No doubt like many of us, I have been staring wistfully at next year’s roster, seeing it all coming together quite nicely (if expensively) with the exception of the embarrassing paucity of riches we have in right-handed defencemen. I will gleefully wave good riddance to Barrie and Ceci: the former was an experiment that didn’t work to anyone’s satisfaction, the latter was a clever interim move made so that we could sneak out from under the burden of the Zaitsev contract and not really about Ceci as a player at all. Justin Holl is about the only clear option left, and he only has that mantle by seeming to have formed a reasonable pairing with Muzzin. Liljegren is close but not quite; probably a serviceable option for a third line pairing next year if he continues to progress at the same rate.
So who the hell do we get to play with Morgan Rielly?
There’s been no end of chatter about the ‘unicorn’ options (Pietrangelo, Jones inter alia), but I thought it might be interesting to pursue a different direction of investigation to see if there were other names, ones not light up in neon, that might be worth considering.
So I’ve based this piece on the underlying assumption that the player we’d really like to have on Rielly’s right is… Jake Muzzin. I mean, he’s perfect, barring his handedness. Defensively sound to free up Rielly to roam, mean as a weasel with its goolies cinched in string, and perfectly capable of supporting decent offense. Another assumption I’ve made for the purpose of this piece is that I’m looking for a trade: it’s not necessarily the only route, but adding anyone decent will require shedding some salary next year, so why not assume a trade?
Thusly, my quest began by trying to find players who were utilised like the Tyrannomuzzin as a proxy for players who were actually like him: frankly, I don’t think quantitative analysis can tell the difference and I’d rather assume coaches weren’t all morons. Without going into tonnes of detail - I’ve written this with the idea of trying to find new names to be discussed, not to try and sell a methodology - I pulled three years of data and filtered it down to players utilised similarly to Jake the Muzz (if you haven’t seen the movie Once Were Warriors, I strongly recommend you do. Fair warning, it’s not nice).
My first shortlist was 18 names long, and from it I immediately ruled out nine:
- Seth Jones and Brent Burns (because I just don’t believe their team would trade them),
- Jared Spurgeon, Jacob Trouba, Drew Doughty and Neal Pionk (as above, but particularly because they’ve recently signed new contracts)
- Sami Vatanen and Travis Hamonic (they’re UFA this year and I want a trade, dammit)
- Damon Severson, because he somehow slipped through my net when the numbers suggest he’s a bit of a fucking sieve and Rielly’s defence is porous enough already.
The nine remaining names and some basic stats for them looked like this (date range 2017 – 2020, source HockeyReference.com):
|Jake Muzzin||TOR||207||81||0.39||52.4||2.8||51.8||17.9||415||UFA 23||$ 5,625,000|
|Jeff Petry||MTL||235||79||0.34||54.6||2.6||48.8||18.5||469||UFA 21||$ 5,500,000|
|Sean Walker||LAK||109||28||0.26||52.9||2.6||51.6||16.2||118||RFA 20||$ 745,000|
|Filip Hronek||DET||111||38||0.34||48.4||2.5||54.1||17.7||150||RFA 21||$ 714,166|
|P.K. Subban||NJD||213||65||0.31||50.8||2||52.3||18.3||227||UFA 22||$ 9,000,000|
|Jason Demers||ARI||154||34||0.22||49.4||1.7||52||17.9||170||UFA 21||$ 4,500,000|
|Ryan Pulock||NYI||218||75||0.34||47.1||0||54.9||18||350||RFA 20||$ 2,000,000|
|Matt Niskanen||PHI||216||69||0.32||49||-0.7||56.1||18.4||358||UFA 21||$ 5,750,000|
|Josh Manson||ANA||204||59||0.29||48.2||0.1||57||18.2||410||UFA 22||$ 4,100,000|
|David Savard||CBJ||231||48||0.21||48.5||-2.5||56.1||17.7||355||UFA 21||$ 4,250,000|
Easily the most comparable player I found was Jeff Petry, which is probably little surprise to many, but I very nearly ruled him out in my first cull: a quick glance at Montreal’s roster and they need him as desperately as we do. They could do with some of the zesty journeymen wingers we’d be offering up as trade bait, but our only hope of prying him out of the Habs is them actually, really, truly believing Shea Weber is not a shadow of his former self, diminishing moment to moment before their very eyes in the noon-day sun. Then, there’s the whole trading with the Godless Frenchmen angle to consider… having considered it, I’m going to wash my hands before continuing typing.
I’ve said elsewhere that I’d take on Subban with 50% salary retained and I don’t think Johnsson or Kapanen going the other way would be an overpay. Or maybe I mean overbet. Because there’s no doubt we’d be taking a punt here. It’s worth noting that the sample period of the last three years closely approximates the period Subban has been said to be "in decline" so those numbers that turn out pretty similar to Muzzin’s are not being dragged up by his heydays. Personally, I think he’d thrive in Toronto: I think he needs a big, big stage to be at his best by virtue of his character, but I couldn’t prove it if you paid me.
There’s a cohort of reasonable guys who are probably passed their peak but very solid NHL defencemen in Niskanen, Demers, Manson and Savard (32, 31, 27, and 28 years of age respectively) any of which I would happily cough up some of our winger depth for. Demers, I find particularly titillating but only because of the prospect of a trade between Dubas and John Chayka. Take a moment to consider the potential beauty of such a thing. You’d be gutted if it didn’t end up involving 7 players, 3 conditional draft picks, a third team siphoning off salary, and bonuses reliant on the results of IQ tests.
Sean Walker, I confess I had never even heard of before. He’s 24 and undrafted. And with a sample size so small, it’s tempting to not consider him at all. But LA does have a system that collects and develops pretty sound D and they’re rebuilding: perhaps exactly what they need is a nice serving of Johnsson to go with their Grund? On balance however, I’d say he’s way to big a risk and not close to ready for playing alongside Rielly.
The Islanders have been cagey with Ryan Pulock. A quick scan of Elite Prospects suggests he’s been a slow-burner at both CHL and AHL levels, earning "C"s and "A"s even though he’s never been a massive point-producer. NY slid his ELC twice and, after the end of that contract, offered a 2-year term with AAV of $2m – a contract whose comparables (via CapFriendly) do not inspire a sense of overwhelming certainty about his future. Or he was just getting Lou-barred. Pulling a trade with the Islanders with what we’re dangling and with a potentially embittered Mafioso-type on the other end of the negotiation seems unlikely to me. Still, interesting player.
That leaves my new man-crush, Filip Hronek. He’s young, was a very close statistical comparable to Muzzin in my quickie analysis, and still has one more year on his ELC. He played Czech Juniors at world tournaments. His one year in the OHL (Saginaw) he was better than point-per-game and jumped straight into Grand Rapids. Now he’s a 21-year old being utilised like a veteran (albeit on an epically bad team) and his CF%Rel suggests he’s holding his own. I watched some video and he looks kinda perfect.
Now all of this leads to him being equally perfect for a Red Wings team that needs a rebuild on a scale similar to Pompeii in AD 79, and Steve Yzerman is not a GM in the habit of losing trades, but here’s the thing: I think we could. Afford to lose the trade, I mean. Given Detroit’s desperate lack of quality forwards and the ridiculous amount of young and talented wingers we have, I could see there being a glimmer of hope that they would accept a volume-for-quality trade (when normally I would dismiss that as fantastical rosterbation), and to nail down what looks like an excellent, young RD, I would make that volume sing.
Anyway, hopefully there’s a name or two in amongst that lot that are ones you haven’t considered before – if there is, I’ll consider that job done.