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NHL ANALYTICS: Maple Leafs Blueline Options

Jacob Middleton

Jacob Middleton

David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

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How does this quote hit you from this piece on the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas approach to the NHL trade deadline?

dubas quoate

dubas quoate

The insinuation from my understanding of this statement, is that making the team better is focused on forwards. Skilled forwards to be exact. I shouldn’t attribute an incorrect interpretation to this quote, but I’d expect any trade is made in an effort to make their teams better. This makes it sound like they define success on skilled players, and generating offense, more than defensively and that fits the description of this team precisely.

Defense seems to be secondary, if not an afterthought, and defensive defensemen are likely less of a desirable factor. The “defensive defenseman” in Jake Muzzin when acquired ticked a lot of the boxes of desired attributes the Leafs seemed to like in their defensemen. Muzzin is mobile, skating and mobility being strengths, with keen offensive instincts and an ability to perform risk analysis on the fly and under pressure.

Defense as a construct from the past is not the same interpretation for contemporary play, but that’s not a discussion for this article, it’s just to point out that traditional defense and concepts leading up to proper defensive play have changed – dramatically.

Aside from Morgan Rielly who is a distinct star – and one of the more mobile and interactive defenseman in the NHL – the Leafs blueline roster contains similar elements. Mobility, offensive creation ability, backed by skilled components and intelligence. Even the less dependable Travis Dermott, has elements of mobility that haven’t blossomed beyond a replacement level.

Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne tweeted an article he wrote, outlining defensive requirements for the Leafs blueline. Bourne argues that structurally, the Leafs are sound enough to limit chances – a point I tend to agree with – but singles out some specific items, including an extended look at Timothy Liljegren. Bourne ends with the notion that Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren aren’t three of the top six defenders for a Stanley Cup contender and the Leafs can use an upgrade.

Then there’s this perception.

Not really sure why anyone thinks the Leafs need more depth forwards or depth defencemen. Depth is not a problem. They need someone who can stop a few pucks. Other than that I don’t see the point of any trade that’s not for a top-tier player. — draglikepull (@draglikepull) March 15, 2022

I lean more towards this. Goaltending has been atrocious since December.

They need a goaltending upgrade, rather than defenseman, but I just don’t see any available figure – that is both cost effective and reliable. Teams will know they are coming and will price accordingly making acquisitions difficult. There can’t be any more Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek experiments and compensatory system structure to make up for any deficiencies. It’s playoffs or bust.

The Leafs need reliability and they need it immediately. Perhaps a tender like Craig Anderson in Buffalo fits the bill, as a UFA at the end of the season at a very cheap contract, but at 40 years old, does his fit the reliability requirement?

That leaves them with one workable option, a defenseman. Even with a healthy Muzzin, he’s been fragile in the past and is still a question mark until he returns full time and capable. Perhaps a defensive defenseman, or one outside the scope of the general manager and team philosophy of what makes a team ‘better’ is heading to Toronto. The example I lean to in this situation is former Leafs first round pick, Luke Schenn.

This reason is why I feel Dubas intimated that idea about obtaining a defenseman in the manner above, to motion this as a stop gap, to address the inadequate goaltending that may not be upgradeable internally or in the open market.

With some of the depth scoring at decreasing rates, the argument for a forward could be made, but I’m limiting the scope to what Dubas publicly said about a defenseman. For more about the Leafs offense, Jack Han goes into detail on the second line.

It was when John Tavares went down to injury last playoffs that Toronto struggled to get their offensive game revved consistently, and shackled with a woeful, hobbling power play firing 13%, scoring three goals in 23 chances.

Going into these playoffs, they’ll be going in with John Tavares (struggles and all), barring injury, and a functioning and effective power play. Those two factors are significant factors to overcome first round adversity should get average goaltending. They’ll have to score their way out of trouble with the hope of average or better goaltending.

NHL TRADE TARGETS

Based on the TSN Trade Bait list, I am going to separate available defensemen into two categories, those that become free agents at the end of the season, and those with one or more years left on their current contract.

This is the reason that despite the most recent Jakob Chychrun injury he’s still a worthy acquisition at the deadline. It actually seems like he isn’t as badly hurt as initially conceived, but the point stands. Locked in at $4.6 million for three more years provides the type of fixed cost for a player of his caliber teams should covet. Even if he doesn’t top out as a first pairing blueliner on another team, other than Arizona, his contract slots him into the middle of the pack very efficiently with an excellent supporting skillset.

INJURY UPDATE: Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun suffered a lower body injury on Saturday night versus the Boston Bruins. He will be out of the lineup 2-4 weeks. — Arizona Coyotes PR (@AZCoyotesPR) March 14, 2022

Think of the similarity to slotting in Justin Holl’s inexpensive contract, slotting him slightly above his best pairing in the bottom which allowed the Leafs to ice an affordable and capable defense.

Teams are going to make solid pitches for the Coyotes blueliner, but Toronto has $3.765 million in cap space available at the deadline according to CapFriendly. They’ll have to make some room to accommodate.

This below is the list of defensemen with contract years remaining from the TSN Trade Bait. The sort order is how they appear in rankings with other positions removed.

I’d guess that Jeff Petry is not a target and perhaps a low end defenseman like a seasoned Luke Schenn fits the description of the defensemen Dubas refers to. Damon Severson is likely more of a skillset that fits Toronto, and could fit into the fold but comes up over the available cap. He’s been recently scrutinized with some questionable defensive play that shows up on occasion and may have soured Leafs Nation somewhat.

PLAYER

Team

POS

AGE

CAP HIT

YEARS

Jakob Chychrun

Ari

LD

23

$4.6M

3

Damon Severson

NJ

RD

27

$4.2M

1

Michael Del Zotto

Ott

LD

31

$2M

1

Nils Lundkvist

NYR

RD

21

$925K

2

Luke Schenn

Van

RD

32

$850K

1

Jeff Petry

Mtl

RD

34

$6.25M

3

If the Leafs can’t land a Jakob from the desert, they may try their luck on a Jacob from the west coast. The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun indicated the Leafs interest in the Sharks blueliner Tuesday afternoon.

Players heading to free agency from the TSN Trade Bait are listed below, and Jacob Middleton is on it. They seem to have a need for a right defenseman but perhaps he can slip into that side.

This list is a bit of an older average age, by a 29 to 27 years old margin to the above list, but also a superior selection of immediate help without future obligation. The Leafs seemed to be linked to Ben Chiarot, but I’d bet that was more of a narrative than anything substantive. As we shall see, can we really expect Chiarot to fetch a first round pick in the open market?

PLAYER

Team

POS

AGE

CAP HIT

Ben Chiarot

Mtl

RD

30

$3.5M

John Klingberg

Dal

RD

29

$4.25M

Mark Giordano

Sea

LD

38

$6.75M

Colin Miller

Buf

RD

29

$3.875M

Justin Braun

Phi

RD

35

$1.8M

Hampus Lindholm

Ana

LD

28

$5.2M

Nick Leddy

Det

LD

30

$5.5M

Jacob Middleton

SJ

LD

26

$750K

Robert Hagg

Buf

LD

27

$1.6M

Mark Pysyk

Buf

RD

30

$900K

Calvin de Haan

Chi

LD

30

$4.55M

P.K. Subban

NJ

RD

32

$9M

Josh Brown

Ott

RD

28

$1.2M

We can measure the two list of players using goals above replacement (GAR) and wins above replacement (WAR). Data is provided courtesy of Evolving Hockey – an invaluable resource.

These stats encompass all states of on-ice play, and measure a player’s effectiveness using a replacement level player as the baseline. Replacement level players are defined as those that can step in when a starting player is not available. If GAR and WAR are the real world results, we can use their expected value to further refine their effectiveness.

Visually, this is how they are represented. The charts are Goals Above Replacement per 60 minutes – to normalize games played and time on ice. The horizontal axis measures expected GAR per 60, and the vertical access actual GAR per 60.

First up is the list of players with contract years left.

gar_contracts.png

gar_contracts.png

Here we see Severson with the highest expected GAR per 60, but hasn’t seen the same real value and Luke Schenn at the other spectrum, with little expected GAR, but showing real world GAR value.

Free agents are shown below.

gar_fas.png

gar_fas.png

It’s not surprising to see Timothy Liljegren in the upper right quadrant (he’s not available, but I wanted to illustrate the Leafs young blueliner among this set of peers – with a lot of expected GAR per 60, and excellent results – an offshoot of playing with talented offensive players, and exhibiting the same offensive characteristics Toronto looks for on their blueline.

Interesting to see Jacob Middleton in the same quadrant. When taking Liljegren out of frame, the chart looks a bit different.

gar_fas_middleton.png

gar_fas_middleton.png

Middleton seems to hit all the right spots for a type of player Toronto might stealthily look to acquire, Josh Manson was picked up recently by the Avalanche from the Anaheim Ducks, and Toronto could look at a Mark Pysyk or Justin Braun as cheaper alternatives.

If they really want to change the complexion of their blueline, they can airlift a Hampus Linholm or Mark Giordano, but that would require some cap gymnastics to hit the mat in a proper position.

The NHL trade deadline could very well bring in that that depth defenseman Toronto requires.