Toronto Maple Leafs: Let the defence prove themselves

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 2: Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on April 2, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Sabres 5-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Morgan Rielly
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 2: Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on April 2, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Sabres 5-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Morgan Rielly /

The defence has been highlighted as a potential area of weakness for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the current core should be given a chance to prove themselves before looking at making any more additions.

With the summer addition of star centre John Tavares, the Toronto Maple Leafs currently boast one of the most enticing offences in the NHL, but have often had their defence commented on for their shortcomings.

While this may well be the case, the team do have some solid players who should be allowed to prove they can be a strong core – supporting a high-flying offence moving forward.

The Big Names

Morgan Rielly is the team’s top defenceman and some have questioned whether or not he is a true top-pairing player, despite never doing anything to truly warrant such concerns.

He has been a positive Corsi player over the past two seasons, with 50.4% in 2016-17 and 51.6% in 2017-18.

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Rielly also finally broke the 50-point mark in the Leafs’ most recent campaign, with 46 assists and six goals in 76 regular season games, with his HERO Chart rating him as having a 77% top-pairing primary point probability.

His offensive productivity is sure to be welcomed in the new high-powered offence at Mike Babcock’s disposal next season.

And Rielly, who is still a potential candidate for the team’s captaincy, despite Tavares and Auston Matthews being the favourites, will prove his worth to the team.

Jake Gardiner is another player who has been under fire from Leafs fans, after a poor showing in Game 7 of last season’s first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins.

But throughout a 82-game season, Gardiner has been one of the better performers along the blueline and matched Rielly’s 52-point season.

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Gardiner’s possession stats have also been very positive, with the American left-hander averaging 50.8% over his career, with 54.4%, 52.6% and 50.7% respectively over the past three seasons.

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The 27-year-old is now in a contract year where he is likely to be paid in the region of $6 million, and it could be his last with the Leafs.

Gardiner has been one of the more consistent Leafs defencemen in recent years and should continue this trend next season.

Nikita Zaitsev is also a player who should be making improvements next season, with that topic having already been discussed previously by Tip of the Tower.

One area that Zaitsev will need to improve is his possession stats, having a negative Corsi during his first two seasons in the NHL.

If Zaitsev is given more responsibility, he could work on his defensive game and may well improve in his third season.

The Rest

Ron Hainsey should continue to provide veteran experience on the blueline, but his time on the ice should be reduced greatly in order to keep him fresh throughout the season.

As last season wore on, it was obvious that Hainsey had been over-used by Babcock and his performances dropped at arguably the most important time for the Leafs.

He still has much to offer at 37 years old and can hold down the fort for his final season, after which he’ll likely be allowed to walk.

Travis Dermott is the most exciting defensive player for the Leafs, as he has not played many games in the NHL and could solidify his role with the team next season.

Dermott was a smart pick in the second round of the 2015 draft and his development with the Marlies has been excellent to see, with Connor McDavid‘s former teammate looking to have a bright future in the league.

In just 37 regular season games in 2017-18, Dermott had a 55% Corsi rating – very high for a rookie defenceman.

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If given the right partner on the third-pairing, Dermott could make the leap next season and continue to develop into a Top-Four potential defenceman.

Who plays alongside Dermott is somewhat of a mystery, with Connor Carrick or Martin Marincin considered to be the frontrunners for the role.

Both players could be given more freedom next season, thanks to Kyle Dubas now being the general manager, and could prove they deserve to be a part of the Leafs’ defensive core.

Adding a player via a trade to improve the blueline could be costly for the Leafs, with the team needing to secure Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner this year and next.

Keeping faith in the defensive core the team currently has could pay dividends for Babcock and the team, with their top three players having plenty of positive attributes they can work on to improve.

The bottom end of the defence also has a fairly bright future, with Dermott a particularly exciting prospect.

Next: Andreas Johnsson discussed multi-year deal with Leafs

What do you think Leafs Nation? Should the Toronto Maple Leafs trade for another defenceman, or let their current core prove they can do it before making such a decision? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!