Toronto Maple Leafs: 2017-18 Preview: Looking at the defence

TORONTO,ON - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin
TORONTO,ON - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin /
1 of 5
Toronto Maple Leafs
TORONTO,ON – APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin /

Inching closer and closer to puck drop, it is time for another season for the Toronto Maple Leafs as we preview the team’s blueline .

Out of the main headlines surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, most of them were about anything other than the defence, and for good reason. The three super-rookies were arriving in the NHL, and new acquisition Frederik Andersen would be the new starting goaltender for the team.

It was easy to overlook the Toronto defence, who, with the exception of Nikita Zaitsev, looked the exact same as the year prior.

This year, however, the hype has settled (a bit) and the questions are flying. Who will be on the Leafs third pairing come opening night? Can Morgan Rielly bounce back from a rough 2016-17? And will Roman Polak be a part of the team going forward?

We will try and answer all of these questions as we go through the defence for the Leafs in our 2017-18 season preview.

TORONTO,ON – APRIL 23: Jake Gardiner
TORONTO,ON – APRIL 23: Jake Gardiner /

First Pairing: Jake Gardiner – Nikita Zaitsev

This is a pairing that had a heap of success down the stretch last year and into the playoffs.

Although Zaitsev did play the majority of the season with Morgan Rielly, he found the most success alongside Gardiner.

The 25-year-old finished with 36 points on the year and proved that he could be a reliable two-way defender for the Leafs moving forward.

The pairing had only a few days to get in sync with each other after Zaitsev missed the last few games of the season with an upper-body injury.

With a full preseason and minutes together every night, this pairing should provide solid results.

Gardiner is without a doubt the best skater on the Leafs backend. He has been toying with teams in the preseason by using his edge work and elusiveness to effectively break the puck into the offensive zone.

More from Tip of the Tower

His 43 points last year was tops amongst Leafs defenceman and seventh best on the team.

This is a big year for both men; Zaitsev is coming off signing a seven-year, $31.5M extension in the offseason. The Leafs have put their faith into the Russian and will be looking for him to up his production from last year, where he only managed four goals.

Gardiner is looking to cement himself as the Leafs best defenceman. He is known for having some nights where he is one of the best players on the ice, and then other nights where he struggles. 2017-18 looks like it will be the best season of his career, and if the consistency comes around, he will be the Leafs number one defenceman.

Both men will be leaned on heavily to play against the top competition in the league for a Leafs squad that hopes to contend for a top spot in the Atlantic this year. They are a dual threat on offence and defence and both possess good skating ability. It will be interesting to see what they can accomplish once the puck drops.