The Toronto Maple Leafs entered this off-season knowing full well what area they needed to address most urgently: their defense. That includes their goaltending, first and foremost, and it’s still quite possible Leafs GM Kyle Dubas buys out the final two years of veteran Petr Mrazek’s contract, opening up both spots for either incumbent Jack Campbell to return, or to bring in a new face – say, St. Louis Blues current backup Ville Husso – and have an entirely new netminding mix for the 2022-23 campaign.
However, equally crucial to Toronto’s Stanley Cup aspirations will be the choices Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe make about the Leafs’ defense corps. And the good news on that front is that they have all sorts of options on the back end.
Thanks in no small part to veteran Mark Giordano’s selfless choice to take a massive hometown salary discount, the Buds have an above-average top-four ground of blueliners. But let’s examine this area a little more closely: We know top-pairing cornerstone Morgan Rielly will be back, at the relatively cheap cost of $7.5 million per season. We know quiet, but extremely effective veteran T.J. Brodie isn’t going anywhere, either. And Giordano will be an important part of their ‘D’ group, whether he’s used on the second or third pairing.
But after that, things aren’t quite so clear. Hard-nosed veteran Jake Muzzin has lost a step and has encountered health challenges, but his salary ($5.25 million) next year and his injury concerns will make him harder to move. Meanwhile, D-man Justin Holl is coming off a sub-par year, but his cheap salary of $2-million will make him a more attractive trade target for some teams. I’ve said it before, but I think Holl has played his last game as a Leaf. He’s a luxury the cap-strapped Leafs can’t afford any longer.
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That brings us to the two young Swedish defensemen, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. The former had a solid-enough first full NHL season, with 18 assists and 23 points playing on the third pair, often with Giordano; the latter missed 31 games due to injury, but Sandin posted 11 assists and 16 points in 51 games. There isn’t room enough for both of them to play top-six minutes, and Liljegren is a right-shot blueliner, which gives him an advantage in a defense corps that is overflowing with left-shot players (including Rielly, Brodie, Muzzin and Giordano). Sandin appears to be more expendable for that reason, but sometimes, situations present themselves that open up a spot for someone who may not appear to have one at the moment.
For instance, the Leafs will need depth on ‘D’ if someone gets hurt. Assuming Holl is traded, that would give Sandin or Liljegren the chance to step in and assert themselves as worthy of more playing time. And the best part – both Sandin and Liljegren are restricted free agents, which means Dubas holds the hammer in contract negotiations. Every dollar saved will be crucial for Dubas to hang onto and make in-season changes as necessary, so signing Liljegren and Sandin to high-value deals is something Toronto needs to happen.
So, although Toronto’s defense unit seems crowded at the moment, that could change in an instant. The Leafs are stacked at center as well, so Dubas’ targets will be goaltenders and wingers. It won’t be easy for the Buds to improve on their stellar regular season, but don’t kid yourself – the Leafs will face a constant challenge to be consistent through 82 games and assure themselves of home-ice advantage in next spring’s post-season.
The defense corps particulars may not shake out until training camp ends, but that’s OK. You want to have your players make you make hard choices. And that’s good news for Leafs fans. Whoever is their starting goalie is assured to have a competitive group of blueliners in front of them, and that’s what Toronto has.
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