Toronto Maple Leafs: Will the Defence Get Older Under Mike Babcock?


Toronto Maple Leafs: Will the Defence Get Older Under Mike Babcock?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs success rate for making the playoffs in the past decade stands at exactly one, and that was in a lockout shortened 48 game season. Who knows, if there had been 82 games that season, the Leafs might have had their seemingly annual collapse, and made it 0-for-10.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings are on a 24 year streak of qualifying for the playoffs. The past 10 years have been under the leadership of Mike Babcock.

I know it is no secret the Wings have had a better cast of characters than the Leafs over that period. However, you would think with roster changes, injuries and the law of averages, the Wings would have missed the playoffs once in a while.

Jan 2, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) in the first period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. The Minnesota Wild win 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Point of fact, during that time the Wings have been one of the best defensive teams in the league. The Leafs, one of the worst. While defence involves both the defencemen and forwards, it is the players who play “defence” whose main job it is to limit the other team’s scoring chances.

Where have the two teams differed in their approach to the position in the past decade? It can be summed up in one word – experience.

While I didn’t pour over stats*, I did check out some and I discovered something interesting. Taking three sample seasons – 2006, 2010 and 2015 – and calculating the average age of their complete defensive roster, the Wings “D” in those three seasons was just over 30.

The average age of the Leafs “D”? Just over 25. The reason I picked the three years above, was because I figured four-to-five years was a big enough gap for a team to have significant changes in their roster.

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I wouldn’t think there would be much fluctuation in the years between. So, basically for those 10 years the Wings defencemen have been – on average – five years older than the Leafs.

While age and experience can’t be counted as the only reason the teams are so vastly different, it makes sense that it plays a big factor. Defence is the hardest job to learn in the NHL.

It takes longer for players to develop in that position – I have read that it can be anywhere from 200 to 350 games. I would think older, more experienced players would be smarter in how they play the position, and less prone to make mistakes and take high risk chances.

I find it interesting that Dion Phaneuf, one of the most vilified players on the Leafs roster, was coveted by the Red Wings at the trade deadline. Now, he appears to have a second life under Babcock.

I also wonder if that is one of the reasons why they are considering bringing Cody Franson back. While he has been prone to making costly errors in the past, at 28 years old he is just coming into that age where Babcock may feel he will play a smarter, less risky game.

Overall, while the Leaf’s youth movement seems to be in full swing, can we expect to see the average age of their defence climb a little? It will be interesting to see what happens during the next couple of months.

* I want to state that most of this article is based on anecdotal evidence. I didn’t spend hours scouring through databases and checking statistics. My brain just went into this direction after reading what others have written. If you think I’m wrong, let me have it.