Toronto Maple Leafs Should Partner Rielly and Gardiner

The Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line has been a problem all year.

While the emergence of Morgan Rielly as a top pairing defenseman has been great, the Toronto Maple Leafs defense as a whole has not been good.  Some of the problems include, but are not limited to:

  • Ron Hainsey on the top pairing
  • Nikita Zaitsev being injured
  • Roman Polak playing, ever
  • Breaking up last year’s best pairing (Carrick/Gardiner)

I’ve written several (dozen) times about the Leafs maybe acquiring a top-pairing defenseman, but we all know that that is unlikely to happen.  I’m not opposed to an upgrade, but the recent play of Carrick and Dermott has given me more hope about the Leafs defense than I used to have.

Last night, the Leafs employed a pairing of Carrick and Dermott and over 16:00 minutes, they posted a team-high 60% CF.  When Zaitsev returns, this could be the Leafs new bottom pairing.  Obviously they’re not going to be amazing, since one is a rookie and the other is still young, but they’d be a step up from Borgaman/Polak.

The thing about Zaitsev though, is that he and Jake Gardiner don’t seem to mesh very well together.  It is my opinion that they exasperate each other’s worst tendencies and just don’t work together, for whatever reason, despite each of them being very good otherwise.

Rielly and Gardiner

Morgan Rielly and Gardiner have never been paired together long-term, but when they have been, they’ve been great.

  • 2017-18    56 minutes   60.57% CF
  • 2016-17    54 minutes   53.72% CF
  • 2015-16    61 minutes    60.13% CF
  • 2014- 15   299 minutes  51.37% CF
  • 2013 – 14  230 minutes  54. 79% CF

The stats are pretty conclusive when taken collectively:  Rielly and Gardiner are a great pairing.  In at least three of those seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs were brutal and among the worst possession teams in hockey.  Despite that, when paired, the Leafs two speedy blue-liners team up to dominate.

The Toronto Maple Leafs would really have nothing to lose by trying this.  They have a 36 year-old Ron Hainsey on their top pair now, so it’s not like this is going to have a big opportunity cost.

Simply pair Rielly with Gardiner,  Zaitsev with Hainsey and Dermott with Carrick.  Andreas Borgman makes a pretty decent #7 and as the eighth defenseman, Roman Polak will finally have a position in which he can excel.

I can’t see a single drawback.  But there are a lot of potential payoffs with this pairing: the Leafs could finally have a legit top pairing, Polak comes out, and we get to see if Dermott/Carrick can keep the chemistry going.

There’s a real history of these guys being great together, so why not give it a shot?

Stats from naturalstattrick.com