When it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ off-season plans, almost all the focus has been on the possibility of adding Steven Stamkos. Adding an elite offensive player like Stamkos is an exciting possibility, but as a rebuilding team the Leafs have many areas of the roster in need of improvement, and all the talk about Stamkos has overshadowed other places where the Leafs have to get better. In my opinion, none is more pressing at the moment than finding a defenceman capable of playing top-pair minutes on the right side.
The Leafs are pretty set on the left side moving forward. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are both talented players locked-in long-term to team friendly contracts, solidifying the top 4. Beyond that, the Leafs have a slew of left-shooting options: Martin Marincin, Scott Harrington, Viktor Loov, Stuart Percy, and Rinat Valiev all shoot left. Beyond that, Travis Dermott is also left shot, and so is (*shudder*) Matt Hunwick.
Morgan Rielly frequently played on the right side last season, with either Matt Hunwick or Martin Marincin on the left side. However, I think the Leafs would be better served to move Rielly back to his natural side. An article by Domenic Galamini a couple of months ago over at Hockey Graphs contained some good evidence that playing a defenceman on their off-side can noticeably drag down their possession numbers. I’ve written about Rielly’s defensive struggles in the past, and I think the frequency with which he plays on the wrong side could be a contributing factor. Aside from that, getting him away from Hunwick is a good idea, and switching him back to the left side would help facilitate that.
On the right side, the picture is much less clear. The Leafs finished this season with just two right-shot defencemen on the roster: Frankie Corrado and Connor Carrick. The recently signed Nikita Zaitsev can be added to that list. However, it’s not clear right now that any of those players is up to the task of playing the big minutes that a top pair defender is asked to play.
That means that the Leafs are likely going to have to look outside the organisation to find their top RD. The good news is that the Leafs have a lot of draft picks in the next two drafts in addition to some pretty good prospects, so they’re in a strong position to put together a trade package to land an excellent player.
I’ve put together a list of 8 players the Leafs might be able to target this off-season to fill that top RD spot. As a general rule, I was looking for players who are still RFA age (under 27) so that they’ll still be good players as the Leafs top young players develop. I have made one exception to the age rule because it’s a player a lot of people have talked about the Leafs possibly acquiring. Other than age, I was looking for players who either score a lot or play a lot of minutes, and ideally both. I’ve tried to limit the list to players who I think might be available for the right trade package (so no one like Rasmus Ristolainen, who is great but isn’t going anywhere).
I’m going to give a break-down of each individual player, but here’s a breakdown of some of the key stats for each player before I get more detailed:
|Player||Age||Points||Ice Time||Corsi Rel|
SETH JONES (CBJ)
I don’t think Seth Jones is available, at least not in the sense that Columbus would consider moving him willingly. But the Blue Jackets have a dangerous salary cap situation, and I think there’s an outside shot that an offer sheet could work. According to General Fanager, the Blue Jackets have $68M in salary cap commitments for 2016-17. With an estimated $74M cap, that leaves just $6M to sign three players. The exact offer sheet compensation levels aren’t known yet, but based on the previous season’s numbers, an offer to Jones in the neighbourhood of $7.5M or so would cost a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick. Given that Jones already logs a huge number of minutes, scores a lot of points, and is an excellent possession player, that seems like a compensation level the Leafs should be able to live with.
I fully admit that successfully offer-sheeting Jones is a big long-shot. The Blue Jackets would likely do everything they could to be able to match. But their salary cap situation is very tight, and there’s not a lot they could do to unload salary (no one’s taking David Clarkson), so I do think offer-sheeting Seth Jones is something the Leafs should at least contemplate. He’s easily the best player on my list, and his age perfectly matches with how the Leafs are building.
JACOB TROUBA (WPG)
Trouba may also seem like a long shot on account of his age and the minutes he plays, but I think he’s worth pursuing. With Winnipeg committed big money and term to Tyler Myers and Dustin Byfuglien, it’s not clear where Trouba fits in on Winnipeg’s right side. It’s possible that rather than investing a lot of money in Trouba, the Jets would prefer to spend their money elsewhere. If so, Trouba is a player the Leafs should be heavily pursuing.
Trouba may not look enormously impressive in the table above, but some of those numbers are misleading. He’s a fantastic Corsi player whose totals are dragged down by being paired with Mark Stuart. Last season Trouba had 48% Corsi when on the ice with Stuart, but 54% away from him while Stuart was a dismal 44% when not paired with Trouba.
Trouba’s low scoring numbers can also at least partly be explained by being paired with Stuart, as the Jets had 18% more shot attempts when Trouba was away from Stuart as with him. Trouba also didn’t get a ton of powerplay time, 4th on the defence behind Byfuglien, Myers, and Enstrom. Even if he never turns into a top scorer, I think his exceptional play-driving ability would make him a perfect complement to Morgan Rielly’s high-flying style.
MATHEW DUMBA (MIN)
Mathew Dumba is not a player on the same level as Jones or Trouba. He doesn’t log a huge number of minutes, and he isn’t a major possession driver. He does score at a good clip, though. That said, Dumba should probably more of a fall-back option than a primary target for the Leafs at this point. But he still might be worth pursuing.
One thing in Dumba’s favour is that he could be more available than some of the other players on my list. The Wild are quite cap-strapped, with very little money coming off the books this summer and quite a few roster spots left to fill. That means they’re likely going to have to find a way to cut some salary. With four defencemen already under contract at $4M or more over the next few seasons, Dumba may find himself the odd man out. They may also try to move one of their other defencemen to find the room to keep Dumba; the possibility of acquiring Jared Spurgeon is examined below.
SAMI VATANEN (ANA)
I get the impression that a lot of Leafs fans see Vatanen as a guy the team should strongly pursue this summer. With 38 points in 71 games this past season and 37 points in 67 games the year prior, it’s easy to see why he seems like an appealing target.
Ducks GM Bob Murray has said that he’s going to make significant changes after this season’s disappointing first round loss to the Predators, making the Ducks a plausible trade partner. With Vatanen due for a big raise over his expiring contract, which paid just over $1M per season, a team like the Ducks with an internal budget may see him as a prime trade target. The fact that four other defencemen on the team will make $3.25M or more next season strongly suggests someone is on the way out.
There are two problems with Vatanen as a target for the Leafs. One is that, at 25 years old, he’s probably at the tail-end of what the Leafs ought to be looking at as far as age goes. Ideally, they’d be targeting younger players like Trouba.
The second problem is that he doesn’t look like a player you want playing big minutes against tough competition. He has impressive offensive skills, but his underlying numbers leave a lot to be desired. In particular, his Corsi Against rate is near the bottom of the Ducks defence. Given that Morgan Rielly is a player with a similar profile, and that what the Leafs should be looking for is a player to anchor a pairing with Rielly, I’m not sure Vatanen is a good match. He’s a useful player, but probably not a guy you can trust to shut down the other team’s top competition.
TYSON BARRIE (COL)
Usually, I would leave a player like Barrie, who scored 49 points this season, off this kind of list. I would assume that his team wants to keep him, and there’s no point in speculating. But rumours of Barrie’s availability have been poking about all season and Elliotte Friedman recently said that he’s “in play.”
Barrie seems to be the kind of a guy the Leafs should be trying to acquire. He scores at a prodigious rate, he logs a very high volume of minutes, and he’s a reliable driver of possession. Don’t let his Corsi Rel of 0.4 this season fool you, as he’s been much better than that in the previous couple of seasons. Not to mention that the Avalanche are such a poorly coached team; you’d love to see what a guy like Barrie could do under Mike Babcock.
A couple of things work against acquiring Barrie. The first is his age: like Vatanen, 25 is probably pushing it as far as where he fits into the rebuild. The second is that Barrie scores so many points, his next contract is going to pay him a mint. Is he a good enough player to lock-in long-term at $6M per season or more? I’m not sure. But he is an intriguing possibility, especially if the Avs fail to recognise his value.
JARED SPURGEON (MIN)
The Minnesota Wild almost certainly need to trade a defenceman this summer. If they want to keep Dumba, then Jared Spurgeon might be on the move. If so, he’s a guy the Leafs should consider. Spurgeon scores at a similar rate to Jake Gardiner, is capable of handling a lengthy workload, and is an excellent possession player.
Another thing making Spurgeon a solid trade target is his contract: his cap hit of $5.2M is not cheap, but it is fair, and more importantly it has four years remaining, which means he’s got a lot more cost certainty than someone like Barrie or Vatanen moving forward. Of course, these things also make Spurgeon valuable to the Wild too, but if they need to trade a defenceman for cap reasons, he would make an excellent target for the Leafs.
The only thing about Spurgeon that gives me pause is his age. At 26 years old, he’s a bit on the high end of what the Leafs should be aiming for. But everything else suggests he’d be a very strong addition if the Wild could be convinced to part with him.
MICHAEL STONE (ARI)
I suspect Stone is unlikely to actually be available; I’ve included him here primarily because he’s an intriguing player who most Leafs fans probably aren’t familiar with. As you can see in the chart above, Stone had a very impressive season for the Coyotes, and it comes on the back of a good (but slightly less impressive) season prior. He’s a capable possession player who plays some pretty tough minutes, and he’s capable of putting up a decent number of points (though his 36 points this season are likely higher than should be anticipated moving forward).
A couple of things work against Stone as a target for the Leafs. The first is that the Coyotes probably want to keep him. He’s a good player and Arizona doesn’t have very much money tied up in its defence moving forward, so they’ve got room to keep him. Like Spurgeon, he’s also probably a bit older than the players the Leafs should be aiming for. But at the very least he’s a guy worth thinking about. Stone’s a solid player who’s flown under the radar.
KEVIN SHATTENKIRK (STL)
Shattenkirk falls outside of the criteria that I used to put my list together, but his name seems to come up pretty frequently amongst players that Leafs fans think the team should target, so I figured he was worth including here. Shattenkirk’s got a lot going for him. He hasn’t scored fewer than 43 points in an 82-game season since 2010-11. He’s an excellent Corsi player. Most notably, he may very well be on the trade market this summer.
The problem for the Leafs is that Shattenkirk doesn’t fit into a rebuild. He’s already 27, the end of peak age for NHLers, so he’s likely going to start declining from here on out. He’s also due for a new contract and a big raise following next season. At that point, he’ll be 28. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Leafs to lock up big money long-term in a player past his prime, who will be in his 30s a few years from now when guys like Nylander and Marner are entering their prime years.
Shattenkirk is an excellent player who makes a lot of sense for a team looking to compete for a Cup in the next couple of seasons, but he’s not the best choice for a rebuilding team, so the Leafs would probably be better served to aim for one of the younger players I’ve discussed above.