What will the Leafs Defensive Corps look like at season’s end?

Oct 30, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Roman Polak (46) is upended by New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic (3) during the first period at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Roman Polak (46) is upended by New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic (3) during the first period at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

It is not much of a stretch to suggest the Leafs defensive corps will undergo some changes in the months to come, the only real question is to what extent? What changes are the most urgent and what moves are inevitable?

I think we can safely say that Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev are keepers and deemed untouchable by team management, but what about the rest of the blue-line crew? Are there any other defencemen that can be envisioned as key components to an emerging Leafs team? Is Jake Gardiner a keeper as well, or is he going to be part of an as yet unrevealed trade package, as many hockey pundits have suggested?

The recent play of Connor Carrick has been encouraging and if we consider the development of his growing chemistry with Reilly, is he part of the Leafs future as well?

What I feel is an immediate change that should be made is found at the  bottom of the Leafs NHL level defense group, where Frankie Corrado is sitting in the press-box once again. This type of unusually long period of time as a healthy scratch is something that has never sat well with me.

In every instance that I can think of, any hockey player finding themselves in this unfortunate circumstance, always seems to be facing an uphill battle getting their careers back on track. I remember former Leaf John-Michael Liles going through this and how long it took for him to become a regular in the league again.

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Corrado was claimed off of waivers from Vancouver at the beginning of last season and also did a prolonged stint in the press-box upon his arrival in Toronto. As a defender who arguably is a 7th slot D-man or a 3rd pairing guy at best, some press-box time is to be expected, but when does not being in the lineup become too much and contrary to the player’s well being?

I would argue that in Corrado’s case it is reaching that point already. At his age, he needs to play to continue his development at the NHL level and for the Leafs to truly know what they have in him.

Neither the player or the organization are served by having a spectator occupy a roster spot and it is my hope that this situation is addressed soon. We need only look at the organizational depth chart below to see that the word “depth” is used somewhat loosely here but more importantly, it demonstrates why it is critical that Corrado is in game shape when and if he is needed.

Current Leafs Defensive Corps
Left Defense
Right Defense
Morgan RiellyNikita Zaitsev
Jake GardinerConnor Carrick
Matt HunwickRoman Polak
Martin MarincinFrankie Corrado
Leafs D on the Farm
Andrew NeilsenJustin Holl
Rinat ValievViktor Loov
Andrew CampbellNikolas Brouillard (ECHL)
Taylor Doherty (AHL)William Wren (AHL)

If the injury bug were to bite the Leafs defensive corps hard at some point this season, forcing them to seek help from the Marlies, NHL experience may factor in to who gets the call. Left shooting Marlies captain Andrew Campbell is the only defenceman not on the NHL team roster with appreciable NHL experience, having skated in 42 major league games.

After Campbell, Viktor Loov and Rinat Valiev, both of whom are also left shots, have a grand total of 14 games of NHL experience between them. It may well simply depend on how well they, or any of their blue-line compadres, are playing when the time comes.

Right shooting Justin Holl and left shooting Andrew Nielsen may be the next two players in line for NHL auditions, something that is likely to take place later in the year. Nielsen especially, has made a strong case for himself.

Leafs defensive corps
Oct 7, 2016; Hamilton, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Andrew Neilsen (58) during warmup of a preseason hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings at First Ontario Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Travis Dermott, yet another left shot, would be next up after them, but by now an issue that Leafs head coach Mike Babcock will surely dislike should be apparent. Of the top six defenders now skating with the Marlies, who represent the pool of players where emergency call ups would be drawn from, Holl alone shoots right.

As a matter of fact, it is much further down the depth chart where we find two right shooters in Taylor Doherty and William Wrenn, but both are on AHL contracts in an organization that has issued all of its 50 NHL level Standard Player Contracts. It could be argued that the Jared Cowen buy out debacle will free up an SPC one way or another when settled.

However, the arbitration ruling for this case is still a way off. Besides, if any defenceman in the system is going to have his minor league contract upgraded to an NHL contract, it should be Nikolas Brouillard.

If you doubt those words, watch an Orlando Solar Bears game and you will see how Brouillard outclasses every other blue-liner on the ice. He won’t be in the ECHL much longer.

Now let us get back to the question posed in the title of this article – what will the leafs defensive corps look like at season’s end?

I expect a trade to take place where some of the Leafs excess player assets are parlayed into positional needs. With those “positional needs” obviously being an upgrade of the Leafs defensive corps, which players represent the excess player assets? This is actually a fairly easy question to answer, as any left shooting forward could be considered as expendable.

It could well be that a number of small trades take place where the net gain will be an NHL caliber defenseman, a right shooting defence prospect and draft picks. In any event, we can assume that Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak will be moved at the trade deadline or part company with the Leafs at season’s end, when their contracts expire.

Next: The curious case of Benjamin Smith

Of the eight players currently making up the Leafs defensive corps, I expect Hunwick, Polak and Corrado to be replaced with more skilled defenders. . . what are your thoughts?