As the Toronto Maple Leafs get set to kick-off the 2017-2018 season in Winnipeg, the team and its fan base are full of hope.

They finally have the franchise center that has been yearned for since Mats Sundin left. Last season, Frederik Andersen provided them with reliable goaltending over an 82-game season for the first time since Ed Belfour in 2003-04. At this point, there is a reasonable argument to be made that they have the deepest forward group in the Eastern Conference. They had five players put up over 60 points and five with at least 20 goals last season before adding Patrick Marleau to the mix this past summer.

The Achilles heel of the team, though, is also quite obvious: their defense. The two main numbers to point here are clear – they gave up the third most shots against in the league, and the ninth most goals against.

That does not fall only on the defense. As a team, the Leafs play high event hockey with, at times, a wide open neutral zone and they’re happy to rely on their talent and trade chances with opponents. Defense is a team effort at the end of the day; when you give up that many shots against, it is not only the fault of the six defencemen on the team.

With a week free agent market — also having reportedly missed out on Travis Hamonic via trade — the team added a few projects in Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen in addition to signing veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey.

So let’s take a look at the defense and some of the questions facing it.

The Leafs are set to split up Rielly – Zaitsev and put Gardiner with Zaitsev instead. In 315:10 minutes together, the pairing posted a 47.6CF%, which was a substantial (nearly 6%) drop for Gardiner. Zaitsev is turning 26 this October and Gardiner turned 27 this summer, but this is Zaitsev’s second year in the league so he might understand the league better, feel a little more comfortable, and elevate his game. However, history shows that players generally are what they are by this age. The team will be depending on this pairing and we’ll need to see how they gel early in the season.

Rounding out the top four will be the Rielly – Hainsey pairing, which will be a work in progress. Both Hainsey and Leafs management noted that he played a similar system in Carolina for years; it was evident at times in preseason, as Hainsey flipped a lot of pucks out to wingers in the neutral zone and made a concerted effort to use the middle of the ice on breakouts. Rielly’s partners the last few years have been the aforementioned Zaitsev (they were even in shot attempts but made glaring errors leading to goals against), Hunwick and Polak, along with a few stints playing with Gardiner.

Rielly is coming off a strong playoff showing and received a lot of power play time in preseason. A reduced role at even strength and increased time with the man advantage could set him up for a career year points-wise. But the pairing will have to prove they can hold up at 5v5.

The third pairing will be even more of a question mark. Carrick had a decent regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs, when he was regularly benched. In the preseason, he was strong on the power play but had a few bad giveaways in front of his own net that would likely earn him another benching in the regular season.

It looks like Carrick will be pairing with Andreas Borgman, a rookie who played his way onto the team as a hard-hitting force. As much as Borgman played his way onto the team, Calle Rosen arguably played his way off it as he lacked a stand-out showing in the final week while Borgman was a physical presence.

At the same time, Martin Marincin lurks as the seventh if for no other reason than the penalty kill, where the Leafs have replaced only one of Hunwick/Polak. Of course, Polak appears to be remaining with the team in a practice capacity, and the guess here is that whether the Leafs end up offering him a contract or not depends largely on how the penalty kill performs early on in the season.

When we look at the group as a whole, Gardiner and Rielly have shown they are legitimate top-four defensemen at this point. Zaitsev only has a year under his belt but played like a second-pairing guy who was a bit in over his head in a prime shutdown role. Hainsey has been a top-four defenseman for years but his skating has slowly declined and he’s often been caved in on shot attempts in recent times. The third pairing is anyone’s guess at this point, but it does have potential.

The defense will be under the microscope this season with such a strong roster surrounding them. How the unit evolves and how the forward group supports them defensively is one of the last remaining question marks on an otherwise stacked team.


Notes

– In Babcock’s first preseason with the team, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman both had fantastic preseasons on a mediocre team yet were sent down to the minors for the year. Part of that was due to veteran contracts blocking their paths and also the organization trying to develop their prospects (tanking was not in the equation yet, and the team was actually reasonably competitive until JVR and Bozak got hurt, which is often forgotten). So it was not really surprising that Miro Aaltonen was sent down or that the team kept Martin Marincin up instead of both of the Swedish defensemen.

Eric Fehr kind of got forgotten this summer, but it’s worth remembering the Leafs had little reason to acquire him. The team did net a fourth round pick from Pittsburgh in the trade, but his $2 million per year salary isn’t even able to slide to the Marlies without half of it remaining on the cap. If there was concern about the expansion draft, they could have signed another Ben Smith type quite easily. But he’s a classic big, veteran grinder that Babcock has traditionally iced on his fourth lines.

– There has not been much word from anyone regarding a possible William Nylander contract. With the way the organization is run now, that doesn’t necessarily mean nothing is happening. There was a lot attention paid to Leon Draisaitl’s contract – and rightfully so – and when he received $8.5 million per year that had to put a bit of a worry into Leafs fans as far as a comparable to Nylander. Later in the summer, Boston signed David Pastrnak to an annual average salary of $6.66 million per year. Nylander has 74 points in 103 games and is tracking to play with Auston Matthews on the first line this season – a prime opportunity to have a 70+ point season at the age of 22. If the Leafs can get him to put pen to paper to any number resembling Pastrnak’s deal (below $7 million per year), they should have signed it yesterday. At this point, you’d have to think the Leafs would want something resembling Pastrnak’s deal and Nylander would want something resembling Draisaitl’s, and the question is where are they going to meet?

– I would not put the Jack Eichel contract in the Nylander conversation because they are building their franchise around him and Toronto is not doing that with Nylander.

– I noticed after penalty kills in the preseason, especially the Friday game against Detroit, Babcock was getting Marleau out with Matthews and Nylander for a quick ‘power’ shift. Look for that early in the season to see if it sticks at all. It is a bit of an awkward ask of Marleau to play with Matthews and Nylander on the power play when he’s not really playing with them otherwise. This at least bridges the gap and gives us a (very small) look at Marleau with the top line.

– Some interesting scheduling notes while we’re here: The Leafs only have 13 back-to-back games this season, which is slightly below the league average of 13.9. That is down from the usual 17-18-19 they play, which in part has to do with their geographic location. The Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins have the most at 19 each. Also of interest is that they play the most home-heavy schedule in the second half, with 24 of 41 games at the Air Canada Centre. That will be important to keep in mind down the stretch.

November is the busiest month of the season with 15 games, while October and January are the least busy with 12 games each.


Quotes

“Because your job, even though you’re the fourth-line center, is to play against the best centers in the league every night because you’re penalty killing. You’ve got to win faceoffs. You’ve got to know where to stand. You have to be safe. What I’ve learned over time is that in training camp, you go, “Isn’t that kid great? Isn’t that kid great? Isn’t that kid great?” And then he’s minus. Ten games in, he’s -10, and you wonder why you have him there. Over time, you just hedge your bets. If the kid is ready, he’s ready. If it’s close, why not: Tie goes to the veteran? You can still continue to develop. We expect Aaltonen to play in the NHL. That isn’t a question at all. It’s just a question of when.”

– Mike Babcock on the fourth line center job

I still can’t believe so many people thought Moore or Fehr were actually going to lose out on this to Aaltonen. It was never really in question, especially when you consider Babcock’s history and comments above.

“Both Soshnikov and Kapanen played extremely well. They played well when they were here last year. Unfortunately, there comes a business decision because they have the ability to go down and don’t need waivers. When you have the depth that we have right now, you have to make those decisions. But they’re knocking on the door. They’ll be back in the NHL. The most important message is: Yes, be disappointed, but don’t let up on the gas. You have to continue the process to get you back.”

– Lou Lamoriello on sending down Soshnikov and Kapanen

They are both NHLers (though Soshnikov looked tentative in his return from a concussion), and the Leafs are going to have to get them in the lineup or do right by them at some point.

“It’s definitely appreciated when he shuts that kind of stuff down. We are in a market where media can run a bit wild, but I think he (Babcock) does a good job of sheltering his players and letting us focus on hockey and keeping the outside noise down. He’s very vocal with me and what he expects of me on a day to day basis. That family atmosphere comes from management down.”

– Matt Martin on Babcock dealing with media criticisms

Matt Martin debate aside, Babcock does an excellent job with the media when it comes to cutting off arguments at the knees and protecting his players. In this market, it is a crucial job for the coach.


Video Tidbit

I
I wanted to show this video as a small example of where I think Andreas Borgman (and Calle Rosen) have a learning curve ahead of them. This play in particular applies to Borgman as he takes an angle to line up a big hit and gets beat wide easily in the process. You can visibly see him drop his shoulder looking for the big hit, but he doesn’t angle off the boards well. The gaps, timing and spacing are obviously all quite different in the NHL with not only the new rink dimensions but the calibre of players as well. These are the kind of little things both will need to clean up.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1) At this point, I think it is safe to say the opening pairings will be Gardiner – Zaitsev, Rielly – Hainsey, and Borgman – Carrick. I would have the Gardiner pairing out the most against tough competition and shelter the third pairing as much as possible. I also think that the third pairing is going to need some rope to go through some growing pains as a young pairing on a good team with high expectations. They are going to make mistakes and stand out at times, and they will need to be allowed to work through that.

2) I also think, when it comes to the defense, that I would have Morgan Rielly on one of the power play units instead of Zaitsev. He’s more dynamic with the puck on his stick due to his skating ability. Zaitsev did have 12 points on the PP, which was only one fewer than Gardiner, so he didn’t do a bad job by any means. Over Rielly’s career, he’s gone from 27 points, to 29, to 36 before a drop off to 27 again last season. With steady PP time, I think he can get back on track with the production trajectory from his first three years and become a 40-point guy.

3) I think I would start Dominic Moore over Eric Fehr at fourth line center. Moore is faster, which I think is a good fit for Brown, and he’s more established as a checking center and penalty killer. Fehr did play well in preseason and he’ll get his opportunity, but Moore is a career long center and Fehr has been a winger for long stretches of his career. I’d go with the guy more established at the position and role.

4) With Moore in, I think the opening PK units of Moore – Brown and Komarov – Hyman make sense at forward. I would like to see Marner, Marleau and Kadri receive looks there as well. The team could experiment with a third unit of Kadri – Marner, and then when the penalty is over, come back with the Marleau – Matthews – Nylander line discussed above.

5) I think the first game I would give to Curtis McElhinney is on October 18 in the second half of a back to back against the Detroit Red Wings. The games until then are all spaced out and generally against strong opponents. Plus, it allows Andersen to get a ton of work in early to get his game going right off the bat.