Toronto Maple Leafs Could Start Year With Just 2 Returning Defensemen

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 6: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates with the puck against the Ottawa Senators during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on October 6, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 6: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates with the puck against the Ottawa Senators during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on October 6, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images) /
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The Toronto Maple Leafs may not be bringing back very many of their incumbent defensemen.

The Toronto Maple Leafs finished the season with Morgan Rielly, Ron Hainsey (Inexplicably), Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner in the lineup.

Due to injuries to Dermott and Gardiner, and the disgustingly terrible decision to constantly roll Hainsey and Zaitsev in the top-four, the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs.

Good news for people who hate his blueline: The Leafs might return only two players from it when the season starts next year.

Leafs in October

Morgain Rielly and Jake Muzzin will be back. They make up two of the best defensemen in the NHL, so that’s a good thing.

Dermott will be back, eventually.  He will, however, open the season on the I.R as he has a six month recovery from off-season shoulder surgery to look forward to.

Zaitsev is a question mark. Moving him would clear much needed cap space, but it’s unclear if the Leafs will be able to move him. In a best case scenario, they will.

Hainsey is terrible, and despite gaudy plus/minus numbers that are completely goalie and teammate driven, he should retire. The Leafs are rumoured to be open to bringing him back, but we can only hope that isn’t the case, as doing so would be a colossal error.

Jake Gardiner, if his back problems are behind him, would be the best UFA defenseman on the market, but whether or not the Leafs can afford him is up for debate.

Assuming the Leafs pass on Hainsey, Dermott opens on the IR, Zaitsev gets moved and Gardiner changes teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs could be looking at a situation where they start their season with only two returning blue liners.

Under normal circumstances this would be disastrous for a contending team, but keep in mind that a) the two returning D are among the best there are, b) defense was already a team weakness, c) Dermott won’t be out for long and d) two out of the three guys potentially leaving are replacement players.

The Toronto Maple Leafs top two prospects are Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.  Both of them should be capable of playing in the NHL next year.  Remember also that the Leafs are a team highly invested in analytics and one thing analytics tell you is that teams undervalue young players.

Calle Rosen is 25 and ready to play every day in the NHL.  He should easily be better than Hainsey and Zaitsev.  Andreas Borgman has NHL experience (he was good on the Leafs in 2017-18).  Mac Hollowell is a rookie, but has played well since he was signed.

Additionally, there are players you could trade for (Josh Manson) or sign as a free agent (Erik Karlsson?).  

Bottom line is this: saying that four of the six defenseman off a contending team won’t come back, sounds worse than it is.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs were to enter the season with

Rielly – Liljegren

Muzzin – Rosen

Sandin – Hollowell

which is basically a worst-case scenario, they’d still probably have a better blue line than they had this past season.

Next. Leafs Can't Bring Back Hainsey, Despite Rumours. dark

In the end, my view is that any team with Rielly and Muzzin at their core is in good shape.  With two potentially star rookies on the horizen and a bevy of decent young options, I think the Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line is a lot better than it appears.