The Ironic Strength of the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in an absolutely great position heading into the NHL’s off-season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s youngest teams, are held to a ridiculous standard.  Apparently, anything less than being the youngest Stanley Cup winner in NHL history is unacceptable.  At least, that is the feeling you get when you read negative story, after negative story about the team.

It seems crazy to me that after 50 + years of failure, that people wouldn’t be a little more open to the idea of being patient.  The Leafs, except in short bursts, haven’t even been a contender for most of those 50 years, and the current regime is taking pains to make sure they are an annual contender for years to come.

If you’re honest without yourself about the way this team has been run prior to Kyle Dubas, then you know what I am talking about.  Any ex-Leafs GM (especially one whose feet were starting to get a little warm) would have sent one, or more, of Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin or Nick Robertson to another team to try to win it all this year.

If you’re reading about the Leafs in late summer when they haven’t played a game in over a month, you know that to be true.  But Kyle Dubas barely did anything at the trade deadline. That is because there is no rush.

Toronto Maple Leafs Better Than Given Credit For Blue-Line

Take Timothy Liljegren, for example.  No one knows what type of NHL player he will become.  He was drafted and the story was “could have been a top five pick if not for Mono.”  Then he became one of the best teenage AHL defensemen of all-time, then helped lead the Marlies to an AHL Championship.

Then, when he didn’t make the NHL immediately, it’s Tim Who? Followed by “The Leafs are DEPSPERATE for a RIGHT HAND DEFENSEMAN.”  Which they aren’t.  Let’s get one thing straight – Leafs fans are desperate for a name-brand right hand defenseman.  The team? Not so much.

Why would the Leafs sign a declining Radko Gudas to a UFA contract which is a) sure to be more than double what he’s actually worth, and b) going to block one of their young defenseman?

They won’t.  But you’re free to fantasize.   The Leafs will look to trade for an elite, or potentially elite, defenseman.  But overall, they are probably pretty happy with their blue-line.

Morgan Rielly – He’s been worth more Wins than Victor Hedman in two of the last three years, and he’s a top ten defenseman in the NHL if he plays in any other city.

Jake Muzzin – For the last three years, he’s better than 94% of NHL defenseman offensively, and 83% of them defensively.  Few team’s #2 is this good.

Justin Holl – Combined with Muzzin to play unusually tough minutes and still had solid stats.  He is potentiallly replaceable,  but he’s right handed and excellent value on his contract.  At the very least, he’s an elite penalty killer who would likely dominate on a third pairing.

Travis Dermott – Other than the potential superstars – Mikko Heiskanen, Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar – you’d be hardpressed to find someone his age who has put up such solid numbers.  Yes they’re third pairing, and no he isn’t flashy, but he’s damn good and still young.

Rasmus Sandin –  On track to be a very good top pairing guy with a superstar ceiling.

Timothy Liljegren – Who knows but he’s a right handed 21 year old who has shown flashes of brilliance. Like Dermott and Sandin, he’s not a blue-chip superstar in the Quinn Hughes mold, but if you get enough of these guys, one will eventually hit his ceiling.

Mikko Lehtonen – A league minimum UFA who was the KHL’s best defenseman last year.  Almost guaranteed to be, at worst, a quality third pairing guy.

The Leafs  have cap space, they have assets to trade, and they have a group of seven puck moving defenseman, all of whom are likely better than your average third pairing NHL player.

What they don’t have is a slow moving enforcer type to satisfy the old-school fans and media.  That is the main complaint, especially considering that statistically, the team got significantly better at defense under Sheldon Keefe, and put up a save percentage/defensive performance in the five game play-in vs Columbus that all but guaranteed them a series win.

This may not be the best group in the NHL, and it may not even be the group that starts next season, but what it does give the Leafs is depth, potential, and options.  That makes it a strength.

The Toronto Maple Leafs may get painted as “desperate” for help on the blue-line, but they’ve already demonstrated that they don’t agree with this assessment.  Dubas said so in his year-end presser, and his actions so far – dating back to the trade deadline – back him up.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will take some heat if it happens, but if they can’t find a team willing to part with an elite player (and the fact that most NHL teams will be looking to cut salary this “summer” gives them a good chance) don’t be surprised if they enter next season with this exact blue-line.  And if Cody Ceci or Tyson Barrie is amenable to a one-year discount deal in these uncertain financial times, don’t be surprised if one or both is back.

Next: The Reality of the Numbers Embarrasses the Critics

People see the Leafs blue-line as the team’s Achilles’Heel, I would argue that its ironically a team strength.

 

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