When it comes to a free agent signing, there are many positives when it comes to adding value to the team. In a hard cap league, when money comes in, it must come out. As a result, if the Leafs are able to sign Alex Pietrangelo to a contract, the cost to acquiring his services is free. While at the same time, the cost to remove salary in trades brings back value in a different form (prospects, picks, etc). Do the math and the overall value of the team goes up with every free agent signing (if you do everything right).
That is the hope the Leafs have at this moment as they are presumably watching intently with unsigned contracts in their hands as Pietrangelo inches closer to free agency.
But what if they don’t get him? How does this team improve significantly enough so that they can improve in the regular season, win a playoff series or two, or if they’re feeling really rowdy, contend for a Stanley Cup?
The Right Right Defenseman
When the Leafs acquired Tyson Barrie, he was (in a sense) a right-shot defenseman for a first pair, but he didn’t mesh with Rielly or play the role required to maximize that pair. Kyle Dubas knows he needs a better right-shot defenseman for the first pair than the carousel he had last season.
Morgan Rielly is a great player, but he needs a certain kind of defenseman with him in order to maximize his game both offensively and defensively. No one can deny he works hard in all three zones and has incredible athleticism and talent, but sometimes makes mistakes as the primary engaging defenseman and needs a good, steady partner to bail him out on those occasions. Someone who can penalty kill is also quite ideal.
Tyson Barrie was the antithesis of the right partner for Rielly. When they were a pair, he wanted the puck more, he shot the puck more, and he made worse mistakes than Rielly did in the same areas. They didn’t mesh, and they often had to be played in sheltered minutes, putting massive pressure on Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl.
Cody Ceci was closer to the right fit for Rielly when it comes to a right-handed partner, and he could’ve been a smart move, but he was also prone to mistakes and was generally not very good anywhere on the ice. He was a better direction in terms of what kind of partner Rielly needs, but he simply wasn’t good enough to meet the moment.
If we were making a partner for Rielly in a lab, we probably wouldn’t end up with someone exactly like Pietrangelo either, but he is a damn good defenseman and I have every confidence it would work. Pietrangelo is pretty average on the penalty kill, a little bit above average defensively — heading a strong defensive team in St. Louis, might I add — and likes to be part of the offense. When it comes to scoring, I think they could mesh well together, Pietrangelo isn’t an exorbitant shooter and is good at facilitating the puck around the offensive zone. Defensively, I think he provides the steadiness, mobility, and size needed to give the Leafs a true elite top pair.
That’s what the Leafs need: Pietrangelo. But if they can’t get Pietrangelo, here are some options that definitely aren’t as good, but kind of manage to fill the mold we’re looking for. Mostly.
DeMelo is starting to become a running joke the number of times I’ve brought him up as a free agent option next to Rielly. He cost a third round pick to the Senators when he was traded to Winnipeg at the deadline, while his expected contract from Evolving Wild is in the range of $3 million over four years, he’ll almost certainly get less than that.
As a player, he’s been a positive impact for the Senators in the top four playing next to Mark Borowiecki mostly. He’s strong defensively, he’s strong on the penalty kill, he doesn’t shoot very much and the pucks get to the front of the net with him on the ice. He didn’t quite play top competition with the Senators, but if we’re being honest, even against the second line, his unit on the ice would be playing uphill. He’s a right shot who plays in high-leverage defensive situations, he can move the puck and skate well, and he’s shown himself to be a thoughtful and outspoken individual off the ice. What’s not to like?
Dylan DeMelo (to Winnipeg) is a solid defender, getting only a third for him is a really weak return for Ottawa. pic.twitter.com/z8UQ8zedlX— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 18, 2020
Gudas has a lot of fans in hockey because he drives good defensive results, he big, and he can always be found on a pretty good contract. His last season in Washington wasn’t great so here’s hoping his next contract isn’t too expensive, but he’s getting up there in age (30) and he’s starting to fall out of that second pair role. Considering his style of play, it’s hard to know when he’ll fall off into the “too expensive to play” category. Like Chris Tanev and the player next on the list, Travis Hamonic, I would’ve loved him five years ago.
Like Gudas, I’d be worried about the contract here pretty quickly, especially because Hamonic’s numbers look a little too much like Ceci for me to feel comfortable about a contract that is completely in his 30s. That said, Hamonic played on the top pair next to Noah Hanifin in Calgary and took on most of the responsibility when it came to defending leads. It’s probably going to be a pass, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s interest from the Leafs considering they liked Ceci’s internal analytics (despite quickly shuffling him towards the third pair as the season went on).
Trevor van Riemsdyk
I’m only including TvR for Species. He played on the third pair in Carolina behind a lot of really good defensemen. Before that he was in the top four in Chicago. Unlike a Colin Miller, I can buy giving him an opportunity in a higher role since he’s shown he can do it before and he’ll likely be cheap to deal with (once again, by Species) if it doesn’t work. This is about the lowest-end option I would consider, we’re a long fall from Pietrangelo at this point.
Dermott has played about a dozen games on his off side, mostly next to Martin Marincin and a handful of times next to Jake Gardiner in previous seasons. I think even with Marincin, it was Dermott on his strong side. Dermott has played spot-shifts with Rielly, almost exclusively in the offensive zone, and yet they have still produced a 48% expected goals share together. Therefore, I wouldn’t count on Dermott as an option to suddenly play top pair against top competition. That jump has eaten up and spit out better defensemen than Dermott in the past.
In the top four, Dermott struggled next to Nikita Zaitsev (for obvious reasons), and had various successes in softer minutes with most of the defensemen on the Leafs except Justin Holl, with whom he made a pretty good pairing. Finding this revelation was pretty ironic since a lot of the discussion has been in choosing between Holl and Dermott. No one bothered to ask “why not both?”
The answer, unfortunately, is that the Leafs have Rielly and Muzzin (who do not play together) and more potential in 20-year-old Rasmus Sandin. It kind of needs to be right side or bust for Dermott, and I don’t really see it happening here unless it’s on the third pair. I wonder if there is trade value in Dermott for a defenseman like him, but right handed and more geared towards defensive value.
I see an NHL future for Timothy Liljegren, but we’re a few years away from seeing if he can succeed in a top four or top pair.
Who’s out there? Depends on what the Leafs are willing to give up. If it’s William Nylander, they might be able to get someone like Mike Matheson ba... wait what do you mean he was traded?... For Patric Hornqvist!?... okay, maybe not.
This scenario mostly comes down to Kyle Dubas working the phones and seeing what’s out there. Maybe there’s someone willing to trade their #4 for Andreas Johnsson, or their #2 for a package that includes the 15th overall pick. Who knows, I’m not good at realistic trade proposals.
Investing in the Bottom Six
I don’t know if this is a hot take or not, but the bottom six on the Leafs was really underwhelming last season. Less than the sum of its parts for long stretches. Alex Kerfoot is fine for his role and someone I hope improves with better seasons from players around him. As a playmaking transition player, he really needs to give someone the pick who won’t do a buttonhook on a breakaway. If there’s room left in the budget, it would be smart to upgrade this area, especially if the Leafs aren’t going to get a big boost on the back end.
Pierre Engvall went through an awful shooting slump that he has rebounded from before, unless there’s a big cap crunch with the arrival of a certain someone, I’m sure he’ll have a role to play on the team as a wing/centre hybrid with good defensive skills and an eye for the net. Jason Spezza should be back too and I hope Nick Robertson can stick around and maybe learn a thing or two from the guy who could be his father.
Around them, I think we all agree Kasperi Kapanen failed to impress and reach his potential, he’s been sent over the Jim Rutherford’s funhouse. Andreas Johnsson didn’t look impactful at all in his half season while healthy, especially for the contract he has. The Leafs need to find value in the bottom six of the lineup after paying market price or above to their top four guys. Johnsson isn’t doing that.
Replacing him with a more efficient contract and player would be a worthwhile move to invest in this summer. In terms of concrete options, I’m sure you’ve all read Brigstew’s article on the subject. I’m also going to throw Alex Galchenyuk’s hat in the ring as a possible cheap reclamation project ala Vladislav Namestnikov.
I, more than ever, think Pietrangelo is the solution here. He fixes so many problems, especially in a year when the free agent options behind him are sub-par at best. Who knows what the trade market holds, but it seems more and more likely to me that if Dubas can’t get Pietrangelo to quarantine in Toronto for two weeks one way or another, it’s going to take a trade to make the team work. If not, they’re going to go into next season with two number fours in Holl and whoever they sign and will just have to out-score and out-goalie their problems.