48 Contracts? Defence? Lou and the Boys Have Some Options

August 30, 2017

By: Gordon Brown

On the evening of Monday August 14th the Toronto Maple Leafs announced they had placed D Alexey Marchenko on waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract. It appeared to be something mutually agreed upon, as Marchenko almost immediately had a 3-year contract on the table from CSKA Moscow of the KHL.

This is hardly surprising after an underwhelming stint that saw the 25-year-old put up just 1G, 1A in the 11 games he suited up in for the blue and white. Although he could have used more opportunity to showcase his worth, the Leafs were and are probably better off without him at this point. As a result, the main concern right now has to be the fact that Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick are the team’s only right handed defensemen under one-way contracts heading into next season.

Marchenko is certainly not a significant loss by any means, and could even spell out that Leafs’ management has something even bigger is in the works. But then again, maybe it should've been left-handed Martin Marincin on his way out instead.

It goes without saying that Toronto simply cannot go into next season with Zaitsev and Carrick as the lone right handed shots on the back-end. In all honesty I’m not sure why more people aren’t as concerned about this. Maybe people look at what the Pittsburg Penguins did with a depleted defensive-core in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and feel confident enough to go with this. The Leafs may boast some of the better upcoming forwards in the league, but they’re still not as dominant as a Crosby/Malkin, 1-2 punch down the middle.

In the past Mike Babcock has sworn by pairing lines according to the way players shoot, but it looks like he might have to do some serious juggling this time around.

There’s an apparent need for an addition of some sort, but it’s slightly unclear what that might be right now.

Although this subtraction still means Toronto has one less right-handed defenseman on their NHL roster, there must be a method to this madness. This is part of the Shannaplan, isn’t it? If you recall at the time of Marchenko’s signing in early February, Toronto was forced to make a subsequent move to stay within the maximum 50 contract threshold. The Leafs waived Frank Corrado goodbye and soon he became a Pittsburgh Penguin (and Stanley Cup champion).

It’s a little bit different this summer. Most importantly being the Buds are now down to 48 players under professional contract for the upcoming season. It’s also pretty clear there’s next-to-no room left up front in the forward group. With Toronto being where they are in respect to the contract maximum, this opens up a lot more possibilities for Lou Lamoriello and company to play with.

Like I said before, there's a significant need for a right-handed defensemen. Not just a regular need such as having Carrick and Polak round out the bottom-4, I mean we literally have two righty's. It's fair to assume Ron Hainsey will fill the right sided void for the time being, since Mike Babcock already came out with his thoughts on potential D-pairings. If it goes in this direction the Leafs will see a top-4 that consists of Rielly/Hainsey and Gardiner/Zaitsev, in no particular order. It’s not awful, but it could certainly look better.

Is that really the best option? Hainsey would be lucky to crack the top-4 on most NHL depth charts, let alone one who believes they can contend. Beyond that, there’s still a hole on the last defensive pairing. So, if Toronto doesn't acquire a true right-handed defenseman in order to slot Hainsey on the left, someone will have to fill the void beside Connor Carrick.

You can't assume right-handed Timothy Liljegren, who recently had a very good showing at the World Junior Summer Showcase, can or will make the jump based on his performance at the rookie camp.

The 2017 17th overall pick posted 2G, 2A in 5 games for Sweden. His team-high 17 shots on goal was also good for third most in the showcase. Standing at 6’0 and 192 lbs, Liljegren already has a steady frame to compete in the NHL.

It seems extremely unlikely, and it's probably best to let him develop for another year in the SHL or AHL as it currently stands. It should be noted, however, that Rögle BK (SHL) is already planning for life without Liljegren as signs point to him staying in North America. If he doesn't make the Leafs out of camp, barring poor performance, I think he’ll definitely have an opportunity to stick with the big club later into next season.

I think the prospect pool already has a few names who deserve a shot at cracking the opening night lineup before slotting in an 18-year-old who’s coming off of a mononucleosis riddled season.

That's not a knock on Timmy, I just have a feeling Lou would say the same.

Beyond Liljegren there’s not much organizational depth on the right-hand side, Vincent LoVerde and Justin Holl aren’t much to boast about. However the left-handers appear to be ripe and plentiful.

For one there’s my personal front-runner, 20-year-old Travis Dermott, who the Leafs already think very highly of. Dermott was selected by Toronto in round 2, 34th overall of the 2015 NHL draft.

Chosen as an ambassador for Toronto's rookie camp that took place earlier this summer, it’s clear Leafs management has some sort of trust in this player. He’s a lefty but could be a formidable piece going forward. He makes the right decisions and I definitely think that gives him a leg up on the competition. Coaches, especially one’s like Babcock, value the type of player who can think the game well and limit their number of mistakes. I think the potential to become an impactful player is certainly there, and despite his smaller stature, will give his opponents a tough time in the corners.

He's more NHL ready than we give him credit for.

Another name I might include is Andrew Nielsen, a solid 20-year-old offensive-defenseman.

Chosen in the 3rd round and 65th overall in 2015, Nielsen stands at a slender 6’3” and possesses a skill set with a very high ceiling. With 14G, 25A, and 39 points in his first full AHL season, I expect him to continue his progression going forward. Above all that he can still dish the body around, too. Although his style isn't exactly what Toronto needs at the moment, he could prove to be a difference-maker down the stretch.

The rarity that is skilled, puck-moving defensemen seems to be at a surplus in Toronto. We should keep in mind that a list including Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, and even Connor Carrick surely must be balanced with defensive minded partners.

Not to mention, Ron Hainsey and Martin Marincin are the proclaimed defence-first guys at the moment.

People also seem to forget the Leafs brought in two back-end projects from the SHL.

The additions of Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosén could turn out to be a pair of unexpected Zaitsev-type pickups. Either of the two could be a surprise and claim the final left-handed spot, but it’s not a safe bet. Just something to ponder.

I’m not going to speculate rumours about who Toronto may be linked to in trade talks, but there’s a few names who I think would fit nicely into the group. At this point it looks like it will have to be through trade, but I see a surplus of talented wingers that could be leveraged into a piece on defence, preferably one that’s right-handed and controllable. Which already sounds unreasonable in today’s NHL trade market.

Maybe they go after Vegas and their surplus of defenders, or elsewhere completely. Here are my top-5 realistic trade targets that (hopefully) won’t cost us Nylander or satisfy most of your crazy rumours; Colin Miller (VGK), Jason Demers (FLA), Josh Manson (ANA), Chris Tanev (VAN), and Ben Lovejoy (NJD).

Tanev is 100% not worth the price of Nylander. Would you target Nylander and offer up Tanev in return? No. I don't think so. Forget about Hall/Larsson for a minute, Lou Lamoriello would never, ever pull the trigger on something that lopsided.

Feel free to @@ me.

I’ve heard they also checked in on free-agent and former Maple Leaf Cody Franson, which might not be a bad fit if it’s on a one-year deal. He appears to be holding out on several teams to leverage an extra year on his impending contract.

Whatever it turns out to be, Toronto needs to make a move and do it soon. If not, they’re skating on thin ice where their defensive depth lies. You really just need one more reliable righty and the rest should be able fall into place with the current pieces. If one of Zaitsev or Carrick go down with injury, the defensive balance will be completely thrown off. Mike Babcock will have quite the predicament on his hands, and that’s assuming he doesn't already.

It’s your move, Lou.

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