The Toronto Maple Leafs Defense Can Draw Inspiration From the 2017 Penguins

The much-maligned defense of the Leafs can take solace in the fact that it's possible to win a championship without an established top 4.
Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens
Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

The defense of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been the team's biggest question mark since the current NHL season began.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving didn't risk giving up prospects or draft capital for a top 4 defenseman at the NHL trade deadline. Instead, he acquired Ilya Lyubushkin and Joel Edmundson. Players that add a physical element, but are not top defenders on a championship-caliber team.

As the regular season comes to a close, the Leafs have yet to establish definitive defensive pairings or who their top six defensemen are. "Defense by committee" has been the shared message.

Both Treliving and head coach Sheldon Keefe have used that phrase in describing the Leafs mindset about their defense. At least, they're on the same page, but it isn't a ringing endorsement that inspires confidence.

It's a philosophy not shared by last year's Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights. Rare is a title-winning hockey team that doesn't have a couple of workhorses on the back end.

The Leafs will try to be the exception to the rule, much like the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Toronto Maple Leafs Defense Can Draw Inspiration From the 2017 Penguins

A closer look at that edition of the Penguins reveals a lot of similarities to this year's Leafs.

Each team had a pair of superstar players. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the Penguins and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for the Leafs. Secondary scoring from players like Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel of the Penguins and William Nylander and John Tavares from the Leafs.

Each team anchored on the back end by a smooth-skating, puck-handling defenseman. Kris Letang of the Penguins, and Morgan Rielly for the Leafs.

Beyond each team's number-one defenseman, the drop-off was/is precipitous.

Letang missed the 2017 postseason due to season-ending neck surgery. The Penguins navigated that year's Stanley Cup playoffs with a defense that included Trevor Daly, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ron Hainsey, Justin Schulz, and Ian Cole. All six of them played twenty-plus games during the playoffs.

Some of those players had long, successful careers, but were not stars. They managed to find roles during the Penguins playoff run and get pucks to the Penguins stars up front.

The Leafs current group of defensemen is similar to that Penguins team. Jake McCabe, T.J. Brodie, Timothy Liljegren, Mark Giordano, Conor Timmins, Simon Benoit, Lyubushkin, and Edmundson can find their roles much like the Penguins did. Plus, Rielly is back and can play 25 minutes a game.

The Toronto Maple Leafs don't have an imposing group of defenders. They are not in the same area code as teams like the Knights or Colorado Avalanche. They've built their team around star forwards and Rielly.

Keefe and his players don't have to look far for a first-hand account of that 2017 Penguins team. Matt Murray, the Leafs long forgotten goalie, backstopped Pittsburgh to that Cup win.


Proof that a "defense by committee" can get it done.