The Toronto Maple Leafs have a bit of a problem on defense. After Cody Ceci at number five, there is a big chasm of emptiness that contains only Martin Marincin, Ben Harpur, and Justin Holl. For the Toronto Marlies, the story is much different. Their depth chart on defense goes 10 players deep and we’re going to talk about them all.
If you want to read up on the forward depth right below the NHL, check out yesterday’s post.
These are the crown jewels of the Maple Leafs system. The top two prospects and a trio of maybes that can hopefully augment a defense corps that is in the middle of a overhaul by Kyle Dubas. There will be spots next year for some of these kids. I expect Liljegren to have already made it, I expect Sandin to be ready by then, and one or two third pair spots to open up a few years after that.
Timothy Liljegren - 20, RD (waivers exempt)
Spoiler alert, I put Liljegren ahead of Sandin in my Top 25 Under 25 ballot. I have a few reasons for this. For one, he’s older and has played as a top-pair defenseman against men for longer than Sandin. The second reason is that Liljegren is right handed. The third reason comes from something Liljegren said at the end of the season that backed up an eye-test conundrum I was holding in my head for months previous.
Liljegren told us in his end of the season press conference that he has focused a lot on his defense and had left his offensive output to suffer as a result. He said he liked the step he took in his own zone (I agree there) and he will focus more on scoring next season. I think we’re going to see a very underrated offensive defenseman show up on the Marlies next season and it will take everyone by surprise. Except for you, the clever readers of this blog.
Rasmus Sandin - 19, LD (waivers exempt)
I love Rasmus Sandin, but I’m not as bullish about his capabilities as some of the other people who cover the Marlies. I think he is the model for this new era of ‘20s defensemen. He’s smart, he can move the puck, and he doesn’t spend very much time in his own zone. I like all those things, but I think he still has a year or so to develop before we’re talking about the NHL. You never know, he could hit a bump in his development where he struggles to find himself or is focusing on a different aspect of his game (for example, like Liljegren last season) that needs some time to massage.
I’m not a big fan of Sandin in the defensive zone, despite some of his highlight reels and enthusiasm to play in the corners. I just think he has a lot to learn and add in terms of his decision-making and strength. Like it or not, being tough in front of the net is an aspect of the game that takes a big step in the NHL and is important for a defenseman to successfully move up the lineup. If I was the Leafs, I’d want him definitely ready for that role rather than be a maybe.
Mac Hollowell - 20/21, RD (waivers exempt)
Hollowell showed Hollo-well in his stint with the Marlies at the end of last season. He definitely exceeded expectations as someone who might be an NHL bet rather than a complete outsider. Compared to the other defenders, instead of what we all expected of him, Hollowell didn’t really do much on the Marlies during his time on the third pair. He was given light minutes and showed that he had a long way to go in his own zone (something I noticed watching him a few times in junior).
I think Hollowell has the ability to develop in all the areas he needs to along with honing his offensive and puck transition game. It’s going to take some years and like most prospects, it probably won’t go completely smoothly. I have hope for him, he seems like a smart kid with a good head on his shoulders surrounded by a lot of great people to look up to.
Jesper Lindgren — 22, RD (waivers exempt)
Lindgren was passed over for Hollowell in the AHL playoffs, but I think that had more to do with comfort moving on the North American ice more than anything else. Lindgren is a Liiga Champion and played a significant role in the win, that cannot go unsaid. We’ve seen this with every European prospect who comes over to the smaller ice. There’s an adjustment period and it may take some time this season, but there is a lot to like about this young RHD. He’s on my radar and I’m interested to see him begin his on-ice progression once he finds his footing.
Joseph Duszak - 22, RD (waivers exempt)
Duszak sort of showed up out of nowhere, mostly because he’s an undrafted college free agent, but he is definitely someone that will hopefully put himself properly on the radar this coming season. The first thing Duszak has going for him is admiration by the Maple Leafs brass. Not many undrafted college players get a two-year NHL contract after only three years in the NCAA system.
Duszak is a small but dynamic defenseman who is very good at playing up and down the right-side boards. He mostly stayed in those areas — which I assume are where a lot of the play happened in the NCAA — during his stint with the Marlies. His next step will be moving to the middle of the ice in the offensive and defensive zone. Once there, we should hopefully see some offense and the type of defensive frame the Leafs have in him. That said, six games into his Marlies career, and he already has a goal. Can’t complain too much.
Katya believes that Ben Harpur might be a Leaf until Dermott is back from injury. I begrudgingly believe her. With Harpur, and before Dermott returns, there should be two defense spots available on the Leafs. One in the lineup and another in the press box. Again, the easy and most likely answer is the other two guys who require waivers will stay up. Things seem pretty straightforward right at the beginning of the season. The questions come after Babcock’s initial evaluation period.
Andreas Borgman - 24, LD (waivers exempt for 22 NHL games)
Borgman is my dark horse to make the Leafs at some point in the fall. He might not get a job right away due to his waiver situation relative to others in his range, but I really think Borgman has a shot at the Leafs third pair.
I was a little frustrated with Borgman last season because I saw more risky lapses in judgement than I cared for out of him. He likes to make the big hit and it often throws him out of position. Calle Rosen did something similar when he felt like he needed to impress the brass for a job. Rosen did it with excessive shots, Borgman did it with hits for a period of time.
If Borgman can come into training camp a little calmer and a little more confident in his full game, I think he has a real shot for a call up. He does everything right — he plays extremely tough competition, penalty kill, he can skate, he can defend, and he can score — he just needs to put the package together. Borgman should believe me when I tell him he has a really nice package.
Teemu Kivihalme - 24, LD (waivers exempt)
Can I punt on Kivihalme? We don’t know anything about him as of right now. When he first signed, people expected to see him in the NHL, but as the summer has gone on, he’s seemingly dropped farther and farther down the depth chart. I’m not sure why or how; it’s not like he played any games. I’ll just say I’m glad the Marlies have one Finnish defensemen on the team. It’s about time to diversify the pool.
Ben Harpur - 24, LD (requires waivers)
Big, slow, bad shot numbers. And yet, he’s probably making the Leafs defense corps. I don’t really have much to say on his play since I actively try to avoid Ottawa Senators games. Maybe the Leafs think they can salvage something from this roster spot dump that came in the Nikita Zaitsev trade. Dubas did make a point in his post-season press conference that he needed to give Babcock better options on the penalty kill and for different situations on the ice. So far he’s taken away Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey, and given him Jake Muzzin, Cody Ceci, and Ben Harpur. I guess that’s more/better?
Justin Holl - 27, RD (requires waivers)
Complain all you want about Holl’s lack of games, but he shouldn’t get many on the Leafs. If another team wants to try their luck with him, I’d say they’re more than welcome, otherwise he’d be welcomed back on the Marlies with open arms. I like Holl and hope he does well, I just don’t think it’ll happen on the Leafs.
Kevin Gravel - 27, LD (requires waivers)
No, I’m not over the loss of Vincent LoVerde. He was an amazing defenseman for the Marlies, playing in all the tough situations in order to insulate the young defensmen around him. I remember that one night where the Marlies lost half their defense corps and LoVerde played close to 80% of the third period. He’s a monster on the ice and an even better mentor and role model off it. I can’t say enough good things about LoVerde. Anyway, Gravel better be a Rhodes Scholar who can double as my new dad, Kyle.
On most farm systems, these guys will be working on their craft on the third pair in the AHL. However, the Marlies are so deep on defensemen (I count 8-10 in the AHL from the list above) that these two will play in the ECHL with the Kelly Cup champion Newfoundland Growlers.
Kristians Rubins - 21, LD (two-year AHL contract)
Rubins could definitely cut it in the AHL right now, but instead, he’s going to be playing a large role (he’s 6’4”) in the Growlers top-four. In his first year out of the WHL, Rubins impressed with the Growlers, playing next to Alex Gudbranson as a really effective shut down pair in the playoffs.
In 15 AHL games, I liked his mobility and urgency to get the puck up the ice, along with strong board play. He’s doing the right things, and at only 21-years-old, has plenty of time to make his way through the organization. Or not, you never know when the perfect plan could get Rubined.
Sergei Sapego - 19/20, LD (one-year AHL contract)
Speaking of diversifying the defensive prospect pool, here’s a Belarussian! Sapego hopped over from the WHL Prince Albert Raiders with Leafs goalie prospect Ian Scott. The pair won the WHL trophy with Sapego as the second-pair defenseman and Scott as the team’s only hope for a win. Sapego will play for the Growlers next season, and we’ll see what we have from there!
Some of these guys will stick on the Marlies, some more will head to the Growlers, and maybe some will instead be traded for a better opportunity.
Ryan Johnston - 27, RD (one-year AHL contract)
Rebecca’s brother! I’m not sure how the Marlies are going to fit Johnston on their team, but by the looks of things, it appears he’ll be there in some capacity. All AHL teams need lots of depth because they’re the repository for both themselves and their NHL affiliated team. Last year, Sam Jardine played this role of the extra defenseman and he got in 37 games.
Michael Kapla - 24, LD (one-year AHL contract)
The other option for extra defensemen is trade them early to another AHL team after they ask to be put in a better situation with playing time. Usually these agreements are made parallel to the signing of the contract. Last year, the defenseman who did this was Kyle Cumiskey. He ended up having a very happy 2018-19 season, playing 35 games for the Providence Bruins.
Alex Gudbranson 24, RD (one-year AHL contract)
I’m not saying anything’s going to happen to the two guys above, but I can guarantee you that “the better Gudbranson” will be on the Newfoundland Growlers next season.
Growlers on AHL/ECHL Deals
These guys have been signed by the Growlers on AHL/ECHL deals. Their contract details are not completely certain but I think they can be called up to the Marlies in a pinch. They likely won’t need to be, however.
Garrett Johnston - 24, LD
James Melindy - 25, RD
Evan Neugold - 26, RD
The first pair is all I can be certain of. The next three lefties and three rights are relatively interchangeable with each other and I can believe any combination of them. Kapla and Johnston will hang around there too. The bottom three pairs are a rough estimate of the Growlers.
Pair 1: Sandin - Liljegren
Pair 2: Borgman - Lindgren
Also Pair 2: Kivihalme - Hollowell
Also Pair 2: Gravel - Duszak
Pair 5: Kapla - R. Johnston
Pair 6: Rubins - Gudbranson
Pair 7: Sapego - Melindy
Pair 8: G. Johnston - Neugold