Leafs Defense Remains an Issue in 2018-19

by | Oct 6, 2018 | Soapbox | 31 comments

Entering the 2018-19 NHL season, a number of Toronto Maple Leafs followers believe their team can win with their current defense corps.

That was part of the headline of a recent column by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. He points to the last two Stanley Cup champions, the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2018 Washington Capitals, doing so with bluelines he considered not much better than the one currently this season iced by the Leafs.

Morgan Rielly leads a Toronto Maple Leafs defense corps hoping to improve in 2018-19 (Photo via NHL Images)

Simmons observed how the game is changing. He cites Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey pointing out there’s no one standing in front of the net crosschecking opponents anymore. Hainsey also notes the Leafs have two 50-point rearguards in Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Simmons indicates first-pass ability is the big play for today’s defensemen.

All of these points are valid. The game certainly has evolved from the not-so-distant past when the emphasis was on size and strength over speed and puck-moving skills and when uncalled obstruction masqueraded as defensive hockey.

And yet, legitimate concerns remain over this season’s version of the Leafs defense.

Before getting to those, it’s worth recalling the Penguins’ 2017 defense corps was actually much deeper than that of today’s Leafs. That’s why they successfully overcame the absence of top rearguard Kris Letang (neck injury) throughout that postseason. It’s difficult to imagine the Leafs coping well in a similar circumstance without Rielly.

The Capitals, meanwhile, had John Carlson, who was last season’s leading scorer among blueliners throughout the regular season and the playoffs. With all due respect to Rielly, he’s not yet in the same class as Carlson.

It’s also worth remembering the Penguins and Capitals had world-class goaltending during their respective Cup runs. Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray split the duties for the Pens while 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby regained his stellar form last spring following a so-so regular season.

Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen is a significant upgrade over those who guarded the crease for Toronto in recent years. Simmons pointed out the Leafs had the 12th-fewest goals-allowed last season while the Capitals were 16th overall.

However, that overlooks the fact Holtby had an off-year and was frequently spelled off by Philipp Grubauer. He also indicated the 2017 Penguins were 17th, but that was due to Fleury having an inconsistent regular season while Murray was hampered by injuries. When the playoffs began, those netminders significantly stepped up their play.

Andersen is a good goaltender but he’s yet to prove himself on the same level as Fleury, Murray and Holtby. With the defense in front him, he must elevate his play if the Leafs hope to march to Stanley Cup glory next spring.

The Leafs defense corps of last season remains largely intact for 2018-19. Rielly and Hainsey form the top pairing, Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev the second pairing with Travis Dermott as part of the third pairing.

This is the group that gave up the fourth-highest shots-against per game (33.9) last season and the third-most (35.0) in the 2018 playoffs. This is the same bunch that suffering three blowout defeats to the Boston Bruins on route to getting bounced in the opening round in seven games last spring.

Rielly should continue to improve but the 37-year-old Hainsey reached his ceiling a long time ago. Gardiner is fine offensively but his defensive play can sometimes leave much to be desired. Zaitsev showed promise as an NHL rookie two years ago but struggled through injury and inconsistency last season. Dermott shows promise but it remains to be seen if he’ll blossom into a solid top-four d-man.

As things stand right now, this doesn’t look like a blueline that can shut down talented Eastern Conference rivals like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins or a rising team like the Florida Panthers in the postseason. If they can actually advance to the Stanley Cup Final, a powerhouse like the Nashville Predators or Winnipeg Jets could be waiting for them.

Sure, anything can happen in the playoffs. But the Leafs will need Andersen to play at a higher level he’s never before displayed and his blueliners must all have career years to even have a chance against those aforementioned opponents in a seven-game series. Either that, or they’ll have to win a lot of high-scoring run-and-gun games. Or maybe most of those opponents will be upset before the Leafs face them in the playoffs.

I’m sure there are sensitive Leafs fans who won’t brook any criticism of their beloved club. They’ll probably read this and write me off as a hater. Rest assured, I’m nothing of the sort. The Leafs might not be my favorite team but I’d love to see them finally end that 52-years-and-counting Stanley Cup drought.

Maybe the Leafs will prove me wrong. Maybe, as Simmons believes, this is a defense that can win.

Maybe it will, but I’ll have to see it to believe it.



  1. Nice read Lyle and you must have woke early too lol, 3:30 for me…ouch.

    Always nice reading about a column from Simmons and all the ‘errors’ and poor analogies he comes up with regarding stats.

    Sorry I just don’t like what he writes and common sense suggests he makes up most of it.

    • And yes I am one who has been advocating for quite some time to turn Nylander into a useable part on the blueline.

      I don’t believe we will win a cup with Nylander, cap and heart.

      • There are teams with Blue slivers that meet Toronto’s needs from a variety of teams all with different packages, situations and challenges. I am a Detroit fan. Sorry Leafs fans. I use Vancouver as an example. Chris Tanev is a controllable asset making a below average cap hit for a Top pairing D-Man at 4 mil per season. The trade off being Nylander. Toronto has a wealth of young forwards, Kapanen as an example to replace Nylander. Toronto gets Tanev and another roster player, a prospect along with a second rd pick (will be more going to Toronto just not Vans 1st in 2019 while picking at home) Vancouver gets Nylander in a sign and trade and takes on a bad contract as they have space thus creating more room for Toronto to sign Mathews and Marner long term. It also puts him in the Western Conference. Van won’t part with Demko, Boeser, Petterson, Hughes or Horvat, but that leaves lots more to look at. I’d think Van wouldn’t want to lose Gaudette, Lind or Jett Woo, but that’s what it will take to get a top talent like Nylander. I’d love him in Red and White in Detroit, but we’re more messed up than Vancouver and have a smaller talent pool and no D depth that is tradable that isn’t part of their future. It could be any other team. Don’t count out the Islanders, but most likely a west coast team, Dallas. I’m sure lots of theories with other teams and their D that would excite Toronto fans.

    • Wow, quite an analysis there Lyle and hard to refute, I do know that if any of us said essentially the same things there would be a few screaming “Leafs haters.”
      Gary, I notice you asked me for my take on a Nylander for Chabot deal in yesterday’s rimours, so I thought I’d respond in today’s thread since it’s also about the Leafs.

      I would NOT make that deal for three reasons. First, I doubt Nylander and his agent would back off that $8 mil long-term deal if dealt to Ottawa and I sincerely doubt Dorion would even want to give him those terms; second – Ottawa is going to struggle through the first years of the re-build and I doubt adding Nylander to that roster would make much of a difference in where they are going to finish; and third – in any re-build you start from the back end out and with Gustavsson in the wings as the goalie of the future, Chabot simply has way too much upside to let go at this stage of his career.

      • Mostly agree with your assessment George, was just wearing the blue and white goggles and hoping lol.

      • Guys I think … Nylander for Trouba would be an definite upgrade for the Leafs D … I’m not saying it will happen … but stranger things have happened… Trouba wanted out last year and he wanted to play in the US … but I think once he comes to Toronto he might change his mind … looking at the city and the hype there is in Toronto with the media and the attention players get… just my 2 cents.

      • One thing in Lyle’s blurb that really stands out is the line “… with Travis Dermott as part of the third pairing.” What he doesn’t mention is that, with just 38 NHL games under his belt, the other part of that pairing is one of Igor Ozhiganov, Martin Marinčin or Justin Holl.

        As BCLeafsFan says below “Leaf forwards must take responsibility for some of the problems in the defensive zone” and never will that be so true as when that 3rd pairing is on the ice.

      • Now you see why I wouldn’t be any hurry to give up Chabot. This is what he was like in Major Junior – dominating and a minute-eater.

  2. I’m one of those people who loves to see a team with a long championship drought win it all. When the Red Sox and Cubs respectively won the World Series, I was overjoyed for them and their long suffering fans. For me, the perfect SCF would be the Leafs and Blues. With the guantlet the Blues would have to run in the playoffs and the Leafs defense, I just don’t see it happening.

    • Nasser, forget about Nylander for Trouba. Firstly, WPG can’t afford Nylander’s $8M ask. Secondly, Trouba is top pair on WPG and a real shot suppressor — a rare skill. That means he’s worth more than a 20 goal, 60 point forward. Finally, if traded, Trouba is going to want to go to a US-based team, as his agent said during the holdout. Bottom line: no-go.

      • Oh, and as for Nylander for Chabot, there’s simply no way. Chabot is everyday looking more and more like a franchise dman. I woudln’t even trade him for Trouba. If the Leafs were to consider moving Marner, I might start to listen, if I’m Ottawa. Chabot is going to be that good. And as someone else said, you build from the goal out – preferably starting with a franchise Dman. Ottawa is doing the rebuild the right way, even if their ownership is whacky. If I’m Dorion, I might look at trading Stone to Colorado to get my first pick back – maybe at the trade deadline if OTT is out of the playoffs and the Avs are in, and if Stone is indicating he won’t be back. It’s tough to swallow after the Duchene trade blowing up in their face and the Karlsson debacle leaving a gaping whole in fans’ hearts. But they’ll forget all that if they end up with a franchise center (Hughes?) in the 2019 draft.

  3. On board with Gary and Paul…. I repeat my mantra…. Leafs will be gangbusters in reg season … but cannot get to ECF let alone win it (won’t get by TBay) without a D upgrade.

    ….and if somehow TBay, Bos, Pitt , Wsh completely collapse …. fageettaboutit re success against Winn or Nsh or SJ

    …. a must …. upgrade to D… reminder to all …. I’m a Leafs fan!!!!

    Off now for my regular Sat morn to take my elderly mother shopping and to appointments … so out of loop for a few hours

    • Good luck in the stores today Pengy – that’s going to be nutsville!

      • George

        It was a zoo at stores but also had other appointments. I try to take her shopping and for other appointments every Sat

        I know this is a hockey site …. but thought I’d tell you I was pulling for Red Black’s last night …. exciting last few mins in reg to get them to OT

  4. I agree with your take, Lyle, and would add that Leaf forwards must take responsibility for some of the problems in the defensive zone. The wingers especially are slow to the points and, without pressure, the puck stays in and opposing d-men have time to make plays. It’s a pattern that needs to change.
    Coaching has a lot to do with it. Over to you, Mr. Babcock.

  5. Simmons needs a stronger eyeglass prescription and maybe some electric shock therapy. While watching the leafs game, I find myself cringing everytime the puck crosses thier blue line. If they win with that defense, I will sit and binge watch Nicolas Cage movies until my eyes pop out of my head!

    • LOL. Now, now – his Knowing wasn’t bad nor was the first National Treasure

  6. Perhaps the young fella can give Benning a call and see what it would cost to get Tanev

    • Vancouver is in much the same boat as Ottawa – a re-build, and as I indicate elsewhere, any successful re-build starts with the back-end out. They won’t be dealing Tanev for any F that isn’t going to make much difference to their overall winning % over the foreseeable future. And TO simply doesn’t have any D-man prospect of any consequence that they could spare in such a deal.

  7. Nick Ritchie still is signed…. Just saying

    I don’t see the leaf’s winning the cup this year. I don’t think JT is going to get them over the hump.
    The most significant impact on the leaf’s being a Stanley Cup contender will be the maturation of Austin Mathews and if he can stay healthy he will challenge McDavid for the scoring title.
    I also don’t see Boston as a cup contender and believe they’ll fight for a wild card spot.

  8. It’s only one game but I watched Montreal completely dominate the Leafs many times Toronto couldn’t get the puck out of their own end. Montreal is no power house and I also believe defense is a team game forwards need to help and play their positions well. Leafs need help on back end plus forwards need to figure out where their own end is.

    • As I said yesterday, they’ll concentrate more on 5 on 5 tonight and put pressure on the young Ottawa D – probably winning 5-2 or 6-2.

      • Idk George, I watched the Sens/Hawks game. I thought they battled well and if they play that way, i see it being a much closer game.

      • Yeah, but as I also said yesterday the Hawks ain’t the Leafs, especially up front where the only real constant threat is Kane (who popped the OT goal by the way). Had Ottawa played Toronto in the opener instead of the Habs, and played a strong forechecking game as did the Habs, they might have won simply because they have a bit better scoring F than does Montreal. But the Leafs, who look disorganized 5 on 5, won’t repeat that performance.

      • OK, I was wrong. Wow. Those Leafs D handled the puck in their own end like it was a live grenade. They not only appear to need a Top D-man but also a better tandem at 5/6. Still, it’s early season – s*^t always happens in Oct-Nov – an I doubt the Habs will be handling the Pens 5-1 defeats in late December, nor will the Sens be knocking off the Leafs at home.

  9. You had me until you quoted Steve Simmons.

    • Simmons always writes with a plethora of “ifs” so that, if his predictions pan out, he can thump his chest and say “see … I called that” – but if they don’t he’ll just fall back on his “ifs” and “howevers”

  10. I do not think the Leafs defense is there yet to seriously contend. On another subject’Nylander’s holdout shows what a selfish player he is. No way is he worth more than $6-6.3 per year.He is just like his father and it always is “me first” ahead of the team.He has tons of talent, but when the going gets tough, he becomes the invisible man. He won’t go to the tough areas, like Marner does.If he doesn’t want to accept something close to what the Leafs are offering,he can rot in Sweden for the entire season.

    • Well, let’s compare stats so far

      Seasonal – 185 gp 48g 87a 135 pts 46 pim
      Playoffs – 13 gp 2g 6a 8 PTS 2 PIM

      Seasonal – 160 gp 41g 89a 130 pts 64 pim
      Playoffs – 13 gp 3g 10a 13 pys 4 pim

      Not a lot of difference there but unfortunately he’s first up as an RFA so what you’re saying is, he should be less selfish and settle for $6 – $6.5. So, does that mean Marner, when he comes up next year, should also sign for around that amount in the name of teamship and “let’s bring a Cup to Toronto?”

      That isn’t the way it works, and what if Nylander signs now for that amount, puts up similar totals as Marner (or exceeds him) over the season, and then watches as Marner is given closer to 8 mil next year.

      • Hi George

        You are bang on re what Nylander’s side (read that as Dad and Agent) will be rationalizing recent comparison to Marner and fear of signing then watching MM sign for more after similar seasons

        Dubas stance :MM stats slightly better and while playing with lesser line mates (for larger portion of overall play) and better in playoffs; and does go in the corners…..

        Outside of that, as I posted before … if Dubas capitulates on the WW deal… he loses almost all negotiating power when it comes to AM and MM negotiations

        No rush for KD now until Leafs start losing …. I do believe it will be closer than most think tonight but do see Leafs getting 2 points…. they are OK for prob a week …. tougher schedule later in month

        We’ll see … I still would like a bridge deal…, or better still trade for D upgrade (nil to slim chance if that in next few weeks)

  11. Read an article where it said Toronto has an easy schedule to start year,well Montreal was better team now Ottawa beats them at home not sure but didn’t look easy so far.