How do you find a defender? Hire 20 scouts and sit back and read the reports, I guess. But for our purposes I wanted a quick reference evaluation method while I started looking at UFA defenders. I began with Evolving Hockey's RAPM tables. This is the numerical data you see visualized in those charts with the purple and orange bars. The numbers are a result of a process of calculation where ordinary on-ice measures of shots and shot locations, along with the other details that exist in public data are mixed with teammates, opposition and zones to try to isolate the individual's impact on the team results.

There are 310 defenders who played in the NHL in 2023-2024. If I cut them off at people who played at least 15 minutes per game on average at even strength, I get 185 players. That threshold includes Simon Benoit, Zach Bogosian, Timothy Liljegren and some fellow named Ryker Evans who I've never heard of. It's more than five players per team. So it should include good second pair options, underplayed top pairing options and a lot of players we're not interested in.

The first cull is the franchise players who will never be traded, and I'm not going to play games about imagining a Mitch Marner trade for another never will be traded player. I'll believe Marner will be traded when I see it. That cull got me to 139, and a little effort to look at contract status and a fast removal of some "oh, honey, no" candidates, and I'm at 105. This number includes most of the current UFAs.

I did a very blunt instrument look at results and sorted for players that had at least a better than zero Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes (these are negative numbers if you want to play along at home), and I also highlighted overall Expected Goals plus/minus. The point here is to find players with good enough overall impacts on shots who aren't just offensive zone players, and that cuts a lot of players out of the picture for now.

I was unsurprised to get Matt Roy as the best overall match. I didn't need this exercise for that, I've considered him the gold amongst the dross for a few years now.

Matt Roy

Roy is 29, shoots right and is a UFA. He's six feet and 200 lbs, give or take, and he is American – from Michigan. He was drafted in the seventh round by LA in 2015, and he's played there ever since 2018. So why would he want to move now? Well, he wouldn't. There is no one at all that wants to move from LA to Toronto. The only way he would relocate is if he doesn't believe LA can get him the chance at winning the Cup or if LA wants to let him walk.

They have a 1RD in Drew Doughty, the second-highest paid defenceman in the NHL by cap %, and his presence has always created an artificial cap on Roy's usage, but also implies a caveat on his results since he's insulated by that star number one defender. LA has put their trust and money into Mikey Anderson and Vladislav Gavrikov as young left-shooters. But they have Brandt Clarke coming on as well who shoots right. LA has a decision to make about term with Roy that could force him to look for a different team.

“I love this team; I love the guys on the team. L.A. is a great city, a great place to stay, and I’d be more than happy to stay,” Roy said. “Obviously, it’s a business for the team and myself, so we’re kind of going into the summer open-minded.”
“[This contract] is very important. Age-wise, I’m at that point in my career where some term and stability would be great for my family. That’s a key factor for me,” he added.


There were further reports that his agent was meeting with the Kings more recently.

Expect a deal for Roy to hit $6 million and to be five years. He's underpriced at that amount, and frankly, Toronto could stand to offer an overpay to get him, and still have a valuable player. A player like Roy is exactly how you economize on defence by offering term and by eschewing power play skill for other less expensive and more necessary attributes.

Brady Skjei & Brett Pesce

The name on everyone's lips is Brady Skjei. Or if you're a contrarian: Brett Pesce.

You might want to read my take on the oddity that is Carolina:

Carolina Hockey
To understand their players, you have to understand the team.

My expectation is that Carolina will do what they've always done. They did it with Rod Brind'Amour, and everyone believed hard he was available while the Hurricanes negotiated in semi-public. Now they have a list of UFA defenders this summer with three more going UFA next year. And what they always do is sign them all, or nearly all.

The four they actually played seriously were Brent Burns, Skjei, Jaccob Slavin and Pesce. Why let any of them walk? If they don't have to they won't. They paid Dmitry Orlov a lot to be their number five, so why not just move him along? That's a very Carolina thing to do, and he has no trade protection.

If they actually do decide to let both or one of these two go, I'm not sure either is the right choice for Toronto. They both come out as not extremely good, nor all that bad on my rough guide RAPM sheet. The trouble with looking at Carolina defence is that they achieved such intense team success in that area, that even the below team-average defenders like Skei and Pesce are actually very, very good by any other team's standards. They aren't much below Carolina's average.

In very simplistic terms, Pesce is offensively inclined, and Skjei is one of those Corsi-affecting defenders with much better impacts on Corsi Against than Expected Goals Against. If Kyle Dubas were GM, Sheldon Keefe the coach and the Leafs were about to embark on another season of defence via puck control in the offensive zone, which is what Carolina does better than anyone else, then I'd say sign them both. I don't think either one of them really fits with who the Leafs are trying to become though.

Plot object

Skjei is going to get at least $7 million, and Pesce something hitting $5.5 million. Neither are making the team worse, obviously, but I seriously question the efficiency of using that sort of cap space for either player.

Sean Walker

Another former LA defender who they shed as surplus, he's had one season off the Kings, split between the Flyers and the Avalanche who traded for him at the deadline. His 18 games in Colorado were mediocre in terms of his results. But his Flyers' season was very good, while his history in LA is very up and down.

In Colorado, he played a lot fewer minutes, and was paired with Jack Johnson, one of the worst defenders in the NHL. His final year in LA wasn't terrible, but was more mediocre like his time in Colorado. He's a hard player to truly pin down, but he's not at Roy's level.

His success in Philadelphia overstates his value as a near top line player. His prior year in LA understates it as a third pairing time filler. In the middle is right-shooting Jake McCabe with a mix of offensive and defensive impacts along with penalty kill skills. He will be 30 this fall and is a UFA. He's originally from Ontario, and was undrafted.

Walker is likely to get something in the range of McCabe's real $4 million salary. So if the Leafs want to gamble on getting his middle ground as a bottom four player to play with McCabe, he's a good choice. It is a gamble, though.

Ian Cole & Nikita Zadorov

Cole ended up in Vancouver last year, and like any team trying to win, they have cap troubles and too many UFAs and RFAs to sign for the space they have. Cole is hardly their priority on defence when they also have Tyler Myers, who they like, and Filip Hronek, who is an RFA with arbitration rights, as well as Nikita Zadorov, who was traded to the Canucks at the deadline.

Both are left-shooting defenders who play both sides. They were paired together some of the time in Vancouver as the third pair, but the bottom four there played very similar minutes – which is the smart way to set up the team, so with Hronek and Quinn Hughes as the undisputed top pair, the other four were interchangeable.

Adding in their prior history on other teams to look at three years combined:

Plot object

Zadorov is 29 and Cole is 35 and an itinerant defender who has played on six teams since his last term contract. Some of his sparkly looking defence there is coming from 2022-2023 in Tampa where cardboard cutouts do well on the third pair. Cole is shorter than Zadorov but almost as big. These two are not your fast puck movers, but they are defence first bottom four players.

Zadorov is in the McCabe price range, Cole in the $3 million or just under price range. If all you want is defence for 15 minutes or less, get Cole. He's way better than Joel Edmundson. If you want a little bit of positive Corsi For and general offensive skill, and you really think the big hits and physical net-front defending is what you need – get Zadorov.

I would have been happy with either of these players at the deadline, but I'm not so sure this is where the Leafs want their cap dollars now any more than it is with Brady Skjei.

Chris Tanev

Which is the real Chris Tanev: the good at defence, but offensive black hole player from Calgary or the top pairing guy he was with Dallas? It's always so hard to tell with players that leave a team after years of emotional upheaval to go to a new place where all they care about is short-term winning.

No one should have to convince Tanev to come to Toronto, since it's home, and at 35 this December, he's the next Mark Giordano. His results since he left Vancouver have been excellent, and there's no clear pattern of age-related decline.

Plot object

He shoots right, and if he was five years younger, he'd be the first on my list ahead of Roy. But hell, why not if the price is affordable? Note that he's been playing top pairing minutes for all three years. Well, actually since the last lockout.

He doesn't need value adds, but I think his intangibles are pretty obvious. He is tough, works harder than anyone else, knows everything there is to know about playing defence, and he probably actually wants to play for the Leafs.

His age means he won't cost $9 million, but he will occasionally play like he's worth that. For how much longer will he do that? That's the tough question, isn't it.

Brandon Montour

I just don't see why a top team in the NHL would move out a right-shooting defender who they like and who plays better on their team than anywhere else when their other righty is injured more than he's not.

But let's pretend. I still had the tab open with the Pesce/Skjei comparison chart. I swapped in Montour for Pesce and it looks the same. That's the extent of my pretending.


In my list of needs I put defensive defender first. And not just a defender who affects the Corsi in positive ways, someone who actually can defend. There's some options here, and if the Leafs understand trading Mitch Marner is unlikely, those options likely dwindle right down to Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov. Just like in the spring.

There are some younger, less gifted defenders that might be available. Jalen Chatfield, a Carolina third-pairing guy with gaudy Carolina results might revert right back to who he was in Vancouver once he comes north. Alex Carrier at 27 has had one exciting year in Nashville and might revert right to who he was at 25 too. Besides, why would Nashville get rid of him?

These are players that the team would sign if they didn't already have Conor Timmins who looks good on paper, or Simon Benoit, and perhaps Joel Edmundson who they like better than Timmins. If you want to give McCabe someone to carry, just re-sign Timothy Liljegren. Scouting might find players who can genuinely play a bigger bottom-four role in Chatfield or Carrier or hiding elsewhere, but I am not enthused.

I am going to look at possible trades in the coming days, but that is fairly unrewarding because most teams won't trade a defender you'd actually want, the best defenders usually have trade protection, and the Leafs have almost nothing to trade with.

What I'm not finding is a guy who is better as a second unit power play defender than McCabe, but they may be there, just on a team where they get no opportunity. I think Roy is a pipe dream because if he doesn't stay in LA, he's going to want to put his kids in American schools.

The perfect defender likely isn't there, so it may well be the Leafs have to pay for skills they don't really need most. But more skill of any kind is always better than less.