The Toronto Maple Leafs defence has been called a lot of things. Mostly it’s been called bad or at least not good enough. It’s still a stigma the team holds today. Their Achilles’ Heel may actually be back-up goaltending this season, although Michael Hutchinson played superbly Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings. In reality, the Toronto Maple Leafs defence isn’t that bad. In fact, they’re kind of good.
Toronto Maple Leafs Defence Is Good And Getting Better
While the Tyson Barrie trade is still debatable, Kyle Dubas undoubtedly traded from an area of strength to an area of weakness and that part still holds. Was it an equal value trade? Nazem Kadri is on pace for near 30 goals with the Colorado Avalanche and Barrie got off to a rough start this season but has seemed to improve since Sheldon Keefe took over behind the bench.
Barrie is on pace for only 33 points this season. That would be his worst since his first season in which he had zero points in ten games. Still, this team is better with Barrie than without, and Barrie will likely fully return to his old self in due time. He has eight points since Keefe took over, that’s a pace of 46 points in a full season.
Barrie regaining his offensive edge isn’t the only way he helps this team. His Corsi For is 56.1 percent this season and his relative Corsi For is 5.1. He may not be a world-class defender, but he’s not a liability, which is not something every player to don the uniform in recent years can say.
The Other New Addition
I suppose I can’t just exclude Cody Ceci from this article. He’s the other new addition to the team this season. He’s looked decent at times, but rarely does it seem he puts together a full 60 minutes. It may be ‘whipping boy syndrome’, but Ceci just isn’t worth the $4.5 he’s getting paid. Not when the team could really use that space in other areas.
Ceci has the worst Corsi rating of all defencemen in Toronto at 49.6. That’s better than five of his six years with the Ottawa Senators, but there’s no way to say he’s anything other than a third-pairing guy getting paid top-four money. That’s not a good fit for a cap-strapped team. Still, he’s got a better Corsi rating than both Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev did last year, and this year. If you want to feel better about Ceci, check Hainsey and Zaitsev‘s numbers this year.
Youth Getting Better Every Day
It’s hard to call Justin Holl young at 27 years old, but since he’s only played 48 career NHL games, it still fits. Holl has quietly turned into a valuable shutdown defender for the Maple Leafs. He’s paired with Jake Muzzin at the moment and the two have become a very reliable pair.
Holl is also a right-side defender. The Maple Leafs’ lack of a quality defender on the right side has been a sore point in Leafland for years now. Holl appears to be part of the answer. Between him and Barrie, the Maple Leafs are no longer desperate for a top-four right-handed defenceman. That’s a major improvement for Toronto from a couple of years ago.
The next wave of youth is still playing with the Toronto Marlies, but both Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have looked good this season. Liljegren has 16 points in 25 games while Sandin, currently on loan to Team Sweden for the World Junior Championships, has 12 points in 19 games. Sandin has two assists in six games for the Maple Leafs this season too. Both will be favourites to make the team out of training camp next season. More on that later.
Travis Dermott has been steadily growing into his role in Toronto. He’s playing bottom-pairing minutes and doing well, but there’s more to see from Dermott. He could probably be a top-four player on another team. One that doesn’t have Morgan Rielly and Muzzin ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s not as flashy as Rielly but can be a steady player that excels at getting the puck out of his own zone and up to the forwards. If he had more minutes and more time in offensive situations, his offensive numbers would probably be much better. He missed the first month of the season as well, which can be tough to recover from.
He’s not an overly physical player, but he’s been noticeable in recent games on the ‘heart’ front. He is currently responsible for half of the Maple Leafs fights this season, that’s one out of two for those keeping score. He also took a ten-minute misconduct penalty for banging his stick against the boards after the Red Wings scored on a questionable power-play opportunity last night. The refs took exception to him calling them out. That kind of spirit is something the Maple Leafs have lacked at times. They could use it now with no Kadri on the team. Dermott doesn’t seem the sort to be suspended halfway through a playoff series so he’s got that going for him too.
More To Come
It’s hard not to believe Dubas is looking to trade Ceci. There are cheaper players that can play as well as him on the third pair. There are better players out there making less money that can play as well as Ceci. It’s possible Dubas just can’t get rid of that contract easily. If he does, it frees him up to use that money to acquire another, better defenseman. Perhaps again trading from an area of strength, the forwards. There’s a lot of interest in Kasperi Kapanen apparently.
Briefly looking ahead to next season, the Maple Leafs will be in tough to re-sign everyone. Rielly is the only player signed for next season from the current Maple Leafs defence corps. Holl and Dermott will return, but the Maple Leafs will probably lose one or both of Muzzin and Barrie. They’ll definitely move on from Ceci and that will free up a lot of cap space for replacements. It also opens the door for Sandin and Liljegren, but that’s a lot of inexperience on the blue line. It all points to Dubas adding another, experienced player to the group. The only question is if he’ll be able to do it this season or will he have to wait till the off-season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs blueline is looking pretty good these days.
DETROIT, MICHIGAN – OCTOBER 12: Jake Muzzin #8 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his third period goal with Tyson Barrie #94 while playing the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on October 12, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Toronto won the game 5-2. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)