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What’s this about the Leafs looking at Jason Zucker?

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Aren’t they supposed to be shopping Nikita Zaitsev for a defenceman?

2019 NHL Awards Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Sportsnet reporter Chris Johnston guest starred on the 31 Thoughts Podcast with Elliotte Friedman in an episode recorded just after the draft on the weekend. Naturally, as these things go, they spent some time talking about the Leafs, the holes in the Leafs roster and the dwindling pool of cap space. They cover the gamut from things they’re sure are true, to rumours they haven’t nailed down to pure speculation, and one of the things they talk about is Leafs interest in Jason Zucker. This seems to be a real thing, not speculation.

Okay, let’s back up. The podcast first mentions that the Leafs asked the Predators to retain $3 million per year on PK Subban, which would have made him a $6 million AAV player with three years on his contract. This was a serious deal that Kyle Dubas was contemplating. And even with the squeeze on cap space, it’s easy to see that by trading away Nikita Zaitsev (to someone else, the Preds weren’t taking back salary) there’s enough room, just, to squeeze a deal like that in without anyone too important falling overboard to make way.

Nashville decided they’d take a fairly poor return from the Devils instead of making a deal with the Leafs or any other of a very small list of teams that were in on this trade. But if it is possible, just barely, to get a big-ish money defender onto the roster, how does that make going after Jason Zucker make sense? It doesn’t make any sense at all. The last thing the Leafs can afford to buy is a forward. They have this obvious hole, and they should obviously fill it with a defenceman. Obviously. Right?

Well. Maybe not.

Let’s back up farther. In what now seems like ancient times, I wrote about the Leafs and what went wrong in the playoffs:

The question we should be asking is why did the Leafs show the biggest drop in effectiveness in their best event — offence — while carrying on being mediocre to good at defence?

This needs emphasis, because after less than one month since I wrote that, the never-ending chorus of “the Leafs need a defenceman”, has caused the understanding the the forward corps failed the test to receded into the back of our minds faster than William Nylander’s hairline.

The truth is, the Leafs have heaps of defencemen. The defenders under contract the Leafs should be able to pop onto NHL ice without inducing fond memories of Roman Polak are:

Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman, Justin Holl. Maybe Teemu Kivihalme too.

That is a very bottom heavy list. In fact, that list is so heavy on nearly-interchangeable, replacement-level defenders, that you really could replace half of them with random UFA pickups in the sub million-dollar AAV range, and likely see little difference. These scrubby fill-ins are just Leafs-style scrubby fill-ins, so they fit in well. It’s easy to add some more too. If Oscar Fantenberg doesn’t want to go back to Europe, he’s the first guy I’d call on July 1. I have a couple of other ideas for similar players who could come along and be not as good as Dermott, but better than nothing.

The Leafs actually could take out Zaitsev and add Jason Zucker and put a team on the ice that isn’t a joke. Should they, though?

Let’s imagine it. First, we have to get Zucker, who is 27 and has four more years on his contract with an AAV of $5.5 million, so only one million more than Zaitsev. For this thought experiment, the Leafs traded Zaitsev to Vancouver for a second-round pick, and they got Zucker for a lot less than Phil Kessel. Or at least, without paying out any current roster forwards.

What does that do the defence? Well, that depends on how you view Zaitsev’s contributions and if you think his nearly team-average Expected Goals against while playing heavy defensive and high-leverage usage means he was better than his reputation at defensive play. (High-leverage means he was disproportionately played when a goal against would be very harmful to the team and almost never when a goal against really didn’t matter.)

The defence on the Leafs would be reliant on some basic-quality play, skewed to puck carrying and offence from the bottom four and from the number one man in Morgan Rielly. Jake Muzzin would be a very, very overworked man defensively. So would a lot of other defenders who haven’t shown great ability at defending.

But remember the question from the playoffs, and it’s a valid question about the whole Leafs season and about the concept of the roster. For a roster built to outscore their opponents and win it 5-4 instead of 1-0, why do they struggle to score so often?

In the playoffs, I said the answer was Nazem Kadri’s suspension and the failure of the Auston Matthews line to get out of their own zone. In the regular season I would say it’s the Kadri line’s ineffective and unlucky offence and the Matthews line’s inability to get out of their own zone.

Defence is not a trick just for defencemen. It’s not an event restricted just to the defensive zone, nor is it exactly just a thing you do without the puck. Defence means keeping control of the puck offensively, stopping the other team from transitioning to offence, or if you can’t, getting into position quickly to disrupt their neutral zone passage. Defence is denying zone entries, and it’s also having a plan for when you get possession of the puck in your end that is something more advanced than the Leafs specialty. That specialty is to whip your head around in a panic, and bat the puck back to the other team so they can cycle it again.

Defence is a forward skill, and the Leafs have very few forwards skilled at it. Matthews isn’t. Marner isn’t (oh shut up about that one time he backchecked like a trooper), Nylander is.... well, he gets out of the zone, unlike many others. No one has ever said Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson are Selke candidates. At least not sober. But they’re okay. John Tavares handles himself very well, and Kadri is your man to get the puck in the right end of the rink as long as you don’t ask him to play competition as tough as Tavares can handle. That’s not a glowing report card.

Auston Matthews is Not Good At Defence

I’m sorry if that’s upsetting to hear

To read this chart, look at each of the five bars individually and recognize that this chart does the best EH can accomplish so far at removing the effects of teammates and competition and other external effects on results. Both Matthews and Marner are superb at generating offence in the form of goals for. Matthews also generates massive Expected Goals For, meaning he’s creating volumes of shots and quality of shots, and basically is one of the most gifted men with the puck on his stick in the NHL. Marner, not so much. Their effect on shots for (Corsi For) is very good. And then... well, and then they get in the defensive zone and spin and spin and that’s what those orange rectangles tell us. Matthews very nearly gives it all away defensively with his very orange effect on Expected Goals Against. It’s a really good thing Frederik Andersen likes him so much. Marner is just meh in the shots and shot quality against. Nylander is a little less meh, and both of them are what you get with a gifted offensive winger usually.

Zach Hyman is like a god amongst men on this team. Hyman isn’t your typical winger. And if he wasn’t out there on the ice doing defensively smart things all over the place, I’m not sure if this theory that the Leafs could outscore their own weaknesses would hold any water at all.

How about giving him a hand?

Hey now. Now, hold up with the swooning. This model does a very good job of equalizing out external factors, but the difference between the style of play of the Minnesota Wild and the Toronto Maple Leafs is vast. But given the Wild’s mild offensive pace, and their good, but not great, defensive numbers, I’m comfortable thinking Zucker might not be quite as good offensively on the Leafs as his excellent results on the Wild, but holy hell, he actually has a clue about defence. He’s, well, I hate to say this, but he’s better than Hyman. Plus he’s very good offensively. He will add goals for to the team.

Let’s back up some more, farther than last month or last season. Let’s back up to when Leo Komarov was on the Leafs. The theory given out about Komarov was that he’s good defensively, so his nearly non-existent offensive talent is not a problem. Go look at Islanders media, and you’ll see that over and over still. It’s not true. It is true of Matt Martin, funnily enough, but it’s not true of Komarov. He just seems like the type of guy who should be defensively sound.

Zucker actually is. Plus he puts the puck in the net.

So what do you get if you throw up your hands and say defencemen are just too expensive, I’m buying a defensively-capable forward instead? The Leafs would have to wait out the development of Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin to make the Leafs blueline less alarming-looking, and they’d have to just roll without any star power or new blood in the top four.

But what if that forward is a left wing you could play with Auston Matthews? What if your net effect is to get your savant with the puck in front of the other team’s net with the puck. All of the time? What if you win it 5-4 a lot more often?

Just one small hitch to this scheme, though. In the real world, you have to trade something real for Zucker, and I’m not sure the Leafs have the assets the Wild will want.