Should the Leafs Rebuild Their Defence in 2017? – 3 Unconventional Trade Targets

If there is one thing which has become apparent across the hockey world this week, aside from the fact that Connor McDavid is some sort of Wayne Gretzky/gazelle hybrid & Ovi is still Ovi, it is the fact that the Leafs can score. 

It appears as though this leafs squad can almost will the puck over the line when it is needed most. I mean, it’s unlike anything I have seen before. The leafs are so deep up front that they are skating not 1 but 2 x 30 goal scores on there shut down (3rd) line!  Habs fans must be simply ill over that fact alone. That is a whole other issue covered in my previous post “Why Can’t the Habs Score? And What about Duchene?”, give it a read (shameless plug).

Because of this kind of depth, There are hundreds of articles on the internet today preaching different variations of the same. “Best top 9 in hockey”, “Leafs Fans - Your Time Is Now”, “From Boys To Men” and all sorts of other rubbish that will build you up for disappointment. Why? Defense.
The buds defensive game is among the worst in the league. Oddly enough, this isn’t the fault of their core d-men. Rielly, Zaitsev and Gardiner are as advertised and doing exactly what they are being paid to do and in some cases excelling at it. Driving the offence. The other 3 however, through no fault of their own, have been miscast into rolls which hardly suits them. Shut down or stay at home d-men.

Let’s go back to the home opener against the New York Rangers and forget the offence for a minute. For a moment in this imaginary world, the Leafs have a similar offence to that of your average NHL team. Matthews and company for all intents and purposes do not exist. Now, we can shine a light on what truly mattered in this game. During what should have been a runaway, the Leafs took two penalties. This was bound to happen being up 4-1. Any hockey guy at this point can see the gaping hole in their team and in particular their PK. Chris Kreider and men like him. A very large man parked uninhibited three inches away from Frederik Andersen. Had the leafs had anyone on the back end capable of moving such a body, perhaps they would have tried, unfortunately, all Anderson seen on either of the two power play markers was the red white and blue of a Rangers jersey. These goals kick started what would eventually be a full blown come back. Luckily the ridiculously potent offence bailed them out in the end, but things went sideways very fast for the blue and white.

If we go old school for a minute and pair each of the core Leafs d-men (Gardiner, Rielly, Zaitsev) with a stay at home defensemen capable of skating, closing gaps, good stick work, and/or bringing a little sandpaper to an otherwise smooth Air Canada Center ice surface, perhaps all this fan buzz surrounding the leafs and their championship aspirations could become reality.

So, lets do a reality check before we start. First off lets eliminate the fantasyland stuff where the Leafs trade for an Ekblad, or Jones, or Dumba. First and foremost because they are simply not available and if they were, how comfortable are you with trading Nylander or Marner, because that would be the price of poker unfortunately. With a couple of blue chip d-men on the Marlies squad and a potential #1 in 2017 1st round pick, Timothy Liljegren, lets talk about moves the Leafs brass could actually make that would put this team over the top.

That is what I have assembled for you. 3 viable trade options on defence along with my very own scouting report for each, which would round out the back end and assemble what could otherwise be an unstoppable force in the eastern conference. Also, these are options which could feasibly be long term options as opposed to old rental players.

So obviously I’m referring to rebuilding the defense in 2017. Lets get started!

Third Pair Option

Name: Robert Bortuzzo
Position: Defenseman
Age: 28
Shoots: Right
Height: 6’4”
Wight: 216 lbs
From:  Thunder Bay, Ont, Canada
Current NHL Team: St. Louis Blues
Salary Cap Hit: $1.15 mil AAV for 2 years. This season and next.
2016-2017 Stat Line: 32GP, 1G, 3A, 4PTS, +11(+/-)

Why Robert Bortuzzo? Well, he’s a big boy and never shies away from the rough stuff or the fist-a-cuffs. While this is a dying skill set in the NHL, it is still a must on your back end. Also, this guy is a warrior. He will lay it on the line night in and night out for his team.  While not popular on the score sheet, he is popular with the guys he protects. A decent penalty killer and can easily clear the front of the net. Actually, he will gladly clear the front of the net. Most importantly in all this is, Bortuzzo is responsible in his own end. When paired with a guy like Zaitsev to pass to, Bortuzzo could keep the Leafs end very tidy and give Nikita the option to get out and stretch his legs or pinch in if need be. While unlikely to be a popular choice among some readers, there is definitely something to be gained from a player of his style if nowhere else then on the PK in the crease. Why else have the Leafs kept Roman Polak around so long. It doesn’t hurt to have an extra right hand shot around either to keep the puck in on his own side hey Babs?

Projected price to land Robert Bortuzzo: 5th Round Pick

Now, before Leafs Nation gets completely up in arms with me. Honourable mention should go to the new kid, Andreas Borgman. If the kid proves ready, he may be the best 3rd pair option to stroll down Young Street in quite some time. Borgman appears solid on both sides of the puck with an uncanny ability to jump up in the rush without putting the team at risk. He is a heavy body and hits like a train. My only knock on the kid is he has to learn to fight. He will need to answer that bell quite regularly with his style of play and from what I seen in preseason action; he is a total lightweight. Maybe some post practice tussling with Matt Martin could fix this up or some sparring lessons with Rich Clune in the minors. Leafs fans should be very excited about this guy and even more so, impressed with Lou and company for pulling him out of thin air.

Next, It is worth noting that I didn’t fully make a distinction between 1st & 2nd pairs. Given this defensive alignment I feel both pairs could be equally dangerous and effective. Hence 1A & 1B.

1A (Rielly) Pair Option

Name: Nate Schmidt
Position: Defenseman
Age: 26
Shoots: left
Height: 6’1”
Wight: 194 lbs
From:  St. Cloud, MN, USA
Current NHL Team: Vegas Golden Knights
Salary Cap Hit: $2.225 mil AAV for 2 years. This season and next
2016-2017 Stat Line: 60 GP, 3G, 14A, 17PTS, +22(+/-)

Why Nate Schmidt? First of all Schmidt is a defence first player with decent size, while he does still have some offensive tools, he shines in his own end. I personally love his ability to close gaps quickly with his smooth skating and his ability to block the opposition from gaining access to the blue paint. Not a physical presence out there but he can certainly hold his own if called upon. If paired with Morgan Rielly, perhaps not seeing that minus next to his name every night would give Morgan back the confidence which Leafs fans know he so sorely lost last season.  Secondly, Schmidt is ripe for the picking from Vegas. Vegas General Manager George McPhee understands completely that he needs to acquire players who are younger and still have RFA years left which will leave the team in control. Players coming into their prime and UFA years like Schmidt, are not likely to want to spend their best pro years with a Vegas franchise bound for typical expansion growing pains. This is the exact reason Vegas claimed Malcolm Subban off waivers, RFA years. Schmidt has 2 years left on his contract, this season and next, at which time he will be a UFA. You can be sure that McPhee would be more then willing to take some of Toronto’s prospect pool to further his own means. Finally, Schmidt is still only 26 years old. If healthy, the Leafs could garner a player which could anchor the PK for years to come and chip in on the score sheet.

Projected price to land Nate Schmidt: Adam Brooks & 2nd Round Pick

1B (Gardiner) Pair Option

Name: Brett Pesce
Position: Defenseman
Age: 22
Shoots: Right
Height: 6’3”
Wight: 200 lbs
From:  Tarrytown, NY, USA
Current NHL Team: Carolina Hurricanes
Salary Cap Hit: $4.025 mil AAV for 6 years starting next season
2016-2017 Stat Line: 82 GP, 2G, 18A, 20PTS, +23(+/-)

Why Brett Pesce? I don’t like the term #2 defenseman, as in the modern NHL this usually means, your 2nd best d-man. I truly believe that a teams #2 defenseman is the guy on the back end who best compliments your best defensemen. The best and most recent example of this can be found in Ottawa when Erik Karlsson was paired with Marc Methot. Methot wasn’t the best all around d-man they had next to Karlsson but his stay at home style of play allowed Eric to stretch out the ice and go for a skate. Last season, the Leafs best all around defensemen was Jake Gardiner. Gardiner while not in the same conversation as Erik Karlsson yet, has a very similar style of play. Under the tutelage of head coach Mike Babcock, Gardiner has really raised some eyebrows around the league and already this season, it easy to see his confidence growing. Pairing Gardiner with a young puck mover like Pesce who is first and foremost responsible in his own end could be magic for the Leafs. At just 22 years old and on a cap friendly deal for the next 6 years, Pesce has a tonne of time to grow with the young leafs core and grow into his already sizable frame. Did I mention he is a right shot? Babcock would love that.

Projected price to land Brett Pesce: Connor Carrick, Jeremy Bracco or Kapanen & a 2nd round pick

So there you have it Leafs fans, your Stanley Cup winning defence, or at least a better version of your current defence.

Gardiner – Pesce
Rielly – Schmidt
Zaitsev – Borgman/Bortuzzo

GO Leafs GO!

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