Massive Upgrades For The Maple Leafs Defense That Won't Break The Bank

So, here we are again. Most NHL clubs are kicking around the 10 game mark and in particular, my focus is on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Back by popular demand, by readers who follow my blog, here is my second annual “State of the Leafs” address.

So what have we learned so far about our club? Well let’s take grab a quote form last years article and build on that.

“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!”  

Sure they have had moments where they look terrible, but so has every other team in the league. Lets call a spade a spade. The Leafs are even deeper up front this year than last thanks to the addition of one John Tavarse. It goes without saying that the forward group will only stand to get better once William Nylander returns and Matthews is healthy.

Last years address of course focused squarely on the glaring deficiency within the club. Defense.  Our topic will be no different this season.

At the start of last season, I scouted and pulled out 3 potential trade targets for the Leafs which would have significantly improved the D core without moving out top names such as Marner and Nylander. This year I will attempt to do the same.

To recapped last years trade targets I selected:

For my 3rd pairing option last season, I selected Robert Bortuzzo from the St.Louis Blues. Obviously for the 3rd pairing we weren’t looking for offensive flair. We wanted some sand paper, the ability to clear the front of the net, and good hockey sense for making the first pass out of the zone. Bortuzzo also finished last season with a career high in points with 13 over a 72 game season but more importantly, once again finished a (+/-) +11 just as he did the year previous. Bortuzzo was as advertised for which I gave myself an “A” on this trade target. While still a decent option for the 3rd pair, the leafs may have addressed all of the above-mentioned Bortuzzo assets with the addition of KHL free agent signee Igor Ozhiganov. Therefore this years 3rd pairing option is going to take a slightly different route.

For the 2nd pairing option I selected Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights. Nate’s selection raised some eyebrows among readers at first, until of course he went on to become one of the more dominant D men in the league last year, pouring in a career high 36 points, finishing a (+/-) +19, and leading his team all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Based on this I have awarded myself an “A+” on this selection. Nate would likely be a selection this year had he not just signed a $5,950,000 AAV extension with the Knights. After such a break out season, the cost to acquire him now would be massive and the Leafs soon wont have room for that cap hit. 
Unfortunately, Lamorello should have read my article last year. How’s that working out for you Lou?

For Last years 1st pairing option, I selected Brett Pesce from the Carolina Hurricanes. After such, Brett went on to have his season shut down due to injury after 65 games. His point production was up with 19 points in his shortened season however he finished with a (+/-) rating of -6. While Brett’s season was somewhat average for any otherwise solid D-man I will give myself a “B-“ on this trade target. Brett still has upside and would make a great addition, but has fallen off my radar only because it is no fun to pick the same guy twice. It is interesting to see his name however pop up in trade rumours this season, perhaps Dubas is a fan of my blog?

While I will be the first to admit that since Oct 2017, the Leafs defense has improved thanks to the emergence of AHL graduate Travis Dermott and addition of Igor Ozhiganov. 

Still the buds defensive game isn’t good enough to make them true contenders. Oddly enough, this isn’t the fault of their core D-men. Rielly, Gardiner and Dermott are as advertised and doing exactly what they are being paid to do, drive the offence. 

Here in lies the irony of the situation. The NHL has become a league where puck-moving defensemen are at a premium. Obviously, the management and scouting were ahead of the curve on this. With regard to puck movers, the Leafs are as deep any organization, with Rielly, Gardiner, Zaitsev and Dermott already in the bigs and back to back 1st round selections, Timothy Liljrgren (2017) and Rasmus Sandin (2018) developing with the Marlies. Honorable mention in this department should also go to Calder cup championship standout Calle Rosen who I suspect might be the first call up to the blue line this season. 

Just like last season, the leafs are in bad need of some quality stay at home type back enders at a fair to reasonable price.

So with out further adieu, here are your three 2018-2019 trade targets.

Third Pair Option

Name: Stephen Johns
Position: Defenseman 
Age: 26
Shoots: Right
Height: 6’4”
Wight: 226 lbs 
From:  Ellwood City, PA, USA
Current NHL Team: Dallas Stars
Salary Cap Hit: $2.35 mil AAV for 3 years. This season and 2 more.
2017-2018 Stat Line: 75GP, 8G, 7A, 15PTS, +10(+/-)

Why Stephen Johns

First of all, this may be a gamble as the guy is currently on IR with a head injury. However, assuming he gets back to game form, here is what you can expect. 

He’s a big boy and never shies away from the physical stuff. While physicality seems to be slowly leaving the NHL, it is still a must on your back end in a shut down roll. The key asset Johns could also bring to the Leafs outside of his shutdown 5 on 5 play is that he excels as a penalty killer and can easily clear the front of the net.  When push comes to shove in the playoffs, I would take a guy like Stephen Johns any day of the week over Zaitsev or Hainsey.

Projected price to land Stephen Johns: 3rd Round Pick

Second Pair Option

Name: Brayden McNabb
Position: Defenseman 
Age: 26 
Shoots: left
Height: 6’4”
Wight: 212 lbs 
From:  Saskatoon, Sask, Canada 
Current NHL Team: Vegas Golden Knights
Salary Cap Hit: $2.5 mil AAV for 4 years. This season and three more
2016-2017 Stat Line: 76 GP, 5G, 10A, 15PTS, +26(+/-)

Why Brayden McNabb

Well I can’t get enough of the Vegas D men. McPhee has an eye for quality on the blue line and I for one, also love Brayden McNabb

Brayden is a defence first player with a big body. Why don’t teams score against McNabb? Well, mostly because opposing players are busy picking themselves up off the ice. Last season, McNabb threw a whopping 225 hits. This was one hit shy of breaking him into the top 10 hitters for the entire league with the likes of Clutterbuck, Wilson & Lucic (all forwards). Not noted for his offensive skill set, he shines in his own end. I personally love his ability to deny zone entries by literally standing guys up at the blue line. 

In my opinion this player would be the ultimate compliment to a guy like Jake Gardiner. We have all seen Jake’s miscues. The media and lynch mob tend to get hung up on that, however Gardiner's ability to spring players blowing the zone, skate the puck out of trouble, or turn a nothing shift into a quality scoring chance are qualities only elite defensemen hold. The security of a McNabb following the play up the ice should only help solidify Gardiner’s confidence and make his blunders far less risky.

Projected price to land Brayden McNabb: Connor Brown, Adam Brooks & 2nd Round Pick 

First Pair Option

Name: Josh Manson
Position: Defenseman 
Age: 27
Shoots: Right
Height: 6’3”
Wight: 216 lbs 
From:  Hinsdale, IL, USA
Current NHL Team: Anaheim Bucks
Salary Cap Hit: $4.1 mil AAV for 4 years. This season and 3 more
2016-2017 Stat Line: 80 GP, 7G, 30A, 37PTS, +34(+/-)

Why Josh Manson

Well, this guy is already a good #2 defenseman on a highly skilled team. While there has been some debate over the last couple of years of just who the Leafs #1 D-man was, Morgan Rielly seems to have put those talks to bed by finally starting to play to his potential. What I also like about Manson is, like Rielly, he is on his way to seasoned veteran status with 261 NHL games under his belt and 22 playoff game appearences prior to this season. At 27 years old, he is just coming into his prime and could easily eclipse the 1000 career game mark as he is also not prone to injury.  

Manson would be the perfect fit to play behind Rielly as he is your stereotypical #2 shut down D-man. He is poised with the puck and excels in pretty much every defensive situation. With Reilly showing an ever growing confidence to rush the puck or jump up in the play, having Manson hold down the fort in the Leafs end would only lead to a more confident and comfortable Morgan Reilly.

As I have discussed many times before, +/- is somewhat of a flawed base stat. However, when a player such as Manson, is perennially a “plus” player for all of his first 4 NHL seasons, that is a stat worth taking notice of. More importantly, Manson led all NHL defensemen in +/- last season with an astonishing +34. 

Projected price to land Josh Manson: Nakita Zaitsev, Andreas Johnsson & a 1st round pick

So there you have it Leafs fans, your Stanley Cup winning defense. With the addition of 3 big, rough and tumble men, built to play deep into the playoffs and make o-zone time completely miserable for the opposition. 

Rielly – Manson
Gardiner – McNabb
Hainsey - Johns

GO Leafs GO!

If you would like to check out last seasons article and scouting reports, Here it is!

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