It feels like forever since the Leafs have deployed a respectable defensive corps. Old Leafs management went through a never ending carousel of acquired veteran defensemen that have come and gone. Some of the most notables include Mike Komosarek, Francois Beauchemin, John-Michael Liles and Stephane Robidas. These are the types of names that make you shudder. Those days are long gone now. Toronto has put together a defense lead by 24 year old Morgan Rielly, that can actually skate and make plays on both ends of the ice.
The leafs may not have an Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, or Victor Hedman putting up ridiculous points, but that doesn’t stop them from having one of the highest scoring defenses in the entire NHL. A big reason for that is a combination of good depth, and a breakout year from Morgan Rielly. He is currently sitting at 44 points, with Jake Gardiner a hair behind at 43 points. The biggest difference between the two – Rielly is facing much harder quality of competition. A surprisingly significant contribution to the Leafs scoring is the addition of Ron Hainsey with a respectable 22 points of his own. But more importantly, he has taken on the role of top pairing defenseman alongside Rielly, which has done wonders for Rielly’s game. Hainsey is the steady no-panic partner that Rielly has needed to hit the next level. As for Jake Gardiner…I like to compare him to Jekyll and Hyde. He’s always has a good offensive game driven by his elite skating. The problem with him is between the ears. One moment he makes a play that will leave you in amazement, followed by a play that will make you throw your T.V. remote across the living room. A little consistency would go a long ways for Jake, but at 27 years old, and what should be his prime, this is likely the best we will get from him.
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Travis Dermott. Oh what a gem the Leafs have found here. Full marks to Hunter for trading back in the 2015 draft and selecting him #34 overall. His pro resume is short, yet impactful. This rookie already has 11 points and a +- of 14 in only 29 games!! Did I mention he has accomplished this playing with Roman Polak(gross) and Connor Carrick? Amazing. I have no doubt that this former Eerie Otter will be a successful top 4 defenseman on the leafs in no time. In fact, I could see him complimenting Morgan Rielly very well as soon as Hainsey’s age catches up with him. What makes Dermott so good, is his quick decision making with the puck, and outlet pass to the forwards. His excellent skating and offensive flare is just a bonus.
What can the Leafs defense improve upon? As it stands, the Leafs rank 12th place in goals against per game, and 25th in shots against per game. There is some opportunity here to tighten up defensively and limit the chances against. Andersen has been Vezina worthy since October and has faced the most shots in the entire NHL. Time to bring those down a tad. As Zaitsev remains sidelined with an illness, it means more Roman Polak unfortunately. I don’t think Polak is an NHL caliber player. He’s too slow and seems to do nothing but ice the puck and take bad penalties. All he is good for is killing penalties, and is he really THAT good at it? Not enough to warrant a roster spot in my opinion. Get well soon Zaitsev – it’s been a tough sophomore year for you but I know the potential is there.
My 2018 defense grades:
Morgan Rielly: A
Number 1 D on a contending team. Faces other teams top players, and leads the way in scoring.
Ron Hainsey: A-
A horse on the PK. Smart with the puck. Nothing fancy here but a steady partner.
Travis Dermott: A-
Loads of potential, already looks like he’s top 4 quality. No weaknesses I can see.
Jake Gardiner: B
Advanced stats say he’s top pairing material. The eye test leaves you wondering.
Nikita Zaitsev: B-
Shortened season so it’s tough to judge here, but he got off to an excellent start. Let’s see if he can bring it back for the playoffs.
Connor Carrick: C+
Decent with the puck offensively, but lacking the size and strength to take his defensive game to the next level.
Andreas Borgman: C+
Rookie year has been split between the Leafs and the Marlies. Showed spurts of NHL talent, and brings a combination of offense and physicality that the leafs lack.
Roman Polak: C-
You know where I stand here.
This week’s burning question: Come playoff time would you move Dermott up the lineup to play with Gardiner despite his lack of experience? Or leave him sheltered on the third line until he has proven more?