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Maple Leafs Defence Dilemma

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There’s jobs open, but who wants to be a defenceman on the Leafs?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Mike Babcock said after Saturday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres that he’s more confused than ever about his defenceman choices. There’s a list of candidates for the openings on the Leafs, more than there are jobs to fill, and I have to agree that the choices aren’t obvious yet.

To sort this out, I thought it would make sense to first look at the job requirements to be a Maple Leafs defender.

If you’re a defenceman in the NHL, you already know what your life is going to be like on any team. You’ll be subjected to constant scrutiny over every mistake and scolded for not scoring enough, when if you could score, you wouldn’t be a defenceman. Because people are really bad at seeing what isn’t there, you can be the best damn goal preventer since that season Obi-Wan Kenobi played for Detroit, and no one will notice.

In Toronto, you get all that amped up to 11 and multiplied by a thousand. Every radio show host will salivate over your big mistakes, and you’ll find your name in Twitter polls every morning for crimes that likely weren’t even your fault. You’ll get letter grades after the game from bloggers, and there will be 17 gifs of every goof within seconds of it happening. And that’s on top of the expensive steak dinners you have to buy Frederik Andersen. Have you seen restaurant prices in Toronto?

That’s just the sideshow, though. What’s the show like? Well, here’s what’s going to happen to you on the ice. You’ll be defending against top lines with some forwards who are a little shaky on exactly what they should do without the puck. Some of them are so tight with Freddie that it will seem like they want to spend all game with him. And then, if you do get out of the zone, you’ll discover that these little dudes are fast. Like, holy shit, they’re fast. And you’re supposed to keep up! If your transition gap gets too wide, it’s not going to be that little fella’s fault, the one making more than $10 million or the cheap one at less than $8 million. It’s all your fault. You and your comically-small salary are always guilty until proven innocent.

Once you do get up the ice, you’ll discover to your horror, that the entire forwards corps of the Toronto Maple Leafs is made up of those little guys who buzz around doing who the hell knows what, but at no time is “simple game” one of those things. They don’t just play high-risk hockey, they’ve redefined the concept until they’re so high on gambler’s fever they can’t be stopped. (This is the one bright side. You aren’t trying to stop them. Hold onto that.) They’re a bunch of loopy hummingbirds who’ve been at the nectar too much. Even that super nice John Tavares guy, in his no-nonsense backpack and dad suit, is one of those guys on the ice.

There you’ll be, innocently trying to hold the blueline, and you’ll look over and see Mitch Marner on the other side. Why? Because the two best defenders on this damn team are also Class Hummingbird, and they’re right up there with all those damn forwards, and Marner is covering the pinch. And okay, he’s not bad at it, maybe he’s even very good. But if it all goes to hell and you have to backcheck, he’ll beat you back to the zone, but he’s a little shy on reach and heft, and just because he’s the showroom model of Class Hummingbird, he’s still a little bird.

You’ll tell yourself the coach will tighten this up. I mean look at him; if you were calling central casting for a gruff, old-school hockey coach, he’s who they’d send. He’ll have them all playing like the New York Islanders by the end of October. No, no he won’t. This style of waltzing across Niagara Falls on a wire, without a safety harness or a care in the world, is all his idea because he likes to gamble. He likes to win, and you don’t win by playing a safe and simple game. Why do you think Dave Hakstol looks 10 years older than when he was coaching the Flyers? The Flyers! D.J. Smith intentionally took a job in Ottawa, and Ron Hainsey ran after him so fast, you’d think he was one of those zippy little birds.

It’s not getting better. I’m sorry to tell you this, but look at that Travis Dermott guy getting ready to re-join the team. If he’s not a least a wannabe Class Hummingbird, what is he? And if you want proof the coach is in on it, you just need to look close at this Sandman guy, the one Babcock is building a shrine to in his office beside the one for Zach Hyman. He’s a teenager, and he’s out there playing “his game” by gliding across the Niagara Gorge like his feet don’t ever touch the wire, and then he calmly and without any fuss, plays like he’s been at the nectar along with Tyson Barrie. And if you ask him to play a simple game, he’ll look at you like you might be slow and tell you that is his simple game. He’s trying to make the team here, this is him toned down.

Look, I’ll be honest. If the Leafs call you up to offer you a job, you should hang up and agree to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning for half as much money. You’ll thank me in time.

But hang on. All of that is Cody Ceci’s nightmare. Or Jake Muzzin’s. The Leafs are looking to add some third pairing guys, and that job is totally different. Isn’t it? Maybe we should find that out before we actual hire someone.

Let’s start with Travis Dermott’s history. He played 64 games last season at 15 minutes per game. His teammates in order of total minutes together were:

  1. Igor Ozhiganov - 457
  2. Connor Brown - 301
  3. Nazem Kadri - 279
  4. Patrick Marleau - 273
  5. Par Lindholm - 248
  6. Andreas Johnsson - 247
  7. Auston Matthews - 217
  8. Frederik Gauthier - 203
  9. William Nylander - 190

All numbers are from Natural Stat Trick’s teammates page.

Tavares and Marner are both near 190 and Tyler Ennis is down at the bottom of regular roster players at 137. This is a mixed bag, a lot of dull third liners (and good third liners in Kadri and Nylander) and as much time with the top line as the fourth line. There’s less of the nightmare scenario in Dermott’s world, but it’s still part of the deal. But we know Dermott got some hybrid usage. He played 100 minutes with Jake Gardiner and another 95 with Nikita Zaitsev.

Igor Ozhiganov was never anything but the third-pairing depth guy who was whisked off the ice as soon as Jake Muzzin arrived. He’s a better judge of the role that is being cast right now on the Leafs. He played 53 games last year at 14 minutes per game. His teammates look like this:

  1. Travis Dermott - 457
  2. Connor Brown - 217
  3. Nazem Kadri - 213
  4. Patrick Marleau - 205
  5. Par Lindholm - 176
  6. Kasperi Kapanen - 174
  7. Andreas Johnsson - 171
  8. Frederik Gauthier - 171
  9. John Tavares - 131
  10. Auston Mathews - 128

Nylander, Marner and Ennis are all around 120 minutes.

The difference here is distinct, and the elephant in the room is that it’s Auston Matthews who spends a little too much time on the ice in sight of Frederik Andersen, and Ozhiganov was kept as far away from that line as can be. He has great stats! And he got them largely courtesy of Nazem Kadri.

So the job being filled really isn’t to hang with Matthews and try to pry him away from Freddie’s side. The job is to hang with the fourth line, for the limited time they’re on the ice, and if that’s now the Jason Spezza line with Trevor Moore and a player to be named later, that’s likely a doable job for a guy who is a little afraid of hummingbirds. Moore might be small and fast, but he’s a little more Connor Brown than he is Mitch Marner. The trouble is going to come when the third pair spends the bulk of their time on the ice with the third line.

The expectation is that the third like will be Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev, both of whom straddle the hummingbird/simple game line. Mikheyev in particular has a lot of zippy sniper in him. The third man in on that crew will eventually be Kapanen, who is Trevor Moore only really good — good enough to play on most team’s top lines. He’s the fastest Leaf (at least until we get a race between him and Barrie to be sure) but he’s got a lot more grit in him than it appears, and he’s also smart enough to understand who is backing him up.

But none of those guys are Naz. That’s just the reality. None of those guys will get the puck going the right way and keep it there like Naz can do.

The third pairing defender position is a harder job to fill this year on the Leafs; maybe that’s why Babcock is having a hard time deciding. He needs the hybrid player Dermott, but he can’t have him right away. He has a pale copy in Martin Marincin, and he needs at least two more fill-ins to begin. So who is it? The no-offence, nothing but reach Ben Harpur? The more offensively focused, Jordan Schmaltz who looks to have some hummingbird in him? Kevin Gravel, who isn’t in their class but will pick you up and throw you to the ice if you mess with one a them little birds? Justin Holl, a guy who started out as a forward and always looks very lost in the NHL defensive zone?

I don’t have the answer yet, either, so I’m going to listen to some music and reflect.