There are a lot of fans who watch the Leafs every game. And there have been games this season where you come away saying: wow, this team needs a defenceman who can, you know, defend. And then TJ Brodie comes back off of IR and the urge to spend all the futures on Mattias Ekholm fades.
But through it all — when the Leafs were dreadful, when they played great with four practice dummies and a literal pylon on defence, when they got complacent, when they coached themselves into greatness in their most recent game — there has always been people who want a left wing in the top-six who isn’t faking it.
The reasoning is obvious. The gulf between the right wings, who are elite and in one case, having a career season, and the left wings, who are working hard and can score sometimes, is clear to see. The thing that makes the weak left hand work is the strength of the centres who actually are better than even those right wings. We watch them too much now to appreciate it, we’re all jaded, but those four forwards are spectacular individually and as a group.
So why add a forward when the defence is so bottom heavy and full of inexperience and potential but no proven long haul playoff successes? Doesn’t is just make sense that the Leafs need a defender, as has always been the case?
From 32 Thoughts:
9. When Jake Muzzin went down, I thought for sure Toronto’s top priority was finding the best possible “Muzzin Replacement.” The way their defencemen have played, I’m not completely convinced that’s still going to be the case. What it sounds like they are looking for are the best possible pieces to complement their core players. That could be a forward, it could be a defenceman, it could be both. But previous acquisitions along the line of a Zach Bogosian or an Ilya Lyubushkin — we might not be headed in that direction. And when Muzzin got hurt, I thought that was a guarantee. I still don’t believe they’re trading their first-rounder (or any of their top prospects) for a rental, either.
If Mattias Ekholm were younger, under contract for three years, and available (he might not be), I think the Leafs would be seriously in on that action. He would make the team better in a meaningful way. But he is 32, where term becomes a burden, and they aren’t at the stage Boston is at where they have to go all in on this year. They are still balancing many future years with those amazing forwards against their chances now.
So why get a left wing besides the obvious? Find a guy a little better than Calle Järnkrok, which slots him down a line, slot someone else down a line, and the already fantastic bottom six gets better and you’ve got meaningful injury replacement for all four lines. That’s the obvious.
The less obvious is Michael Bunting and his looming contract. It’s not looming in the sense that Auston Matthews’ deal looms, but it’s there on the horizon. And right now, his agent has to really like the fact that the Leafs have exactly zero players who can legitimately take over his role on the team long term.
More of the obvious stuff is that Bunting fits well with Matthews, and whichever right wing plays there:
But if you took him away from that centre, is he adding much? I could do an old school WOWY here, and show his very small amount of minutes played without Matthews, but for a player who spends most of his time on one line with one partner it doesn’t tell you much. More sophisticated things that are still based on the same idea — most weighted assessments of individual value have a WOWY component to them — have the same weakness. Here’s what HockeyViz and Evolving Hockey say about him though:
His impact is all offensive. He is a net negative defensively (he’s as bad defensively as Nylander, particularly this season). His power play is not good. He has no personal scoring ability, but he gets garbage goals off his shot location. His entire positive impact is his net-front play and hard forechecking. Which is pretty amazing, to be sure. I don’t want to minimize what he does well.
Watch him, and you might notice a troubling tendency to play dump and chase under pressure and he will fail to convert on some of the opportunities he creates in tight. If the Leafs wanted a cut-price Zach Hyman, boy did they find him. But what happens when the price goes up?
If this was that sort of blog, and I was that sort of glassy-eyed optimist about prospects, I’d just pivot to posting gifs of Matt Knies right now. But if he’s got that sort of game — he pretty much does — he’s years away from doing it at the peak of his ability. Maybe his rookie, dumb kid ability will shock us all, but no one should count on it.
The Leafs would be improved with a better LW option. Their contract talks with a guy who might believe his results are all him and not his linemates might go a little better too with some competition for the role. It just makes sense.