The Toronto Maple Leafs Currently Have a Defenseman Dilemma

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a tough spot in their defensive depth, and may have to dig themselves deeper for an answer.

Philadelphia Flyers Defenseman Sean Walker
Philadelphia Flyers Defenseman Sean Walker / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages
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Currently, the Toronto Maple Leafs are stuck at a crossroads in terms of their defense.

The Toronto Maple Leafs need to add to their defensive group.

The Leafs lost Morgan Rielly to a five-game suspension, furthering even greater the lack of defensive depth in Toronto's lineup. Theyrecently called up 25-year-old defenseman Marshall Rifai, with Mark Giordano out of the lineup against Anaheim with the tragic passing of his father, Paul.

William Lagesson also missed the game with an upper-body injury. No Maple Leafs defenseman has played all 53 NHL games for Toronto this season. TJ Brodie's missed game in December vs Pittsburgh due to an illness was his only game out on the year. Only Brodie and Rielly have played more than 50 games on the Leafs blueline. Toronto has used 10 defensemen on the season, with Rifai poised to potentially be the 11th.

The Toronto Maple Leafs Currently Have a Defenseman Dilemma

It's little surprise the Leafs, with their difficulties to stay healthy, have been eyeing around the trade market for defensive additions to boost the lineup down the stretch towards the end of the season. Toronto has been linked to multiple available NHL defensemen including Chris Tanev, apart of GM Brad Treliving's former team, the Calgary Flames.

After being beat to acquiring Nikita Zadorov by the Vancouver Canucks, the Leafs continue to be involved in reports of potential names thrown around besides Tanev, including Nick Seeler of the Philadelphia Flyers, although his price may be a bit too hefty. TSN's Chris Johnston recently mentioned on 'Insider Trading' that two names the Leafs have been connected to include another Flyer in Sean Walker, and Nashville's Alexandre Carrier, who I mentioned in the past as a potential target for the Leafs on defense.

One tricky situation for the Leafs is that teams know Toronto needs to improve on defense, and are reportedly being difficult with Brad Treliving, trying to force his hand in desperation for a 1st round pick in return. Toronto does not have a 2nd round pick in 2024, but have tried to leverage multiple picks later on, which haven't appealed to GM's. This is where there looks to be a difficulty.

I mentioned that the Leafs have called up what could be their 11th defensemen to suit up this season in Marshall Rifai. There isn't much depth in Toronto's prospect pool.

There is 21-year-old Topi Niemela with the Toronto Marlies, leading Marlies defensemen in PTS with 27 in 44 games. The Leafs aren't trying to rush Niemela in, they've been unwavering in not rushing young defenders into the big club, especially Europeans coming over learning to process the change in the North American game.

Niemela is close to making the jump, perhaps as early as next-season, but even if he's close to NHL-ready, the Leafs won't rush his development. William Villeneuve is an option, but like Niemela, is still young at 21. There is no remaining free agent that would solve things.

Beyond Niemela, there's no one in the Leafs prospect pool who looks poised to take on a role in the near future on defense, which may be an argument for moving for immediate impact, but other than Niemela, there aren't many Leafs prospects on defense who possess his top-four potential.

Noah Chadwick, a 6th rounder in 2023, has had a strong DY+1 with 9 Goals and 43 Points in 51 for WHL Lethbridge. It's a nice find by the Leafs scouting department, but it'll take a little time to know his NHL upside. They could still use another young defenseman who could eventually be a long-term impactful pro, and the 2024 NHL Draft is the year to do it, viewed by many as a deep year for defense.

The Toronto Maple Leafs could very much use some of the top defenders in this class who could be available when the Leafs pick. But that first is looking less certain to be in their possession as the need for defense rolls around.

The Leafs need defensive help, but with a weakened defensive pool, can they afford to further ignore their long-term defense questions, potentially giving up their best chance to add to do so in the much-needed short-term?

Unless Treliving is able to avoid having to give up the first, and there's certainly a few NHL players available who should be able to not have to do so, teams are not being easy towards the Leafs.

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The Leafs need a defenseman who'll make an impact to their top-six, but they also need one who'll shape their future.