This season’s Toronto Maple Leafs defense is the best the team has put on ice in my lifetime.
For reference, I was born in 1993, so I have no memory of the 1992-93 Leafs defense (they were 2nd best in goals against that season). The team’s 2020 offseason strategy of going after strong defensive players (specifically T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian) seems to be paying dividends. While not a very high-scoring back-end, they can actually defend! The team is spending a lot less time skating circles in the defensive zone and allowing high-danger scoring chances.
For the first time since I can remember, I actually feel confident in the top-4 of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Brodie and Justin Holl. This quartet have been set in their roles since the start of the season and are expected to retain these roles as the team rolls into the playoffs. Travis Dermott and Bogosian make for a more than solid third pair, proving so successful that the team felt they could trade away Mikko Lehtonen, who had proved to be overqualified for his depth role. However, one might dismiss the declaration that this is the best Toronto defense I’ve seen as unimpressive since: A) the Leafs have not assembled a competitive team for most of that time and B) when the Leafs have been competitive in that stretch, they have never been known as a defensive juggernaut. While that declaration is unimpressive on the surface, it marks a monumental step for Toronto and their pursuit of hockey glory.
Even from 1999 to 2004, the Leafs were always between 10th and 15th in goals against, and that was with the likes of Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour in goal. From the time the team became competitive in 2016-17 to last season, the highest they finished was 12th best in goals against. Sure, goals against don’t tell the entire story, but it’s a good starting point. As of April 27th, the Leafs are 13th in goals against, but we can excuse the defense a bit given Frederik Andersen’s poor season in net thus far (9 quality starts, 6 really bad starts in 22 games started). On top of their performance, the Maple Leafs defense has been extremely healthy, with the regular top-six (Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, Holl, Dermott and Bogosian) only missing a total of 10 games as of April 27th. Having such a deep defensive unit comes with the downside of having to deal with the upcoming expansion draft this coming offseason and deciding which players will be left unprotected. But, another wrinkle has been thrown in the equation as of late: the health of Bogosian.
Zach Bogosian will miss at least four weeks due to an undisclosed injury. While one might scoff at losing a third-pair defenseman for a month, his presence on the team should not be understated. His mix of size, physicality and mobility all combine for an asset that the Leafs have been desperately lacking for the past few seasons. He offers a steady presence on the back-end and on top of being solid on the third-pair, he is compatible with Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie in shutdown duty when the time calls for it. He plays a regular role on the penalty kill (Brodie and himself are usually the second pair after Muzzin and Justin Holl) and, despite being plagued by injuries in his NHL career, has been mostly healthy this season. His absence on the team is surely not a positive, but it presents a massive opportunity for Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott.
The Rasmus Sandin angle is the most obvious, as he goes from number-seven defenseman on the team to being in the lineup every night. His catchphrase for his first few games with the big-club this season might as well be “carpe diem”, because he is truly making the most of his opportunity. Sandin’s campaign with the Leafs last season started with success as well, scoring 7 points in his first 12 games. His hockey IQ and skating impressed many and it looked like he might already be an NHL-regular. However, as the season went on, Sandin struggled mightily, only scoring a single assist in his final 16 games, and his lack of a physical game came into focus. Sandin just couldn’t hold his own against bigger and stronger opponents just yet. He was a boy playing a man’s game. While there’s still a small sample size for this season, Sandin has been playing with much more confidence and hasn’t been shying away from playing physical.
Though most instrumental to Sandin and his development is the time he gets playing the point on the Maple Leafs power play. It looks as though Sheldon Keefe and his coaching staff have given Sandin the power play ice time that has usually gone to T.J. Brodie or Jake Muzzin earlier in the season. This comes with the added bonus of keeping Muzzin and Brodie fresh for even strength or penalty kill situations. Sandin primarily plays point on the second unit as of now, but he has played sparingly with the top unit. Sandin playing on the top unit is an intriguing prospect especially if the Leafs top power play continues to struggle in the coming games. Sandin might not be the answer to the Leafs power play dilemma, but at the very least, Sandin offers a different look to the man advantage. And given the Leafs power play slump, a little could go a long way. At even strength, together with Travis Dermott, they have made for a mobile, puck-moving pair that can keep other teams on their heels and is very fun to watch.
Speaking of Travis Dermott, his opportunity with Zach Bogosian out might not jump out at you, but it’s still significant. His ice time automatically goes up as he’s taking Bogosian’s spot on the penalty kill. If nothing else, this will give the Maple Leafs an idea of what Dermott can do in this role, and if he should be called upon to be a regular penalty killer in the future. Dermott has a couple obvious factors working against him when it comes to being a defensive presence: he’s undersized and not very physical. While, like Rasmus Sandin, he’s not shying away from contact as much as he used to, you still have to wonder how his game translates into being a regular on the PK. On the other hand, he owns impressive hockey IQ and rarely puts himself in position that hurts his team defensively. His future with the team is up in the air as of now, but these next few games might help to give us some insight of where he stands. He has to be looking over his shoulder, as Sandin is coming at him from behind on the depth chart. The play of Dermott and Sandin over the next few games will not only determine who starts on the third pair with Bogosian going into the playoffs, but also where they fit into the team’s long-term plans.
The Leafs defense factors heavily into their expansion draft decisions in a few months. NHL teams will have the option to protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and 1 goalie OR 8 skaters and 1 goalie. Given the players that would be left unprotected in either scenario, it’s very likely the Leafs end up protecting just 8 skaters. Either way, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie and Jack Campbell are all guarantees to be protected from Seattle. For the 7-3-1 route, they would have to leave both Justin Holl and Travis Dermott unprotected (Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are exempt) to protect Zach Hyman, Alexander Kerfoot and another forward (likely Alex Galchenyuk or Adam Brooks, as Ilya Mikheyev and Nick Robertson are exempt). Even if they do end up going the 8 skaters route, that still leaves one of Holl or Travis Dermott unprotected and up for grabs. This also leaves Hyman unprotected, but since he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, it’s unlikely he’s taken by Seattle.
The scenario leaving Holl or Dermott exposed cultivates some fascinating questions about how the Leafs end up approaching the problem. Both Holl and Dermott should both be considered pretty valuable commodities, neither of which you would like to lose for nothing. This leads me to the conclusion that one of the two will be traded before the expansion draft. The more likely scenario is Dermott getting traded before the expansion draft. He’s set to become a restricted free agent this summer (meaning he’ll want a raise especially after accepting his qualifying offer last offseason), Holl’s 2-million dollar cap-hit is a bargain price for a top-4 defenseman and Toronto is right up against the salary cap. Of course, trading Dermott won’t be easy given that for this to work, the Leafs would need to find a trade partner that: A) has under 3 defensemen that they deem “must-protect” players so they have room to protect Dermott (can also be under 4 defensemen if they have only 4 forwards in the “must-protect” category) AND B) has the assets that the Leafs would desire in return (draft picks and prospects).
Using CapFriendly as a resource, Columbus, Detroit, Los Angeles and New Jersey look like they could be candidates to pick up Dermott, but a lot can change in a few short months. Of course, Seattle could also take a forward in this situation (most likely Kerfoot given he has 2 years remaining on his deal), but I still think Dermott is gone to make way for the younger (and much cheaper) Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren regardless. Liljegren might not even get a chance to play with the big club this season (barring injury), but he’s constantly being talked up by management, coaches and members of the team so we can assume the Leafs have big plans for him. There is also the possibility of the Maple Leafs bringing back Zach Bogosian, but it’s unlikely is it that he’ll sign back for a discount price of around 1-million dollars again.
That leaves Toronto with a projected top-6 defense in 2021-22 of:
Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Sandin – Liljegren
For now, the Leafs defense looks as solid as its ever been and if Toronto is going to have any success in the playoffs, their defense corps should be a big reason why. The lower you dig down into the lineup, you begin to find some compelling narratives. An opportunity has opened up for the two youngest defensemen on the team after the injury of veteran Zach Bogosian. For Rasmus Sandin, his chance is more offensive in nature, as he’ll be expected to use his tools to be productive on the power play. For Travis Dermott, his opportunity is to prove his worth in the defensive-end as as a support to his more offensively gifted teammates. While Sandin’s spot on the team going into the future looks secure, Dermott is on a mission to prove that the team should not leave him behind in their plans for the future. The looming expansion draft will force the Maple Leafs’ plans in one way or another. And while it is unfortunate that this year’s version of the Toronto Maple Leafs defense (an impressive one at that) won’t be here forever as “nothing gold can stay.”