It’s very likely the two free agents who will see the biggest paydays in July will come from the Washington Capitals’ roster. In terms of contract length and total dollars, Timothy Jimothy Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk should command the most attention when unrestricted free agency opens and will pull in the most lucrative numbers among forwards and defencemen respectively.
We know this isn’t a great free-agent class by any means, and even some of the notable names out there that will also get their share of headlines – Thornton, Marleau, Sharp, and Williams for example – are a bit on the older side and will be looking at some shorter term deals. For those reasons, it’s easy to speculate that Oshie and Shattenkirk will likely be the only players we see land up in the $40-million range on long-term deals.
Shattenkirk’s situation will certainly continue to be of interest to Leafs fans, just as it has been over the last year or so. Regardless of the level of truth to it, we’re likely going to see him linked to Toronto a lot as July 1st approaches, since there’s a natural fit for a high-end right-handed defenceman to join the group. And, well, he is one.
As we get closer to the market opening, don’t be surprised to hear New York, Boston, and Toronto be reported as Shattenkirk’s potentially biggest suitors. Why those three? Shattenkirk is from New York, played college hockey in Boston, and if you want to get eyes on your site or television station, just throw Toronto into the mix.
But if Shattenkirk has these connections elsewhere, can the Leafs really be a viable option? I believe they can, because more than any other team they can likely deliver to him the role he’s looking for on a team that’s truly trending up.
Shattenkirk said if he was to come back, he’d want a bigger role. Wants to be a No. 1 defenseman somewhere.
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 12, 2017
So how does Shattenkirk, now 28-years-old, fit in with what the Leafs currently have?
Shattenkirk has a similar deployment profile as that of Jake Gardiner in terms of competition faced and his relative Zone-Start Ratio (ZSR), but this season he didn’t own as much share of his group’s icetime at even-strength as you’d probably expect, despite being so strong in the run of play (the blue indicates a positive relative Corsi, red being negative). Gardiner, Rielly, and Zaitsev in this chart all have the same sized bubbles as each other because at evens their minutes all hovered above 17 per game. Shattenkirk played nearly two minutes fewer than that per night, averaging a hair more than 15-minutes in the same game state.
Here’s how that looked within the Capitals’ group (note that these are his entire season’s numbers, but his 5v5 icetime didn’t really change after the trade from St. Louis to Washington):
Shattenkirk obviously wants to be a number one guy because he feels he hasn’t been used in that role to this point. And the numbers bear that out. But what’s going on here? Are coaches seeing him as a potential liability against tougher competition? I’d have a hard time buying that since there’s nothing to suggest he’d do poorly in an increased role.
Maybe it’s just circumstance. The other right-handed defencemen on the Blues were Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, and in Washington, Shattenkirk was coming in to take a cut of minutes from Matt Niskanen and John Carlson – both long-established players in that organization. He’s really been on two Cadillacs of teams when it comes to right-shooting blue-liners. Toronto isn’t even close to those teams in that regard.
If Shattenkirk was to sign with the Leafs, his main competition for minutes on the right side is Zaitsev. And while Zaitsev has done alright there considering his freshness to the league and deployment against heavy competition, I’d bet my house on Shattenkirk doing better in the same scenario. Even if Babcock wanted to keep running Rielly-Zaitsev out there for the toughs (though he really shouldn’t), a Gardiner-Shattenkirk pairing would presumably be an absolute play-driving force.
Somehow we’ve gotten this far without talking about Shattenkirk’s dominance on the powerplay. Let’s not forget we’re talking about one of the most productive defencemen in the entire league coming off a 56-point season. This past year he played over 3-minutes per night on the powerplay, more than any Toronto defender (the closest was Gardiner at 2.5), and far outperformed anyone in that group.
|Powerplay Min/GP||Powerplay Primary Points/Hour|
That’s some mind-boggling powerplay production (second only to Victor Hedman among defencemen in the entire league), but of course, it raises a question about whether this is the type of help the Leafs really need. We know they’re an offensive team that can really push a quick pace, so the consensus seems to be that they should target a true shutdown guy to bring down the amount of shot attempts against. Toronto is somewhat unique in the fact they’re an above-water possession team but at a level where they’re producing a lot and allowing nearly just as much (Pittsburgh is similar).
There’s a lot going on in both directions for the Leafs, and they presumably want to tidy that up. That’s why we hear so much about them potentially going after players like Josh Manson or Chris Tanev – “shutdown defenders”. But Shattenkirk likely does enough for them in the possession game and brings along a boatload of offence to go with it. The Leafs converted on the powerplay the second-most of any team in the league this past season, so adding Shattenkirk to that is almost unfair. [Does anyone care if the Leafs win 5-2 instead of 2-0?]
If it’s really that top-billing that Shattenkirk is going for, Toronto is as good a destination as any. Boston and New York will be at the front of the line for him in six weeks when free agency opens, and there’s plenty of speculation that he’ll just opt to go home and slot in nicely on the Rangers’ top pair with Ryan McDonagh. Perhaps that’s the way this all plays out, but until it does you have to consider the Leafs as having a shot at landing him, should they pursue it. They definitely have that role he wants, and with the left-shot Travis Dermott being the only back-end prospect in the pipeline even arguably close to making the jump, it isn’t like that spot is going to be contested for quite a long time.