One of the interesting things about this offseason is the number of analysts’ articles and panel hot takes built around an old standby about the Maple Leafs — they need help on defence. It seems odd because defensive play by defencemen was not the trouble in this playoffs or even the Qualifying Round series against Columbus last year.
The Leafs added Ben Hutton as some depth insurance at the most recent deadline, and T.J. Brodie last offseason. They have also been patiently bringing Rasmus Sandin up to NHL readiness. The defence is better.
Kyle Dubas found himself in a situation at this deadline, likely not a surprising one, where his bargain acquisitions of last offseason had not yielded enough forwards to fill a top nine, and still have insurance to cover injuries. That need overrode any consideration for meaningful change on the blueline — not that there were many options out there — and the Leafs had almost no cap space to operate with. He went big on a forward, which is hard to criticize as a concept even if you don’t like which forward he went for.
But none of that should assure anyone that the defence corps of the Leafs is a finished product. A lot of people noticed that the North Division had very poor defence in general, and trying to decide whose team was best is actually hard because they fit in the narrow range of bad, not very good or just barely passable. No one north of the border was going to be discussed in Norris Trophy conversations, and that may have led Leafs fans, seeing the best Leafs defensive corps in decades playing in a milieu of mediocrity, to ignore how theirs stacks up to the rest of the league.
It’s not very good. But, it’s not bad either.
And, okay, not every team is going to get Cale Makar or Adam Fox. Not every team has put their eggs in the defence basket, and the Leafs have multiple elite and excellent to very good forwards. (Yes, you’re mad at them right now, but they still are great players.) What Dubas has been doing last year and then this season is shifting the balance of the cap space taken up outside the top echelon of forwards towards defence and goaltending. He traded Nazem Kadri, in part to afford the top four forwards, but also to open up room on defence. It took two tries, but the deal ended up being Kadri out and Brodie in as the major choice made. He then traded Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen to be able to afford a whole host of choices around depth forward cost, and Jack Campbell’s raise, and make enough room on top of that for Brodie.
The current contact structure for 2021-2022 is this:
- Jake Muzzin: $5.625 million
- Morgan Rielly: 5 million
- TJ Brodie: 5 million
- Justin Holl: 2 million
- Rasmus Sandin: 894,167
- Timothy Liljegren: 863,333
- Filip Král: 810,000
- Mac Hollowell: 799,766
- Teemu Kivihalme: 725,000
In addition, Travis Dermot and Joey Duszak are RFAs with arbitration rights. If Dermott elects arbitration, he’s going to be paid at least his qualifying offer amount, which is $917,831.
On the one hand, there’s a lot of talent there in the top three at less than $16 million, a number that can’t buy you even two of the top forwards on the team. On the other hand, the overall strength is not spectacular, and the cliff comes fast as we drop down the depth chart.
We could argue for years about who is better than whom out of the top three, but suffice it to say that the top three would look like an amazing quartet if you added one top 10 to 15 NHL defender. While Rasmus Sandin looks ready to become an NHL player fulltime, he’s not going to be that NHL star player, and going out and buying one is going to cost a lot of cap space.
The conversation has already begun about trading Morgan Rielly now, before the last year of his contract commences. But the difference between Rielly’s cap hit now and what Hamilton will command as a UFA is substantial. Nothing is impossible if the team is willing to make the moves to facilitate it, even with a perpetually flat salary cap, but a Maple Leafs with the core four forwards and a more expensive defence corps than they already have seems like a pipe dream.
The reason I’m focusing on the idea of trading Rielly is because the choice about his future is three options: re-sign him to a raise after next season, let him walk as a UFA or trade him now. No playoff team is going to move out a player of that nature at the deadline. So the decision, like with Andersen last summer, has to be made now.
Let’s take the dream seriously with a couple of assumptions:
Muzzin - Hamilton
Sandin - Brodie
Bogosian - Holl
Muzzin - Hamilton
Brodie - Holl
Sandin - Bogosian
Hamilton will set you back the kind of money Roman Josi or Alex Pietrangelo commanded. So call it $8 million at least. Bogosian may come back on another cup-chasing discounted deal of $1 million. Bogosian is really a concept here of a cheap, simple, third-pairing defender. It could be Hutton or anyone a step up from Marincin. Dermott is a Kraken in this scenario, but it could be him too. That makes this group cost $22.5 million. The group the Leafs ran most of this season was $19.5 million or just over 20 if the extra skater was a defender.
That sounds a lot more plausible, and the allure of this concept is that Hamilton over Rielly is a substantial upgrade, without losing the areas of the game Rielly excels at. This is not the Alex Pietrangelo conversation of last summer, because the idea is built around trading Rielly, which is more plausible now that Sandin is one year older.
Where do you get the three to four million in space to pay for this upgrade? One place is Frederik Andersen. If the Leafs pull the proverbial rabbit out of a hat and find a legitimate tandem partner or veteran backstop to pair up with Jack Campbell on the cheap, then a good chunk of his $5 million can go to someone other than the goalie. But can that be done?
There has been at least one analysis of Dubas’s dilemma that proposes the Leafs will spend $4 million on a second goalie, but that is almost certainly not going to happen. They will have to get a bargain in net no matter what else they do. Chris Driedger’s name leaps out, since the Florida Panthers now know they have a player in Spencer Knight and can let Driedger walk. But would he take a cheap deal? Cheap enough? We’re pretending, so let’s say he takes a Jack Campbell special and signs for $1.65 million, that’s just bought Dougie, hasn’t it!
And the Leafs will then be left with exactly the same cap space to spend on the rest of the forwards they need as they had this season. Which means another round of veterans on the way out, KHL free agents on the way in, and reclamation projects on the way up (we hope) to fill out the forward roster.
Is the Dougie team better than this year’s? Better question: is it better in the right way? Or does it just sound like more fun?
Maybe the Leafs decide Hamilton is a good name for a musical, and go for something that reallocates in a different way. The Hamilton-free option is to do something like this:
Muzzin - GUY
guy - Brodie
Sandin - Bogosian
This option lets Sandin be brought along slowly, while getting power play time. If the GUY on the first pair in this scenario Is Justin Holl, we might as well throw in the towel now. This concept only works if the aggregate value of the top four is at least as good as it was this season, and better is preferable. Two new players have to come in who add up to what Rielly and Holl bring. This is much harder to accomplish, because the best way to do that is to take the $7 million Rielly and Holl cost in cap hit and split it four and three or so, and there’s never a lot of options for good but not overpriced defenders who are actually available.
Could Holl be the lowercase guy on the second pair? Maybe. Or maybe he could share that role with Sandin. To make that work, the GUY has to be another player in the Muzzin/Brodie range of overall value, which is where Rielly sits when you consider his total impact on the team. The character of this defence concept is markedly different to how it was, or would be with Hamilton. Defenders who shoot a lot, play exciting offensive roles, and also carry the puck well tend to cost more than $5 million these days.
And that’s the other part of this choice Dubas has to consider: What type of defenders does he want, and if he has them, what does he then decide to do on the forward acquisitions.
The Dougie dream is a nice one, but one thing stands in the way. Rasmus Sandin has one more year on his ELC, so this carefully managed defence cost flies right out the window in the summer of 2022. It’s impossible to predict what another year will bring for Sandin. At his age, he could take the biggest leap of his career since he graduated to pro hockey in this coming season. He might take longer to develop and end up with a cheap two-year deal coming off his ELC.
It’s easy to see why the Leafs are so enamoured of the extremely inexpensive, generally reliable Justin Holl, and why Dermott has been such a big disappointment. Of course, if he hadn’t been, they’d have trouble affording him right now.
And that’s why the Leafs really can’t afford Zach Hyman. Making an extension for him work within a constricted salary cap for one year or even two involves a corresponding set of choices involving the defence that will leave the team worse off overall, if not now, then very soon. At the same time, they can afford Hamilton if they want to. But do they want to?
Would you sign Hamilton for $8 million, knowing that meant the end of Morgan Rielly and years of the same cheap fill-in players at forward?
Is the Hamilton dream doable?
This poll is closed
No, this is an impossible dream
Yes, I believe!
Not without trading a forward