Leafs Defense Remains an Issue in 2018-19
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.
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.