The Toronto Maple Leafs’ blueline depth desperately needs help
If the Toronto Maple Leafs hope to make an impact in the playoffs this season then the club must find a way to add another right-handed defenseman. Toronto’s biggest need all season has been on the blue line and as the trade deadline approaches, any help is better than nothing.
The Maple Leafs likely don’t have what it takes to acquire a top-pairing defenseman like Drew Doughty. However, adding defensive depth could be the difference between a first-round playoff exit and heading to the second round.
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Toronto’s lack of defensive depth has been on full display in recent weeks, thanks to Nikita Zaitsev’s injury on Dec 15. Since his injury, the Maple Leafs have gone 5-4-3 with blown leads in the final minutes occurring far too often. Zaitsev likely won’t be back for another three weeks, which suggests the defensive struggles could continue until he returns.
In Zaitsev’s absence, Morgan Rielly has taken on a bigger role in an attempt to fill the hole left by Zaitsev’s injury. Although Rielly may be in the middle of his best NHL season, the past few weeks have seen a pair of glaring mistakes.
Rielly has been the victim of trying to do too much all on his own and the results have cost his team points in the standings. An awful decision on a long pass leading to a game-tying goal by the Columbus Blue Jackets in one game was followed by a gamble on a pinch leading to the game-winning goal by the Ottawa Senators in the very next contest.
To be fair, Rielly shouldn’t field all the blame. It’s not his fault the Maple Leafs have no other options to support him or the club. Ron Hainsey has already exceeded expectations by a wide margin and can’t possibly contribute more if the team hopes to make a run in the playoffs. Travis Dermott has been called up from the minors and has played well. But as a rookie, he can only be expected to contribute so much.
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Meanwhile, Jake Gardiner has struggled at times this season and hasn’t been the same player he was last year. He’s failing to cement the second defensive pair as a steady and dependable unit has plagued the Maple Leafs all season.
The frustrating part with Gardiner is he could turn around his game in a hurry and suddenly become an effective puck-moving defenseman again. It really depends on which Gardiner shows up on game night, the motivated skater or the disinterested player prone to mental lapses.
Then there’s the Roman Polak situation where it seems he can do no wrong in the coach’s eyes despite consistently being blown by the opposition and taking momentum-killing penalties. Head Coach Mike Babcock appears to favor the veteran defenseman like no other player on the roster. Polak is rarely punished for his unacceptable mistakes. Another player on the roster could be benched due to one untimely error while Polak could commit multiple errors and receive no punishment.
With a lineup of forwards several other teams in the league would be envious of, the Maple Leafs must improve their defense at the deadline. With players set to become unrestricted free agents like James van Riemsdyk, and other restricted free agents needing new contracts like William Nylander and Auston Matthews, the time is now for Toronto to capitalize on their forward group.
The Maple Leafs won’t be acquiring a defensive stud at the deadline. However, a depth option to help eat minutes and lessen the burden on the rest of the team’s defensemen could go a long way. With rumored options potentially available such as Mike Green, Erik Gudbranson, and Tyson Barrie, any of the three fill Toronto’s desperate need of a right-handed defenseman.
None come without their own flaws but all are better than what the Maple Leafs currently have on their roster. If the price to acquire any of the players is reasonable it’d be a gamble the team would have to take.
Toronto’s forward lineup is going to look dramatically different next season with so many players up for new contracts. This could be the Maple Leafs’ one and only shot for a playoff run with their current forward group. However, if Toronto hopes to make the most of their talented roster then acquiring a depth defenseman is an absolute must.
The Maple Leafs have forwards good enough to win a round or two in the playoffs. They also have a goalie in Freddie Andersen capable of stealing a round or two in the playoffs all on his own. The team doesn’t need an overhaul on defense but they do need something better than what they currently have.