The Toronto Maple Leafs have a problem on defence: They have more players under contract than they have roster spots. On the broad spectrum of problems a hockey team can have, it’s not the worst situation to be in. It would be much worse to have too few players and find yourself in a scramble to fill the remaining roster spots. Nevertheless, it’s still a problem that needs to be sorted out.
I’m going to do my best to game out what the Leafs defence might look like next season. The team currently has 11 defencemen who played at least one game in the NHL last year and are either still under contract or are restricted free agents. Most of those players would have to pass through waivers to be assigned to the AHL, so the Leafs have some tough choices ahead of them. In addition, they’ve recently added Nikita Zaitsev. I’m going to look at who we can expect to make the team next season and who might get left out.
Of course, all of this could change if the Leafs orchestrate a big trade or sign a free agent or two, but for now we’ll look at what’s already in the system. Here’s a brief overview of the players I’m going to discuss (I’ve left out Andrew Campbell, who did play NHL games and is still under contract, but is really just an AHL vet who got rewarded with a few NHL games to end the season).
A few players on this list are definitely making the 2016-17 opening night roster. We don’t need to discuss Morgan Rielly; he’s making the team.
Jake Gardiner will also be on the team. Given his talent and his extremely team-friendly contract, it’s difficult to see any situation in which Gardiner isn’t there on opening night unless he’s involved in a blockbuster trade.
Nikita Zaitsev will be on the roster too. He didn’t come over from the KHL to play for the Marlies.
As much as it pains me to say, I’m going to have to include Matt Hunwick on this list too. He’s clearly a Babcock favourite, and it’s difficult to see the team banishing him to the AHL. I think the Leafs would be wise to try to move him in a trade, but given how much Babcock likes him and the fact that the Leafs don’t really have any other veterans on the blue line, I think we have to assume Hunwick will be playing for the Leafs this fall.
That covers four roster spots. NHL teams typically carry seven defencemen (though the Leafs did have eight on the roster for a while last year), so that means the other seven players are fighting for just three roster spots.
Of the remaining players, Connor Carrick seems the most likely to be on the opening night roster. He shoots right, which makes him a rarer commodity on a team that has a plethora of left-shooting options. He’s been a key player for the Marlies on their playoff run this spring, and he looked good paired with Jake Gardiner in the NHL. He also loses his waiver-exempt status this fall, and it’s difficult to see the Leafs risking losing him on waivers after they took on Brooks Laich’s contract in order to acquire Carrick. So let’s say that he’s almost certainly on the team.
Next is Martin Marincin. While he struggled to earn minutes earlier in the season, he eventually earned Babcock’s trust and moved up to the top pairing with Morgan Rielly, regularly playing well over 20 minutes a night from late February onward. He’s also a fancystats darling, consistently earning a high Relative Corsi rating, and doing a great job at breaking up zone entries and limiting shots against. All of this would seem to suggest that he’s going to play a key role for the Leafs next year, but I’m not so sure. I think there’s a reasonable likelihood that Marincin gets traded. The main reason is that the Leafs simply have too many left-shooting defencemen. Beyond Rielly, Gardiner, and Hunwick, almost all of the Leafs top defensive prospects shoot left as well. If the Leafs want to get some of their younger guys in the lineup, someone else is going to have to go. Marincin may find himself as trade bait for that reason.
DEFENCEMEN ON THE BUBBLE
Frank Corrado is going to be an interesting test of the Leafs philosophy moving forward. The Leafs initially claimed him on waivers, and he’d surely be claimed again, odds would point to him making the roster. He had the highest Corsi among any Leafs regular last season, at 55%. He shoots right, which makes him a relative rarity on Toronto’s defence. And yet he never gained Babcock’s favour. Even late in the season, when Hunwick was injured, Polak had been traded, and the roster was full of young players, Corrado frequently played under 15 minutes. He seems likely to start 2016-17 as the 7th defenceman, which may spur the Leafs to consider the possibility of trading him.
The remaining players fall into two camps. The first is Scott Harrington and Stuart Percy, the second is Viktor Loov and Rinat Valiev. Percy and Harrington have very similar profiles. Both are 23 year olds who lose their waiver exempt status this fall. Both have played well over 100 AHL games, both shoot left, and both score at a fairly similar rate (with a small edge to Percy). It’s unlikely that there’s room for both on the Leafs’ roster given the team’s glut of left-handed defencemen.
If one of them makes the cut, my guess would be Harrington. He made the Leafs out of camp last season and played fairly well in a brief NHL stint, before being sent back to the AHL due to a roster crunch on the Leafs. Injuries derailed most of his season, but when healthy he seems like a player the Leafs value. I think he’ll be on the Leafs roster in October.
Percy seems to have slowly fallen down the Leafs’ depth chart over the past couple of seasons. He made the Leafs roster out of camp two years ago, before injuries derailed his season (sound familiar?). Last year he nearly made the team out of camp again but ended up in just 3 NHL games. I’ve been a Percy fan for a while, but if Harrington has jumped ahead of him on the depth chart, Percy seems like a prime candidate to be traded. It’s possible that the Leafs could try to sneak him through waivers, but it seems more likely that he’s traded first. If the Leafs do want to keep Percy, that would likely mean that Harrington is a trade target instead.
Viktor Loov and Rinat Valiev are both players who’ve earned praise for their play over the past year, and they may feature in Toronto’s future, but I think both will be back in the AHL next season. The reason for that is simple: both players are still waiver exempt, meaning they could be sent to and from the AHL without the Leafs having to worry that they might be claimed on waivers. If the Leafs did want to keep one of them in the NHL, that would almost certainly necessitate trading someone like Harrington or Corrado, lest the team lose them on waivers, and that just doesn’t seem very likely to me. It’s also possible that either guy could be included in a trade package, as the Leafs have far too many left-handed defencemen, and not all of them can make the team.
2016-17 OPENING NIGHT
Given that the Leafs have 9 defencemen without waiver exemption fighting for just 7 roster spots, at least two players would seem to be on the way out. Based on all that, here’s my best guess as to how this will shake out on opening night:
In the NHL – Rielly, Zaitsev, Gardiner, Hunwick, Carrick, Corrado, Harrington
In the AHL – Loov, Valiev
Traded – Marincin, Percy