Sportsnet has a star in-studio analyst today in Bruce Boudreau, who knows the Minnesota Wild like no one else. So they asked him about the topic of the day:

Everyone wants to sell Kyle Dubas a defenceman. And while it’s common for fans to look at points, excitement and star power, the Leafs have other priorities, which Boudreau understands very well. Most of the discussion for the last forever number of years on this topic has been looking at this like fans do. P.K. Subban! Tyson Barrie! and now Matt Dumba!

We are entering the age where ideas about defencemen and how they’re used are changing rapidly. Many of the old-school names like Karl Alzner or even young players like Rasmus Ristolainen have been revealed as just not very good. As coaches and data-informed teams make decisions about how they want to defend, the player needs will change. Some of the defenders that end up heading early to obsolescence will be power-play specialists.

Meghan Hall has done a lot of data analysis around the penalty kill, and that means she’s looked at the power play too. In a recent analysis of tracking data, she shows the increasing use of the four-forward power play league-wide over time. The rise in percentage of total TOI goes from 52% in 2015 to 73% last year.

In the NHL today, there are only two jobs on most teams for a power-play defender. There are often more than four jobs open for actually gifted penalty kill defenders, who have to face increasingly skilled shooting-talent enriched, four-forward power plays.

Meanwhile, the OHL, NCAA and European junior leagues are using whatever systems they use, so it’s not clear yet that the influx of new defenders has caught up to the actual jobs available in the NHL. If this sounds like what happens when universities are churning out highly-trained widget makers at a time when widget making is becoming obsolete, that’s because it is the same process of lag on the input.

You shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the Leafs immediately took their prospect defenders Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren — both considered offensive defencemen when they were drafted — and trained them on the penalty kill. Both have played small amounts of PK time in the NHL already.

On the Leafs, the top PK defender by TOI is Cody Ceci, next is Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl and after that, there’s a mix of players with not a lot of time at it led by Morgan Rielly. My personal opinion is the Rielly is not good at PK, and shouldn’t be used. Ceci’s Expected Goals Against are the best except for Travis Dermott. Rielly’s are the worst.

The PK is hardly the most important part of a defender’s job, but opinions that you can just stick any defender out there are likely designed to win an argument in favour of yet another “modern puck-moving defender” you like and want on the team. I don’t think that’s what the Leafs are in the market for, and I don’t think they have been for some time.

The puck-moving defender who is an offensive defenceman of a type different to Shea Weber, but still offence-focused, is usually a puck-shooting defender, as we’ve seen with Tyson Barrie. For every truly beautiful pass up the neutral zone he produces, there’s 10 shots from poor locations in the offensive zone while Auston Matthews stands and watches. Or it feels like that. A puck-moving defender who is a defensive defenceman of a type different to Cody Ceci, seems to me to be what the Leafs have been searching for. This is exactly what Boudreau is saying too.

The player universities have been churning out these modern defenders who like to shoot, and the draft order has been heavily influenced by points for so long, that saying the Leafs are looking for a unicorn, as Bob McKenzie did the other day, might have it all wrong. There’s a herd of unicorns out there. Tyson Barrie, king unicorn, was not in the end all that hard to get, and he might really be about to change teams again. Did the Leafs just get the wrong unicorn when they got him? Or did they get the wrong type of defender altogether?

I think the Leafs are looking for a horse in that herd of unicorns, one of a particular type, and I think they’re struggling to find him.

At about the time SN was talking two Minnesota defenders, TSN threw that name in the mix. So here’s the quick look at all three.

I’m using subscriber content from HockeyViz and Evolving Hockey.

Matt Dumba

Dumba is primarily an offensively-focused player, just like Boudreau described. His defence is just more of the same horror that Barrie brought, although, there is something to the idea that he’s being compared to such good players when the models try to isolate his impact that he might not be quite that bad.

Dumba has an AAV of $6 million and his contract runs through to 2023. He turns 26 this summer and is a right-shot.

He plays with good players like ...

Jonas Brodin

That says it all really (remember blue/negative numbers on defence are good).

Brodin turns 27 this summer, has an AAV of $4.167 million and his contract expires in 2021. He is a left-shot and has played mostly with Dumba this year.

The comparison:

Greg Pateryn

This new name in the mix is interesting. He’s cheaper with an AAV of $2.25 million on a deal that expires in 2021. He’s about to turn 30, and is a right shot.

He has a more limited game:

And his current season is not looking so good, but overall HockeyViz sees him as the same mixed bag:

His glory years of great defensive results came in 2017-2019, so not deep in the past.  His current season is a very short sample of games, as he’s been injured, and he’s played primarily with Carson Soucy who seems to be their AHLer turned NHLer at 25 like Justin Hall. Pateryn might have more to offer than he seems to this season, and could be a buy-low option.

I agree with Boudreau. We want Brodin. Can the Leafs afford him, and will they really trade him? That’s what we’ll find out.