The Toronto Maple Leafs are on the verge of training camp.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are widely considered one of the NHL’s top teams after a sixth place (tie) finish last season in the overall standings and the addition of John Tavares this summer.
But with great expectations comes, comes a magnification of flaws. The Leafs have the offense and the goaltending of a contender. But the defense?
The blue-line leaves a lot to be desired, as currently constructed.
Toronto Maple Leafs Blue-Line
Let’s say the Leafs want to wait before they make any moves. Or maybe there are no moves to make. Who knows? Either way, assuming the Leafs head into the season with their roster as-is, what can they do to be better than last year?
1. Play Connor Carrick More
Connor Carrick may not be the flashiest guy, and he may not be the biggest guy. But he gets results. If we look at all players on the Leafs defense last year who played 600 5v5 minutes or more, Carrick led the team in CF%, as well as Goals, Shots and scoring chances against per 60 minutes.
He was the team’s only player (on the blueline, 5v5, 600 minutes) that was on the for more goals for than against, and his shots against per 60 not only led the team, it was four shots lower than anyone else’s per 60 minutes.
Hey only played in 47 games, but giving Carrick more ice time will go a long way in the Leafs improving their defense. If he scored at all, he’d be a borderline star/core player. Carrick doesn’t score, but the Leafs aren’t hurting in that dept.
Carrick was especially effective when paired with Travis Dermott (187 mins, 57% possession).
They should make up the Leafs second pairing out of training camp. Not saying they will, but they should.
2. Pair Rielly and Gardiner
Over the course of their careers, Rielly and Gardiner have been paired for a total of 766 minutes, roughly equivalent to one entire season as partners. During this time, they have consistently put up excellent, even ridiculous, numbers together.
- 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
Note that I used this same graphic in the article I wrote last year about this topic.
It’s quite clear that the two swift skating speedsters compliment each other’s game and that they would be an effective first pairing. Not only that, but it’s miles better than what they were using last season.
In a perfect world, the Leafs would acquire a Chris Tanev or a similar player to partner with Rielly and they would pair Gadiner with Carrick, leaving Dermott to patrol the bottom pairing.
But since we don’t live in a perfect world, the best option the Leafs have with their current roster is to pair Rielly and Gardiner on their top pairing. Stats suggest it’d be among the best pairings in the NHL.
3. Hainsey and Liljegren
I refuse to buy into the nonsense that a player who was slated to go top three in his draft year before contracting mono and seeing his stock drop can’t play in the NHL after one season in the AHL.
Liljegren is hardly expected to make the NHL this year, but I predict we’ll see him. Players his age have the biggest year-to-year improvements, and he plays the position where the team is the weakest.
If Liljegren lives up to his hype, he should have no problem blowing the doors off the team in camp and earning a spot on the roster. His doing so would go a long way in answering the Leafs biggest weakness.
Should Liljegren make it, the Leafs could then trade Zaitsev, or give him away. Or maybe he can alternate with Hainsey. Or Borgman, or whoever.
It doesn’t matter. If the Toronto Maple Leafs do not make a trade between now and the start of the season, their blue-line should look like this:
Gardiner – Rielly
Dermott – Carrick
Hainsey – Liljegren
I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either. Count me in the minority I guess, but I believe that five of those six players could play core roles on a championship team as soon as this April.
allstats from naturalstattrick.com