The Toronto Maple Leafs continued to bulk up their defense by signing veteran defenseman Jani Hakanpää to a two-year, $1.5 million AAV contract.

The first thing to know about the Finnish defenseman is that he is massive, officially listed on Hockey Reference at 6’6″, 225 lbs. Hakanpää was originally a mid-round draft pick of St. Louis back in 2010 but didn’t reach the NHL for a decade. He played in his native Finland up through 2013, gave it a try in North America but couldn’t get past the AHL, and then returned for four seasons in the Finnish Liiga with Oulun Kärpät. After establishing himself as one of the best defensemen playing in Finland, the Anaheim Ducks signed Hakanpää in the summer of 2019, with his rights long since relinquished by the Blues.

Hakanpää spent his first season back in North America primarily in the AHL, although he did get his first taste of NHL action in six games that 2019-20 season. His first full season in the NHL came the following year, 2020-21, at age 28/29. Hakanpää managed a bit of a rarity that year, playing more than the maximum number of games in the season by dressing 57 games in a 56-game season. The trick was playing 42 games for Anaheim before a trade to Carolina, where he played the final 15 games of the Hurricanes’ season. Hakanpää proved himself to be a decent defensive defenseman and heavily used PKer who added almost nothing offensively in his first NHL season, scoring four total points (a pair of goals and a pair of assists). He made the Hurricanes’ playoff lineup, playing 11 postseason games with no points.

That trial was enough to parlay Hakanpää into a lucrative contract with Dallas, signing three-year UFA papers with the Stars in the summer of 2021. After playing a rather sheltered role in 2021-22 (16:13 per night), Hakanpää grew into a larger role, playing 19:20 last season and 18:39 in the most recently concluded season. With the surge in ice time came an increase in points, 12 in ’22, 16 in ’23, and 12 in ’24 — still not very many, as Hakanpää remains an all-defense defenseman with very limited puck-moving ability. However, growing into a defender who can shoulder a more significant workload is notable as we look at how the Leafs could choose to use Hakanpää in Toronto. He was generally good for #4-5 usage at 5v5 and massive PK responsibilities in Dallas.

The signing of Hakanpää is an example of Brad Treliving making good on his vow to add size as the GM of the Maple Leafs. His acquisitions of Joel Edmundson and Ilya Lyubushkin at the trade deadline served as an example of this, as did signing Chris Tanev earlier today. Now, in inking Hakanpää, Treliving secures his biggest mammoth yet. Hakanpää defends in the zone well, hence his PK prowess, and does decently defending entries, but there is almost no play with the puck here. It’s a limited profile, but given the Leafs‘ lack of size beforehand and the chronic issues with their penalty kill last season, it isn’t an illogical add.

One caveat to the Hakanpää deal that should be mentioned is health. Over the course of his time in the NHL since returning to North America, Hakanpää has generally been extremely healthy. We already detailed his 57-game feat in 2021, but he followed that up with 80 and 82 games in Dallas in 2022 and 2023. He was chugging along in 2024 as well, playing 64 of the team’s first 69 games before suffering an injury in mid-March that ultimately ended his season. It was described as the ol’ “lower-body injury” at the time, but after Dallas’ playoff run ended, the team clarified that it was a knee ailment that required an arthroscopic procedure. Hopefully, the Leafs have done their due diligence in checking up on the medical files and this will not become an issue given Hakanpää’s previous track record of health, but injuries do generally follow bigger-bodied, defensive defensemen.

The AAV is rather cheap, too. Two years at $1.5 million is a very affordable contract that offers little downside because it’s barely more than the buriable maximum. Moreover, if the Leafs were to want to move on from Hakanpää at any point, I struggle to see how he wouldn’t get claimed on waivers. Placed within the context of this free agency day — when Joel Edmundson received four years, $3.8 million AAV, and Ilya Lyubushkin (a directly comparable player who has averaged less ice time than Hakanpää every season) got three-years and $3.3 million AAV — this Hakanpää contract seems like very nice work by Brad Treliving if the Leafs were looking for a right-shot, physical defensive defenseman. He’s not a sexy add, but Hakanpää is a decent defender to slot towards the bottom of the lineup and addresses some of the Leafs’ needs. Notably, the blue line now has four right shots and four left shots on the NHL roster.

Perhaps the biggest question now is what the Maple Leafs do with their defensive logjam. They currently have eight defensemen signed for next season: Morgan Rielly, Chris Tanev, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Timothy Liljegren, Jake McCabe, Simon Benoit, Jani Hakanpää, and Conor Timmins. Logically speaking, it would appear that Timmins is the odd man out, as the seldom-used, oft-injured defenseman is without an obvious role. Timmins only has one year at $1.1 million remaining — a contract completely buriable in the AHL, and he could also be claimed on waivers if the Leafs want to go that route. Should the team be moving on from Timmins, it would be wise to scour the market to see if he could return a late-round draft pick, but it is unclear whether he would.