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UFA defencemen worth a look by the Maple Leafs

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Is there good depth to be found, once you get over the shock that Ron Hainsey might be top five in UFA D cost?

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs

thougOn the current Maple Leafs depth chart, you hit a bit of a gap on the list of defencemen after Travis Dermott and before Calle Rosen. The Leafs have some other defenders with pro experience and little NHL experience just like Rosen, but there aren’t any confirmed NHL depth performers currently under contract.

Can that gap be filled in free agency?

Obviously, it could if price was no object, but using the Evolving Hockey contract prediction list, it’s clear there’s a lot of defence options that are just too far out of the Leafs price range. When it comes to depth, the Leafs shop at No Frills not Loblaws. Ron Hainsey is listed at a projected cap hit of $3.6 million on this list, so that’s definitely not what we’re after today. Even Roman Polak, who signed for $1.75 million, is a bit expensive. Time to think bargain hire.

What are we looking for? Not points, that’s for sure. Points-getters cost more. To find a good bargain, we need to look at more one-dimensional defence-focused defenders who can augment the existing smooth-skating, puck-carrying defenders the Leafs have in abundance.

Why bother? Just because a good depth addition won’t solve the main problem on defence, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Defence by committee can quickly become the reality with a couple of injuries, so having the best committee is worth the work, if not a lot of cap space. On to the list:

Oscar Fantenberg

Oscar Fantenberg is an undrafted Swedish defender who came to North America two years ago at age 25. He split his first season between the LA Kings and their AHL team. Last season he played 46 games in LA and then was a deadline trade to the Calgary Flames. All is quiet on the rumour front with Fantenberg, and he doesn’t look as though he’s heading back to Europe. If he’s available, he might fit between Rosen and Dermott, and he has more NHL experience than Rosen and Andreas Borgman put together. As a former teammate of Andreas Johnsson on Frölunda, he’s an understood commodity to the Leafs.

He arrived in the NHL on a one-year ELC of $925,000, but he did a minimum salary one-way deal last year to stay in LA. He should be as inexpensive as Rosen and Borgman, and three are better than two when it comes to that kind of depth.

On the Kings last season, he was used in a limited role and then his ice time climbed sharply, particularly after Jake Muzzin was traded. He played mostly with our old friend Dion Phaneuf on the third pair, and a small amount with Alec Martinez on the second pair, so if he managed to accomplish anything, I think we can be sure it was a lot of his own doing. He wasn’t used particularly defensively or offensively or in any particular score state, but there’s no evidence that any LA coach last year was particular about anything.

He shows absolutely no positive impact on offence by his HockeyViz shotmaps, but his defence, looks interesting:

A negative for defensive “Threat” is a good thing. Blue is also a good thing.
HockeyViz

That’s an interesting heatmap showing a dearth of shots near the net when he’s on the ice, but caution is always necessary with low-minute third-pairing defenders. Is this just usage with the fourth line facing low quality opposition who never shoot anyway? Even a model that tries to account for that sometimes paints too blue a picture of the shots against. A check of the competition he faced says yes he played weak competition a little bit, but not exclusively.

The classic case of a third-pairing defender who was so very carefully used that he looked like a stud is Igor Ozhiganov. His competition is so radically skewed, that I think he only saw an NHL shooter who could top a 5% shooting percentage in practice. [Insert William Nylander joke here.]

Let’s compare them using Evolving Hockey’s tool:

This is all of Fantenberg’s minutes over two years shown. And yes, yes indeed that is epic levels of defending and a nullification field on offence. Meanwhile, Ozhiganov looks exactly like what we want! Except Fantenberg played real NHL minutes, not the sort of usage that you reserve for the son of the owner on an OHL team. And considering that the Leafs fourth line is likely to be once again helmed by one of the least offensively capable forwards in the NHL, maybe just being able to defend is a good thing.

An extremely one-dimensional player is a tough call, but a defender whose only dimension is defence is strangely comforting to me when I look at the Leafs roster.

Chris Wideman

In a recent 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman included some quotes from Wideman, who is from St. Louis and was watching the cup final. That story got me thinking about Wideman as a “reboot your career” signing like Tyler Ennis was last year.

Wideman, famous for the Uber video incident with the Ottawa Senators, did a tour of the league last year and finally wound up in the AHL where he says he sorted himself out and started trying to turn the corner on a career that had skidded off the road in Ottawa. He also recognized fully his own responsibility for his actions in a way that I found impressive. He credits the character of former Senators coach Martin Raymond, who took the brunt of the abuse in the video, with being gracious in accepting Wideman’s apologies. He says he wants to dedicate himself to getting in shape this year, and getting back on track. Which is great, if it’s true.

Wideman has a career of results that show him to be average at most things. He’s not a defensive genius by any means, but his nullification of offence is much less than Fantenberg’s. He’s duller. The tricky thing is guessing how well models like HockeyViz or the Evolving Hockey RAPM charts do at accounting for the truly dreadful play of the Ottawa Senators. The thing is, Wideman and his teammates weren’t wrong about how bad that coach was. HockeyViz doesn’t like Wideman’s career defensive performance. EH shows poor results last year, but a better three-year average.

Here he is compared to the comically small amount of minutes Rosen has put in:

Rosen is not a physically strong player, and his net-front and corner work is very poor at times. In this rendering of his ability, Wideman is a little better than average in all areas, including the one thing Rosen is weak at, Expected Goals against. That makes for a dull player, but sometimes dull is what you’re after. Particularly if it’s cheap. Evolving Hockey predicts a contract of $850,000 for Wideman who is 29, the same age Fantenberg will be once the season gets going. Wideman is also a right-shooter, unlike Fantenberg.

Dmitrij Jaskin

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. He’s not a defenceman. And that’s true! But he is a very cheap defensive forward, who just became a UFA because the Washington Capitals didn’t issue him a qualifying offer. He’s also a switch-hitting winger, who could easily slot in on the fourth line, play up a little, and is only 26.

Jaskin will not score you goals, but his defensive prowess is real, unlike the imaginary defence of players like Leo Komarov and Connor Brown.

One of these players works really hard, one is good at defence.

Evolving Hockey has him at a predicted $1 million, which is high, and it’s possible he’s going to Europe, and that’s why the Caps didn’t qualify him. It’s also possible that, well, I’ll let Micah McCurdy tell it, I stole this idea from him:

As posted on Twitter. These career summaries are subscriber content, and are worth the price.

Jaskin has a fantastic penalty differential, which is crucial in your cheap depth, and his defensive threat numbers are excellent. Why not?

Ben Hutton

Ben Hutton, late of the Vancouver Canucks, is a player that’s getting a lot of attention in the media for the simple reason that he’s on a Canadian team, one with a GM who talks a lot, and he scores a few goals and puts up some points here and there. He’s likely tall too.

He’s also not very good.

The Canucks overpaid him on the strength of his power play assists over a couple of years, but he’s not actually very good on the power play either. They chose to not issue a qualifying offer because it would have to be $2.8 million, and no one wants to pay him that.

He is exactly the wrong kind of player the Leafs should be looking at. His reputation far outstrips his ability, and defence is his weakest event.

Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed

These two depth Sharks defenders are both available from a team that went big on defence on the top end, and hasn’t got the space for these two anymore. Ryan is 26 and Heed is 28, and both play internationally for Sweden, although Ryan played his youth hockey in America.

Heed plays the power play, where he does nothing but shoot the puck a lot, which he also does at even strength. He is somewhat famous around the NHL, because the idea that you slip a defenceman with a big shot onto your third pair who you only bring him out for your power play appeals to people who like clever schemes. Trouble is, he’s not very good at the power play, and every shot a defenceman with a 5% shooting percentage takes is one that could have been taken by a forward at double that. Sorry, 3.5% in his case.

Ryan is slightly better defensively and also duller as well as less inclined to shoot the puck when someone more gifted is on the ice. They both have very high Corsi percentages, but people walking by the Shark Tank had high Corsi this past season.

Ryan’s bad shots against ability combined with surprisingly good Expected Goals against makes him good at defensive execution — probably — and if you made me pick, I’d pick him, but I’m not sure either is a great option. Heed is the right shot, but I don’t think that should be a deciding factor on a depth defender.

Both of these players show up on the contract predictor at around $1 million, which is way too much, but that’s the way these things go.


There’s likely some other choices out there, but McCurdy has the right of it, the good defensive players are often the players you remember as being bad at offence, and they don’t have good reputations. Just remember though, that just because a player is bad at offence doesn’t guarantee he’s good at defence. Sometimes, like Hutton, he’s just bad.

Who have you got in mind for the exciting July 2 signings we can expect this year?