Maple Leafs Hot Stove’s Anthony Petrielli joined Sportsnet Tonight to discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs’ avenues for improving their heaviness up front and adding to their defense group.
On the options available to add more heaviness to the forward corps:
They’re still a really young team up front. Eventually, these guys are going to age a little bit and put on some pounds, with the infamous old-man strength, so to speak. They are going to get just naturally heavier and more physical as time goes on. We’ve seen it with a ton of players. It will happen. There will be a bit of a natural curve. Plus, the game changes as the season goes on and the Leafs players will change with it, too. It’s not like they’ll be completely adverse.
But acquiring guys — some of the fits are really difficult to find. A few right wingers have been mentioned in Wayne Simmonds and Josh Anderson. The last thing the Leafs need on their team is a right winger. You look at left wingers, really, and there is not much out there. One player who is probably kind of available who plays physical and plays that role is probably Nino Niederreiter on the Wild just based on his ice time and the way his season has gone. But he’s a big contract that the Leafs couldn’t dream of fitting.
In terms of forwards, it’s hard to find a guy. If there is a defenseman that is available who has a reasonable-ish contract and probably wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg, it would be Radko Gudas in Philadelphia, who definitely toes the proverbial line but is right-handed as a d-man, which the Leafs need, and his underlying numbers are good. He’s actually a pretty good player but he’s also physical and has a little bit of dirtiness to his game. He would be a welcomed addition to a team depending on cost. But you really have to scour the league to find forwards. Teams just aren’t trading these guys, right?
On grading Kyle Dubas’ work so far as Leafs GM:
?I think the deadline will be a little bit more telling. Naturally, the Leafs should’ve been in on Tavares. I don’t think anyone would’ve argued whether they should put a bid on him in the first place. He definitely deserves credit, but that whole signing is really a team effort. Mike Babcock played a significant role in recruiting John Tavares. The roster the Leafs have played a big role in recruiting John Tavares. His family is also from here and that plays a significant role in signing John Tavares. Of course he gets credit — the same thing as being head coach, you get credit for the wins and the losses, so it’s the way it goes. He hit on that.
The little moves, we’ll see how it pans out. They did lose two goalies and they haven’t really replaced them and we are seeing the Marlies are suffering tremendously this year. The Marlies have a pretty good team, but they don’t have goaltending and they are going to be in a battle for a playoff spot as things are going. They pretty much traded for Josh Leivo for free. These are minor, minor quibbles, but he’s had a good start in Vancouver and he looks a lot like the player people thought he would be over the coming years.
They’re minor moves, and the Leafs kind of have a bigger picture in mind here. The deadline is really going to tell us more, and really next summer, when we see how he fits in Matthews and Marner and what he does with Jake Gardiner. A lot of the decisions that happened this past summer were relatively straightforward in terms of letting Tyler Bozak and JVR go. If you were thinking about them logically at the time — it’s not a hindsight thing — most people probably agreed with those moves.
In terms of having confidence in him, I don’t think he’s shown anything yet not to have confidence in him. He’s shown to be quite competent. The Marlies championship gives him some credibility. It’s nice to kind of come up, win that, and win your way up as you’re progressing. He can kind of hang his hat on that. I think when you speak of some of the heavy players and who they can look to add, he has a host of guys that won a championship last year and some of those guys are heavy and can potentially contribute to the team — if not this season then next, particularly Mason Marchment and Carl Grundstrom as two left wingers that are heavy and play a little bit more of that gritty, cycle, play-along-the-wall type of game. I think they’ll look at those guys.
The question for Kyle Dubas is: Does he feel the team is kind of ready to push all of his chips into the middle and see how this is going to play out? Right now, I don’t get the vibe that he is thinking that.
On the play of the defense group and avenues for improving it:
Sometimes I agree that the defense is not as bad as it has the rep for, but I also think that it is largely carried by their forward group. In terms of their skill, they kind of get away with things. They also have a goalie who is putting up a Vezina-like season behind them and he bails them out quite a bit. We’ve been spoiled with good goaltending lately in Toronto and that has not always been the case over the past few years going back to pretty much a ten-year stretch. I think they kind of get by.
If you just break it down by player, Morgan Rielly is obviously having an incredible season. It is shocking that he has gone this far and continues to be this productive. Hang your hat to the guy. Ron Hainsey looks like he lost one if not two steps over the summer, and we’re now at Christmas, so you’re kind of thinking, “If his game hasn’t trended up yet, when is it going to trend up?” That is quite worrisome. The Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing has quietly been pretty good over the last ten or so games, but by and large, I’m not sure there is enough evidence to really trust them. Travis Dermott has looked good, and he is hopefully just going to continue to get better and work his way up. Igor Ozhiganov has kind of settled into his role.
They probably need some penalty killing help because the penalty kill hasn’t been very good and it’d be nice to add in a penalty-killing defenseman to reduce the load on Hainsey and Zaitsev a lot.
When it comes to acquiring defensemen, I’m looking around and I’m not seeing any defensemen where it is, “The Leafs need to be in on this guy.” I’m not really sure what they would plausibly do at this point. At some point, something is going to shake loose, but from what we know at this day and time, I don’t really see much that is available for them. Their best hope for this season would be Travis Dermott continues to get better and better and in doing so, that gives the Leafs a third pretty solid top-four defenseman and that would help their fortunes a lot.
The other thing to focus on is the forwards. The forwards play a role in defense. It is not always the most aggressive group. They could do better cycling the puck in the offensive zone and they could do better to hold it in there and win battles. I look at a team like Vegas, and they don’t have the best defense on paper, but their forwards were really aggressive. That was a big reason why they got to the Cup last year: Their forwards were all over the ice creating turnovers, using their speed, and driving the net. The Leafs can get into this habit of waiting for power plays at times, so it would be nice if the forwards, now that everyone is healthy, start to settle in. We saw a good example against Florida. That game was not even close.
Hopefully they kind of continue to build on that and have their forwards more and more take over the play and take the pressure off the defense.