Toronto Maple Leafs: Expect Mikko Lehtonen to Play with Rielly

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 27: Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 27, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 27: Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 27, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs defense gets a bad rap.

The reason that the Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line gets such a bad rap is because of three reasons.

1.   The Leafs play a game based on puck possession and offense.  They understand that as long as you have the puck more than your opponent, you are more likely to win that your opponent is.  Thus there is no need for specific attention to defense, because hockey is a hybrid game of offense and defense, and the idea that you can separate or compartmentalize them is biggest myth in the entire game.

2.  The Leafs don’t lay a lot of big hits, they don’t put a particular  emphasis on shot-blocking, dumping in the puck, or collapsing to the net. In short, they do none of the things that fans are conditioned to  associate with good defense.

3.  Almost everyone on their blue-line is underrated.  People always  (preposterously) point out that Rielly isn’t “that good in his own zone,”  they don’t think a 27 year old rookie (Holl) can be as good as he is, Dermott, since he doesn’t score a lot, doesn’t get the respect he  has earned (top 40 in expected goals percentage among all                  defensemen who play enough minutes to qualify over the last three years).

The Toronto Maple Leafs – since the day Sheldon Keefe took Over – are 0.15 expected-goals against per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time away from being a top-ten team in this category.  That is perfectly adequate when you consider that they intentionally play in a way that takes risks to score goals, and are 2nd in the league in expected goals for.

Next Season

As we have seen, the Leafs defense is clearly not as bad as it’s made out to be.  The fact is, the team is just missing the kind of players with the kinds of defensive reputations that would set their fan’s minds at ease.

In realty, everything is fine, and will get better.

Next season Rasmus Sandin will be closer to being the star he is going to be.  He and Travis Dermott will make (by far) the best 3rd pairing in the NHL, a league where almost all teams have 3rd pairings that either have zero impact or negative impact on games.

They will continue to buck tradition by having 2 top pairings.  The Jake Muzzin/Just Holl pairing will get the tough defensive assignments, while the coach will do his best to deploy the Rielly/Lehtonen pairing in situations where they can take advantage of their offensive skills.

The Leafs wouldn’t have signed Lehtonen if they didn’t think he could play the right side.  Lehtonen wouldn’t have signed with the Leafs if they couldn’t guarantee him playing time.

Athletes don’t generally become effective pro players at the age of 26/27.  Usually you are what you are by the age of 23.  But there are exceptions.  Jose Bautista became an MVP quality player after never being a starter before his age 27 season.  Justin Holl is a 27 year old rookie.

It happens.

And if you can be the best defenseman in the KHL, you can play in the NHL.  If someone gives you the chance, you can probably be a star. (All stats

Morgan Rielly has had a good partner – Tyson Barrie, Jake Gardiner – for a very limited time in his career.  What he did while dragging the carcass of Ron Hainsey around the ice last year is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in hockey.  (As a pairing, they were 49% CF, and with anyone else, Rielly was a 56% player).

This year, when paired with Barrie, the Leafs scored six of every ten goals scored.  They were incredible.

Expect to see the same thing next year with Rielly and Lehtonen.  The Lehtonen singing is incredible.  The Leafs added one of the best available players in the world to their roster for nothing.

Rielly-Lehtonen-Muzzin-Holl-Sandin-Dermott is the best one-through-six blue-line in the NHL.   Because the Toronto Maple Leafs will be looking to score goals (as opposed to playing traditional defense) it will probably never be recognized as such, but what can you do?

Next. Leafs Top 10 Prospects Busts. dark

As should be painfully clear now to all, when you go against the grain, it doesn’t matter how right you are, or how much you succeed, people just yell loudly.

But Just wait. The Leafs will eventually win and Dubas will be hailed as a genius who completely altered how hockey is understood and how NHL teams are built.