With Travis Hamonic – the big fish available in terms of a right-handed defenceman who can play shutdown minutes competently — now a Calgary Flame, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t left with many obvious solutions to the glaring hole on the right side of their defensive depth chart.
With the expansion draft in the rearview, Anaheim in no apparent rush to deal Sami Vatanen and the free agency pool thin on quality right-handed defencemen not named Kevin Shattenkirk, many in the Toronto media and fan base are seemingly coming to grips with the idea that the Leafs might simply sit this round out as far as a big splash on the blue line is concerned.
The organization drafted a highly-skilled right-handed defenceman for the future in 18-year-old Timothy Liljegren with their first-round pick in the 2017 draft instead of spending it on help for today — a decision geared towards strengthening the team’s ten-year plan rather than expediting the process to capitalize on a two-year window of heightened cap flexibility. The Leafs will almost certainly make an effort to bring back a veteran depth piece like Matt Hunwick on a short-term deal, and they’ve already added two defencemen out of the SHL who will compete for spots — alongside standout Marlies rookie Travis Dermott — in the Fall. Could that be the extent of it for the 2017 offseason?
It’s certainly pointing in the direction of a slow-and-steady approach of late, but we’re not even at July 1st yet. There are a few pieces who could still move via trade and a few names worth looking at in the free agency pool who could help the Leafs to varying degrees in 2017-18.
Production wise, Jason Demers’ 2016-17 season was his best since 2013-14. He collected nine goals (a career-high) and 28 points in 81 games, with only five of those points coming on the power play. If we combine shorthanded and even strength points, Demers was Florida’s most productive defenceman in non-power play situations with 23.
Demers can move the puck, he’s mobile, he’s right-handed, and he’s handled second-pairing minutes well in the past. Also working in his favour is that he can take a shorthanded shift; he played 1:45/game on the penalty kill for the Panthers last season, which is the same amount he’s averaged over his 321 games played since 2012-13 (that includes seasons with the Sharks and Stars).
The 29-year-old is not a huge power play weapon by any means, but he has also played a secondary role on the man advantage. That doesn’t really matter to the Leafs anyway, given they have plenty of PP options on the blue line for Jim Hiller’s 4F/1D system between Rielly, Gardiner, and Zaitsev.
Last year was a disaster for the pairing of Demers and Michael Matheson in Florida — they were filled-in to the tune of a 36% GF in their 400 minutes of shared 5v5 ice time, which contributed to Demers’ career-worst -14 plus/minus. Demers wasn’t the steady defensive presence the Panthers were hoping he would be next to the rookie defenceman, and we can assume that GM Dale Tallon – now back in charge in Florida – isn’t a fan of his contract. When the Panthers lost Jonathan Marchessault to Vegas in order to protect four defencemen in the expansion draft, Demers wasn’t on the list.
Demers played 125 minutes with Jakub Kindl when apart from Matheson, with better results in terms of GF% but horrible possession numbers. His best results in both categories came alongside Keith Yandle – his most frequent partner with 647 minutes of shared 5v5 ice time — but they weren’t fantastic by any means (47.2% GF, 49.9% CF). It was a tough year for a lot of players in Florida.
In the past, Demers has thrived next to defensively-sound lefties rather than offensive-minded partners. His possession impacts and goal shares were really strong next to Johnny Oduya and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, his most common partners in his final years in Dallas and in San Jose, respectively.
Verdict: No, unless dirt cheap to acquire
I’d argue Demers is a legitimate #4 who could help drive play in the right situation, but the Leafs might not be that situation. They already have Nikita Zaitsev locked in long-term at the same number – $4.5 million – and his rookie numbers suggest he is in a similar boat to Demers: a capable puck mover, solid even-strength point producer, and a respectable #4 who has some holes in his game defensively.
Should the Leafs take on four more years of Demers at $4.5 million contract and cough up some assets to do it, or are they better off playing the waiting game and leaving Connor Carrick (and Calle Rosen, who has played the right) to try to stake a claim to that spot in the meantime? I’d lean towards the latter.
I wrote about the Leafs’ trading Cody Franson for futures back in February 2015 here, which provides some insight into the player and the decision to ship him out for those who understandably tuned out during that dismal period of Leafs history.
This season, there’s no doubting Franson started to put it all together on the top pairing with Dion Phaneuf. The two turned out to be an okay match, despite all indications to the contrary given how poorly the two ended the season as the first powerplay D unit the year previous. They famously gave up two shorthanded goals against in one game during the 2013-14 collapse and were routinely exposed for a combined lack of mobility by faster penalty killers if a turnover developed high in the zone on a Leaf powerplay. As it turned out, with both on their strong sides, the two played the game at a similar pace; they were able to slow things down, move the puck reasonably well, and string some decent games together. Franson has not played as well with either Morgan Rielly or Jake Gardiner as a partner, and it seems he can be exposed if his partner is pushing the tempo and taking chances, a circumstance in which he has to be leaned on as the defensive presence. While the team is in such disrepair that it is tough to evaluate anything with confidence, he hasn’t looked as good since Dion Phaneuf went down to injury.
The challenge in considering Franson’s eligibility as a core piece is projecting where he slots in on a good team. The Leafs haven’t had answers in the big matchups, but parsing where the blame lies is difficult; relative possession stats suggest Franson was coping with top pairing minutes and competition fairly well this season. The Leafs have never gotten their team defence to a level that could be deemed anything close to acceptable, which makes it particularly hard to evaluate overburdened defencemen the last several seasons. Would it be fair to project him as a number four on the right side of a second pairing on a good team?
How Franson is going to age, with hip problems in the past that have affected his pivoting ability and overall agility, and if there’s sound sense in signing defencemen long term into their thirties when they aren’t good skaters, are the other bigger picture considerations. Neither fall in favour of giving Franson the deal he wanted to ensure he didn’t go hunting for max dollar in unrestricted free agency.
In Buffalo, Franson’s relative possession and even-strength point production numbers remained pretty strong, although his power play production took a step back on a Sabres team that’s afforded him fewer man-advantage opportunities (1:46/game).
Cody Franson - Last 3 Seasons (Team Rank)
|SEASON||CF% REL||PP Pts/60||EV Pts/60|
|2015-16||2.7 (2nd)||3.43 (4th)||0.67 (2nd)|
|2016-17||5.0 (1st)||1.22 (6th)||0.88 (1st)|
The biggest checkmarks in the pro column here are Franson’s possession numbers – he can handle and move the puck, with good first-pass ability – and his ability to chip in offensively, at even-strength and on the power play, although the latter is not an area where the Leafs lack for options. His overall point production would probably increase on a high-scoring Leafs team, particularly with his touch on the offensive blue line. The Leafs funnelled pucks toward the net at a higher rate than all but two other teams in the NHL last season and Franson is highly effective at getting shots through into the right areas for tips and rebounds, something the Leafs’ skilled forward group could theoretically benefit from.
There is a certain level of mobility required to play Babcock hockey as a defenceman. Toronto has one of the more active defence groups in the league, and it’s not uncommon to see a Leafs defenceman — occasionally even two — down below the hashmarks sustaining a cycle. Franson can be lethal just inside the offensive blue line, but he’s not a player who should make habit of adventuring too deeply down the walls because his ability to recover with his first three steps isn’t a strength. Polak – who many would consider the Leafs’ worst skater on the blue line last year – is faster in a straight line and gets up to speed quicker than Franson (caveat: I can’t speak to how much Polak’s season-ending injury might slow him down going forward).
That could also be the reason why Franson only played about 47 seconds a game on the Sabres’ penalty kill since he arrived in Buffalo (their PK was poor in both years). Franson learned to make better use of his 6’5 frame in his time as a Maple Leaf; he also owns a long reach and he’s a smart enough player. That combination might make him a reasonable secondary option in Toronto, but what he lacks as a penalty killer is the ability to win short foot races to loose pucks.
Franson averaged just under 18 minutes a game while in Buffalo (15:08 at evens), flirting with top-four minutes at times and playing a bottom-pairing role at others. He’s battled some inconsistency and he’s also dealt with a number of injuries (59 and 68 GP the last two years). About to hit 30 and with his skating ability being what it is, it’s hard to picture Franson transforming the team’s top four significantly for the better.
The Leafs shouldn’t have to give out much in the way of term to get Franson back into the fold; there are injury concerns, he didn’t really find his place in Buffalo, and he’s expressed a keen interest in returning to Toronto, where he played the best hockey of his NHL career.
It’s not the worst idea in the world, but it obviously falls well short of a proper solution. Franson held his own in a top-pairing situation alongside Dion Phaneuf once upon a time, but it’s hard to bank on that at this point. He could upgrade the right side of the second pairing, although it would likely be at the expense of Connor Carrick, who might have some upside worth exploring still and has posted some good possession numbers of his own. It would be nothing more than a short-term stopgap and it likely wouldn’t move the needle in a significant way as far as the team’s defensive results.
I hate to keep circling back to the Colin Miller suggestion without knowing if he’s even available (he’s one of only two right-shot D on the Vegas Golden Knights roster), but it’s one idea that continues to make sense a week removed from the expansion draft.
Leafs management is familiar with Miller: A fifth-round draft choice of the LA Kings in 2012, the 24-year-old took a big leap forward in his draft plus-one season under Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas in Sault Ste. Marie, posting 20 goals and 55 points in 54 games while serving as captain of the Greyhounds (Mark Hunter would be familiar with him from his time in the OHL and probably scouted him going back to midget, as well).
After leaving junior, Miller was a dominant AHL player by his second season with the Manchester Monarchs, piling up 20 goals (first among AHL defencemen) and 55 points and an additional 10 points in 19 games en route to a Calder Cup championship in 2015. At the 2015 AHL All-Star event, Miller won the fastest skater (13.8-second lap) and hardest shot (105mph reading) competitions.
Traded to Boston as part of the Milan Lucic for Martin Jones swap, he split 2015-16 between the AHL and the big club before graduating to the Bruins full-time last season. He played soft minutes on the top possession team in the Eastern Conference, but his underlying numbers relative to his teammates and his With or Without You impacts are better than good.
While his point production was pretty modest (6g, 7a in 61GP), he was top five in the NHL at his position (minimum 500 minutes played) in shot suppression and shot generation relative to his teammates.
2016-17 Season, Defencemen with min. 500 minutes played
|CF per 60 RELTM||8.81||4th|
|CA per 60 RELTM||-7.74||3rd|
With his skill and excellent skating ability, Miller could be a good fit for the system we saw in Toronto under Babcock last season with a highly-active defence (sometimes they’re first in on a forecheck) and plenty of chips and chases, high flips and stretch passes, all executed at a high rate of speed. Babcock would have more patience to work through some of the warts with Miller than Bruce Cassidy ever did in Boston, where there is a wealth of right-handed options (Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Kevan Miller, Adam McQuaid).
The big question mark is how the numbers and skill set will translate if Miller goes from a bottom-pair role competing against checking lines to a top-four role playing against scoring lines, which he spent little time doing last season. He played under 14 minutes a night at even strength and started 42% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which was the highest among Bruins defencemen. His opponents’ Goals For per 60 – a measure of strength of competition – was the lowest among Bruins regulars. Put simply, these were pillow soft minutes.
The question marks in Boston surrounding Miller’s ability to take the next step focused on his decision-making and puck management; clearly, head coach Bruce Cassidy did not feel like Miller could be relied on in key situations. The impressive set of tools Miller possesses – a fast, powerful skater who can handle and hammer the puck – falls apart without the “toolbox” (i.e. hockey sense), his critics argue.
Miller also hasn’t spent any time killing penalties as an NHL player – not to say he couldn’t one day — which could be problematic for Babcock if Miller ends up on the bottom pairing where Roman Polak used to be.
Verdict: Yes, at the the right price
The Leafs shouldn’t pay a price that makes Miller out to be anything more than what he’s proven to be in his short NHL career to date: a depth defenceman who can tilt the ice on the bottom pair and take some power play shifts. This should be a relatively inexpensive bet on the hope that Miller has some untapped potential that could be unfurled when afforded more opportunity.
The idea here would be to bring Connor Carrick and Colin Miller to camp and have them battle it out for the second pair spot on the right side of the Leafs defence. While Franson would be little more than a veteran stopgap, Miller might have the potential to play his way into being part of the solution moving forward. Unlike Franson, however, we don’t know if Miller is available and what he’ll cost to acquire.