a negative impact when they were on ice. Most of this group comprises depth defencemen that didn't play much this season, didn't accomplish much when they played, and don't have the track records to suggest this year was an abberation. Tennyson might seem to stand out, given his positive Rel CF%, but these numbers are from just 40 minutes of icetime, while his track record from previous seasons does not convince me that there's something there. Hard pass on all, even for these low low prices.
Players Who Are Whatever
These are the lukewarm mediums. These are the players who don't matter very much. They are not targets. I would not sign them in the month of July. Some might be options for a PTO or to fill out the Toronto Marlies. None of these players are better than Igor Ozhiganov was. Think somewhere between Justin Holl and Steve Oleksy.
|Chris Wideman||29||5'10"||183||25||2||5||7||44.63%||1.34%||45.21%||-0.15%||1 year, $850,266|
|Eric Gryba||31||6'4"||222||10||0||0||0||46.09%||3.02%||39.42%||-6.28%||1 year, $798,097|
I was surprised to find these two have slightly more favourable analytical outlooks than their reputations might suggest. Chris Wideman had a rough stretch of riding pine for three teams, none of which were very good. His track record indicates he's not horrible, but he's not an uber play-driver either. Eric Gryba was never very good, yet he has seemed to perform better with a reduced workload in the past few years.
I would still hard pass on these two. Neither of them are very good in an absolute sense, and whoever the Leafs sign from this UFA class need to be prepared to take on a meaningful workload. I think their resumes look like the resumes of acceptable depth options for 7th/8th D. However, their resumes also look like the resumes of defencemen our coach would play too much over a litany of better options because they're veterans. Even for bland filler, we could probably do better.
Unexciting Depth Options
|Andy Welinski||26||6'1"||201||26||1||3||4||49.53%||2.08%||40.3%||-7.52%||1 year, $878,908|
|Dalton Prout||29||6'3"||215||20||1||1||2||51.09%||-1.57%||53.18%||0.19%||1 year, $710,282|
|Luke Witkowski||29||6'2"||210||34||0||2||2||44.33%||0.13%||41.27%||-0.81%||1 year, $774,639|
|Stefan Elliott||28||6'1"||190||3||0||1||1||54.55%||12.65%||57.27%||13.63%||1 year, $694,647|
All these players represent unexciting filler options for 7th/8th D alongside Justin Holl. These are the gravyless mashed potatoes of your depth chart. These contracts are low-risk but low-upside and are easily sent down. They will not fix the Leafs' most pressing blueline issues.
Steven Kampfer seemed to put in solid work on the Boston Bruins' *spits* blueline during a regular season where they were often injured yet defensively unimpeachable. However, his track record hints that this might be a consequence of the Bruins' system. Like Welinski, Prout, and Witkowski, Kampfer has not previously been a consistent play-driver in his career.
Stefan Elliott is a bit out of place here but I cannot think of where else to put him. He deserves nomination for the Cody Franson memorial trophy of guy who has seemed to do fine with the minutes he has received in his career and yet has been chronically unable to hold down a job at the NHL level. However, Elliott has not played that much, so there are sample size concerns, and unlike Franson, Elliott has not ever held down top 4 minutes with any sort of regularity or creditability.
I promised targets in the introduction, yet in an unrestricted free agency market as dire as this one, I warn you that the targets dare you to dream. There are no slam dunks here, especially not with the Leafs' cap. So let's get hopeful and let's get to some targets.
|Tim Heed||28||5'11"||180||37||2||11||13||52.17%||-3.04%||51.09%||-3.44%||2 years, $1,021,133|
Tim Heed has come up very sporadically on Twitter. There's reason to be wary of him given his performance relative to his team this season. Yet, in 2017-2018, Tim Heed accomplished a Rel CF% of 4.3% in 27 games with the Sharks in 29 games. So what gives?
I would start by reading Fear the Fin's deep dive into him. He seems like the kind of mobile puck-mover that thinking hockey fans covet in the abstract. He's mobile, he's not especially big or physical, he makes quick first passes, he occasionally coughs up the puck while trying to make a play, and he doesn't have a track record with killing penalties. In other words, he doesn't seem to especially solve the Toronto Maple Leafs' defensive problems with shot suppression and their general defensive porousness, and he's only put up encouraging possession metrics in one of the two partial seasons he's played.
I also think it's worth looking at his defence partners and role. This past season, Tim Heed played most of his minutes with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. He played over 200 minutes with Vlasic, with his next most frequent partner being the rock-solid Brenden Dillon for 70 scant minutes. Once one of the few examples of an Actually Good shutdown defensive defenceman, Vlasic has declined in previous seasons, showing the wear of his workload and competition. He has not posted a positive RelCF% since 2015-16. His decline became a talking point among Sharks fans this year.
This is not to say that Tim Heed was miscast in a shutdown role or anything like that. His zone starts do not support that argument. Yet it is easy to fathom that he was stuck somewhere between Karlsson and Burns quarterbacking the powerplay and Braun and Vlasic eating the most difficult defensive minutes. Whether or not he's capable of a bigger role and what that role would be if he were are the questions you have to ask yourself when trying to pencil Tim Heed into a part of the Leafs' lineup.
At just over $1 million for 2 seasons and on the right on the bottom pair, Heed might be a can worth kicking. By betting on him, you are betting that his questionable 2018-2019 campaign was the result of his most frequent partner and how sporadically he was playing. You are also gambling that the unimpressive analytical picture of him from last season is not something he can't overcome. I admit I initially lumped Tim Heed in with the bad players above given his relative stats this year before looking deeper into him. If you like his skillset and think he's capable of more than ~30 games in a season with the right coaching and deployment, you can fathom a scenario where Heed could repeat his 2017-2018 numbers and where a bet on him would pay dividends.
|Taylor Fedun||31||6'1"||201||54||4||7||11||51.91%||3.46%||58.07%||9.92%||2 years, $1,032,981|
Taylor Fedun has bounced between the NHL and AHL for most of his career. A cursory YouTube search returns a video of him fracturing his femur in 2011, when he had the misfortune of playing for the Edmonton Oilers. Since 2013-2014, he has played for 5 NHL teams and has spent a lot of time in the AHL. In 2016-2017, he played 27 games with the *squints* Buffalo Sabres, who are apparently an NHL franchise. He managed a 9.5 RelCF% that year, pushing the play in a very positive manner. This is known as Not Bad, yet Fedun spent much of the next season in the AHL. At the dawn of the 2018-2019 season, he was healthy scratched for the first 14 games of the AHL season before Buffalo traded him to the Dallas Stars for a conditional 7th in 2020. If he played 25 games, the condition read, the Sabres got the pick.
The Sabres got the pick: Fedun played 54 games, accomplishing a very positive RelCF% and RelGF% for the defence-addled Stars. He accomplished these numbers carrying around Ben Lovejoy and Jamie Oleksiak as his most common defence partners. Oleksiak is fine if not a world-beater, and Lovejoy can be found under Bad earlier in this article. The scouting report on him suggests he's a puck-moving defenceman who thinks the game well and made every teammate better when they played with him. He was also the Stars' nominee for the Masterton Trophy, and deservedly so.
I think Taylor Fedun represents the most viable option in UFA for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He acquitted himself well in a bottom-pair role for the Stars and pushed play very positively even with mediocre partners. While there's certainly risk with a player like this, given how limited his body of work is, it's a low-risk bet with high upside given his projected contract. If there's any cheap UFA available who could replace Zaitsev on the 2nd pairing with Muzzin and feasibly be an upgrade, it's Fedun.
There are no right-hand UFA defencemen who would fix the Leafs' blueline issues on their own. The top-pair defenceman the Leafs covet is simply not available beyond the trade market. However, there's absolutely the potential for some low-risk signings on the Leafs' right-side in this budget crunch year.
We are also likely re-signing Ron Hainsey.