Good morning, everyone. Please stand, and open your hymnal to #67 - The Leafs Need a Defenceman.
The Leafs defence is weak
You know what it is we seek
He who prevents all goals
Anyone who has ever written anything about the Leafs in any decade since the age of Tim Horton has sung this hymn. It is burned into the brains of every reporter, fan and random passers by.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when the Bruins made an identical trade to the Leafs big deal, but got a defenceman not a forward, the articles would flood out, all of them variations on the hymn of the weak defence.
This is how this year’s version goes: Jake Muzzin brings “things” to the Leafs no other player does. Jake Muzzin can’t play, therefore the Leafs need to find someone with these mysterious “things”. But wait, what do the other defenders even do, if it isn’t “things”?
I’m going to use Evolving Hockey’s numerical version of RAPM to sort out who does what — you’re more used to seeing those charts with the delightful purple and orange bars to tell you who is good and who isn’t. RAPM does a good job of isolating the impacts of the player individually, good enough for the broad strokes categorization I’m about to indulge in.
As you likely know, if you’ve ever listened for even a second of a Leafs broadcast, the defence doesn’t score much. This is a feature of their style of play, but some of the defencemen do engage directly in the offensive cycle and act in a way indistinguishable from forwards in those moments. Those are also generally the defenders with the best effect on Expected Goals RAPM version. And they are (from the best on down):
- Rasmus Sandin
- Mark Giordano
- Morgan Rielly/
Timothy Liljegren just barely rates above zero if you use enough decimal places. Directly participating in offence is a thing he does, but he’s not particularly gifted at it.
The defenders who are actively bad at adding to the offence are (from the worst on up):
- Jordie Benn
- TJ Brodie/
Justin Holl is just barely negative with enough decimal places, making him even closer to a null impact player offensively (by this measure) than Liljegren is. Connor Timmins has the same result as Holl.
Using Expected Goals again to look at who is making life easier for shots against in quantity and quality we get the Good:
- TJ Brodie
- Mark Giordano
- Timothy Liljegren
- Jordie Benn
- Connor Timmins
- Justin Holl /
And then there’s a huge jump to the Bad (in order of worst, to slightly less worse):
- Morgan Rielly
- Rasmus Sandin/
Holl and Timmins are about the same on the against side of the ledger, just better than zero, and yes I realize you saw Justin Holl do that thing that one time and there was a goal, and that’s Hymn #3, please turn the page back to #67.
What does this tell us? Well, there was a funny conversation in the last game day post about purely defensive defenders, and seriously, is there one better than Brodie? I don’t think so. But Liljegren, against his early hype as well as expectations because he’s not big and doesn’t do “things”, has some very positive impacts on defence.
One of the versions of this hymn lately proclaimed with confidence that the Leafs defend by never being in the defensive zone, and when you can’t cycle the puck forever in the playoffs, they’ll be crushed. This was said with great confidence, and not a lot of evidence. This is a fairly simplistic view of the transition style of defence, and misses the point on what its strength is.
Liljegren has those good defensive numbers because he’s very good at getting the puck out of the defensive zone successfully and getting it up ice and into the offensive zone. If you watch the Leafs even a little bit, and not just waiting for “things” to happen, you can see this. You don’t need numbers. When the Leafs look like crap, they’re losing control in the neutral zone as well as coughing up the puck in the offensive zone. Liljegren also shows up well for his effect on actual goals for, which is always a little tricky to judge from when you’ve had a team that fluctuated in shooting % as hard as the Leafs have this year.
The feeling is the Leafs can’t not get defensive help. And what is really meant by that is a player who, as I said when looking at Jake McCabe, hits like Muzzin does. That’s what “things” are. And you can have positive outcomes on a game by hitting or toughing out board battles. But hitting doesn’t automatically get you positive outcomes any more than puck skills do. It’s what you do with that bit between the ears that determines if the hitting or skating or stick-check or takeaway results in more shots for than against. The brain picks when and how and who, and the body can only do how well.
So for me, when I sing this song, I go with the version that says that Mark Giordano of 10 years ago is the ideal. Not Jake McCabe or the latest player who totally looks good on Team Russia, or the shambling remains of John Klingberg, or the Morgan Rielly with nitrous oxide in the engine that is Erik Karlsson. I want a guy so good, he’s still good when he’s 40. Good by the results, not good by doing the sorts of inputs I like watching.
There’s only one guy who even comes close to that who might be available, and I think it’s a tough nut to crack. He’s too old, he’s too far on the downslope to Giordano’s state. His cap hit is too big, and there’s term on the deal so there’s not going to be retention. He can fit on the team next year but not now. But now is when it matters.
Forget every rental player on the trade bait lists. Boston was right (holy shit, I hate saying that) to snap up Dmitry Orlov the second he became available.
The Leafs need Mattias Ekholm, and I don’t see how it’s possible unless they trade a forward to make cap room, yes that forward. And a defender, no not the one you want to trade. And a prospect, yes likely that prospect. Also a couple of picks will disappear.
I think this would be a big, big roll of the dice because it means chopping out some depth just when the forwards started looking like a juggernaut crew. It’s giving up a lot of futures for a guy who is going to be 36 when his contract ends. And you can’t know even with some 26 year old if they’ll play out four years healthy, so this is very risky.
Go big or go home. Take the swing or spend a third-rounder for Luke Schenn for the laughs. Get Jake McCabe, who can’t defend the Leafs, and ask him to man up to the Lightning and do some “things”. Or get a guy who doesn’t just do “things”, he does everything.