Toronto re-sign Connor Carrick to a relatively cap friendly, 1 year $1.3 million contract and add another piece (back) to strengthen their defensive depth. With a strong list of up-and-coming prospects and a pool of decent free agent defencemen available to sign in just a few days, it seems it is time for the Leafs to move on from one old, reliable piece on their back end.
Yes, I’m talking about Roman Polak.
If Kyle Dubas truly want to show a changing of the guard for the Leafs under his management it is time to cut ties with the long-ish serving defenceman, as the speed of the game has appeared to pass him by.
While his opponents speed tends to expose the massive defenders game, the Leafs’ team speed also creates challenges for him too. Polak was exposed by his own teammates inadvertently by their fast paced play which he cannot keep up with. If the Leafs want to continue to develop as one of the leagues fastest and most dynamic teams Babcock’s defensive security blanket Polak has to be released and moved on from.
They have options for a bottom pairing defenceman that can step up from the minors. Both Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman served time on the big league club last season and will have a better understanding for how the North American game is played after a season with the Marlies.
A few home grown defensive prospects that could make the step up are Justin Holl, Andre Neilsen and Timothy Liljegren. Holl had a brief 2 game stint with the Leafs last season where he put up two points int two games, while registering a +5 rating. Holl had a very productive year with the Marlies, putting up an AHL career high 28 points, and adding 5 more in the playoffs.
Nielsen may the the next candidate of the Dermott method, who seems locked into the Leafs’ best-6 defencemen. Nielsen has enjoyed some solid offensive success in the last two season with the Marlies, putting up 39 points (16/17) and 26 points (17/18). He offers some solid size at just over 6 feet tall and can move the puck very well. Look for Nielsen to jump up the ranks of the Leafs mid to late next season.
Liljegren, former first round pick 17th overall for the Leafs, would be a popular name to fill in the D core. However, after a lackluster season offensively for the Marlies he may need more time to develop in the minors. Liljegren put up 17 points last season in 44 games, and only 4 points in 20 playoff games. He has a really high ceiling potential-wise, but needs to season some more. At only 19, this shouldn’t be an issue at all.
This leaves free agents as the next viable option for shoring up the Leafs defensive core. While there are a few options that are viable, the Leafs may be better suited to trade for an established player, like Tanev, and plug them in to the line up. A move like this would slot other players down and strengthen the core in that manner.
Should Dubas opt for free agency to upgrade on Polak players like Tobias Enstrom from Winnipeg, Christian Folin from LA, Calvin De Haan from the Islanders, or Andrej Sustr from Tampa Bay would all be solid depth acquisitions for the right price. The big question remains though, will Dubas make a splash and dish out major money for John Carlson from Washington. He grew his value even more by driving the back-end for the Stanley Cup winning Washington Capitals. It seems unlikely seeing as Dubas is a big believe in drafting and developing your own homegrown talent and could elect to promote a young player rather than add another name to the depth chart ahead of the Leafs prospects.
However it shakes out for the Leafs defensive core one thing is certain, if Roman Polak is not back for 2018/19 Toronto has turned a proverbial new leaf in their team structure. He has been a “Babcock player” in his career as a Maple Leaf, probably affording him more opportunity than he deserved at times, but there is no doubt he had given his all for his team in his time here. I say salute him as he leaves and prepare for the next step – a quicker, more dynamic defense core that values skill and speed over physicality.