The rumour mill has picked up in Toronto as we enter the final week of August, with the Toronto Maple Leafs linked to UFA defenceman Roman Polak and KHL blueliner Igor Ozhiganov over the past few days.
It’s not difficult to surmise why that is: The Leafs‘ blue line remains a work in progress as we inch closer towards the much-anticipated 2017-18 season.
The left side of the Leafs‘ defence appears in reasonable enough shape, currently consisting of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman and Travis Dermott. Granted, there are only three defencemen with NHL experience on that list, but there’s some depth to the talent there and veteran Ron Hainsey is also a lefty, although the July 1 signing appears earmarked for his off side to start the season.
The same can’t be said of the right side of the defence, especially with Alexey Marchenko now in the KHL (not that his presence would’ve changed matters significantly). The right currently features Nikita Zaitsev, the 37-year-old Hainsey, and Connor Carrick among those with NHL experience.
While he’s flashed some promise and could have more to give going forward, Carrick — with just 120 NHL games to his name — hasn’t fully established himself as a firm top-six defenceman under Mike Babcock yet. The 23-year-old played 15:30 per game in the final month of the 2016-17 season and just 12:16 a night in the playoffs in a series that featured five overtime games.
After Carrick, we’re looking at Vincent LoVerde and Justin Holl as the next in line, neither of whom has played in an NHL game or appears to offer any NHL upside. That means there’s no real competition among the talent on the Leafs’ right side at the moment and little in the way of cover for when injuries strike.
Toronto Maple Leafs Defensive Depth Chart - August 24
|Jake Gardiner||Nikita Zaitsev|
|Morgan Rielly||Ron Hainsey (LH)|
|Martin Marincin||Connor Carrick|
|Calle Rosen||Justin Holl|
|Travis Dermott||Vincent LoVerde|
There is also the matter of the penalty kill units. Hainsey will take on Matt Hunwick’s minutes while Rielly and Zaitsev will play their roles, but Carrick hasn’t been used while down a man under Babcock. Marincin has earned the coach’s trust in shorthanded situations – his long reach makes him effective there – but he’s been highly inconsistent at even strength and hasn’t staked a claim to a permanent spot in the team’s top six yet for that reason. Marincin has Rosen, Borgman and Dermott gunning for his spot, and it seems unlikely any of those three would serve a significant role on the penalty kill as rookies.
This is where the idea of Roman Polak on a one-year deal or PTO could make some sense to Leafs brass, particularly after Babcock used him in a significant role down the stretch and into the playoffs. To his credit, Polak played some of his best hockey in a Leaf uniform prior to his injury.
Polak has more than his fair share of detractors and bringing him back would engender some legitimate concerns as to whether he will be allowed to edge out a defenceman with more upside like Connor Carrick based on veteran status alone (or stand in the way should a younger player surprise at camp such as Calle Rosen, who has played the right side some and has a couple of years worth of professional experience in the SHL). But teams usually need more than six defencemen with NHL experience over the course of an 82-plus game slog, and one of the Leafs‘ current six served mostly as an extra body last season (Marincin played 25 regular season games).
It’s interesting that Babcock has been over in Russia very recently, with camp just around the corner, reportedly to meet with right-shot defenceman Igor Ozhiganov of CSKA Moscow. Babcock has been actively involved in recruiting talent from overseas in the recent past – Zaitsev, Borgman, Rosen – and team brass met with Zaitsev’s camp as much as one year in advance of his contract expiring (which is Ozhiganov’s current situation) in the 2015 offseason. Ozhiganov not playing in CSKA’s first regular season game raises an eyebrow; it could mean something, or it could mean nothing at all. Chris Johnston’s report yesterday suggested that the meeting between Babcock, Lou Lamoriello and Ozhiganov was simply a case of laying the groundwork for when the soon-to-be 25-year-old’s contract expires next summer. Either way, Leafs management is looking to add quality depth on the right side of the defence.
Regardless of the timing of the Ozhiganov pursuit, with Polak (as of now) and Hunwick gone and Hainsey, Rosen and Borgman added, the Leafs haven’t necessarily improved their defence from last year in terms of proven NHL depth; in fact, they currently stand to enter the season with six defencemen with NHL experience compared to seven plus Nikita Zaitsev — who was considered a lock to be an NHL regular in some capacity — at this time last year. The right side of the depth chart needs some extra padding, and there are a limited number of obvious solutions available barring a “JVR for top 4 D” trade materializing in the next couple of weeks/months that serves to slot everyone in more comfortably.
It wouldn’t be shocking if the Leafs circle back on the known quantity — and one Babcock’s favourite veterans — in Polak, but there could be something up Lou Lamoriello’s sleeve here that we’re not privy to. The team could also bide its time and see what emerges from the battles in camp and preseason before making any decisions, while perhaps bringing in a veteran right-hander on a PTO.
The Leafs have remained patient since the Travis Hamonic deal fell through at the draft and the subsequent addition of Ron Hainsey on a short-term deal, but it seems likely there’s at least one more shoe to drop – whether big or small — on defence.