Perhaps you’ve got something in your home that cracked or broke entirely, but you really didn’t want to fix it, likely because it was cost prohibitive. You intend to eventually do something more permanent, but for now it’s rigged up with popsicle sticks and electrical tape and you’ve reached some sort of solution that made you say “good enough” and move along, hoping it surprises you and functions beyond reasonable expectations.
Well, that’s the status of the Leafs’ D-corps right now, which for the foreseeable future will feature some combination of William Lagesson, Simon Benoit, and Conor Timmins. GM Brad Treliving may at some point spackle over a drywall hole with some Max Lajoie, or fill a driveway pothole with Mikko Kokkonen, but unless you pay the exorbitant price of a proper fix – which is tough to do on an NHL salary cap budget – you can only operate with the supplies you’ve got.
Popsicle sticks and electrical tape are useful in their own right. But in the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs trying to win a Stanley Cup, they need some more permanent solutions, ASAP.
In pro hockey, short term fill-in opportunities aren’t such a bad thing and can often inject your group with some life. As someone who was called up and sent down enough in the minors to have seen it happen regularly, I know those first few games in an elevated role for a call-up might be some of the best minutes a team gets in that particular roster hole all season. Players become the best version of themselves.
As a player you’re laser-focused on your role, you’ve got the adrenaline of knowing a big opportunity is in front of you, and so your game is all stops and starts, positional diligence and heavy on the stick each and every shift.
Sometimes, a player will play so well in those opportunities the coach thinks he’s found a fit and will extend the tryout. In Toronto, we saw Pontus Holmberg go through this exact scenario during the 2022-23 season and he eventually played nearly 40 games as an effective contributor … before slowly fading into the sunset. On a team with a need at centre this year, Holmberg can’t crack the lineup despite how good he looked in those early games.
Running on a speeding treadmill is possible for a bit, but only great runners can sustain that pace.
Not everyone who’s in the minors or struggling to find a fit is there because they haven’t yet found the opportunity. Some of them are just not good enough to help a Cup contender in the world’s best hockey league.
Eventually the adrenaline wears thin for these temporary solutions, and the more regular reps in the higher league slowly eats away at the obsessive focus and effort that saw them initially keep their head above water.
I go through all this because, honestly, the Leafs’ defence corps has not been terrible this season. It hasn’t been great, mind you, but it hasn’t been outright terrible either. The fill-in names I mentioned have been solid. The team’s breakout rates are on the right side of league average (they actually pass it out of the zone quite well, statistically), and they spend a couple more seconds per game in the offensive zone than the defensive zone.
Further to that, the names “Lagesson,” and “Timmins” and “Benoit” have all played 70 or more NHL games, so they’re not exactly the type of quick call-up guys I’m talking about. But they’re not exactly load-bearing pillars either, are they?
If Treliving doesn’t get the Leafs more permanent solutions soon, and they continue to ask these guys to log meaningful NHL minutes, the whole house could come tumbling down. Treliving has very recently said a few things that stand out.
One was prior to Mark Giordano’s injury, which would concern me:
“We would like to help ourselves.”
Again, they don’t have the true talent on defence to do that. But, Treliving also said this, which implies he’s aware of what they’ve been asking from their bottom few defenders:
“You probably have people playing high and more minutes than you want, and they are hanging in there.”
That’s how I’d describe it too. Hanging in there.
As of now the Leafs are 11th in limiting possession time against, thanks in part to those decent breakout rates I mentioned. But once they’re in their own end they’re 23rd in allowing shots from the slot, 27th in slot shots that come off the rush, 20th in slot shots off the forecheck against, and 27th in “D-zone denials.”
The temporary solutions are groaning under the pressure of the increased workload, and these numbers were built when Toronto had at least one or both of Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren in the lineup, who each have logged about 18 minutes per game when they’ve been in.
There’s no doubt about two things for me: One, is that the Leafs are aware of this, and are actively shopping to repair their issues. The names you’ve seen come up over the past couple days include Calgary’s guys – Nikita Zadorov, Noah Hanifin, and Chris Tanev – but Matt Larkin of Daily Faceoff lists other depth guys like Andrew Peeke (Columbus), Alexandre Carrier (Nashville), Will Borgen (Seattle), Mario Ferraro (San Jose), and even Travis Sanheim (Philadelphia). Names like Sean Walker (Philadelphia), Ilya Lyubushkin (Anaheim) and Matt Dumba (Arizona) are out there too. My point is, The Defenceman Store does sell some of the parts the Leafs need.
The other thing I’m sure of is that the Leafs have other problems to address that could help insulate these temporary issues while they shop for the best deal available. The biggest one to me is that they can’t forecheck a lick. SportLogiq has a variety of stats for that, but I like this simple one: on forechecks that stop their opponent from reaching the neutral zone, the Leafs rank 25th in the NHL. They can’t play more offence and avoid playing defence if they never get the puck back, and right now they simply can’t stop their opponents from breaking out. That’s mostly effort and structure, and is fixable.
In the end, none of this is news about the Leafs’ needs, particularly not that their defence needs work. But what I think is news is that the team’s “success” this far along in the season looks like smoke and mirrors when you dig into the underlying numbers, which have been built as their temporary guys have played well. The Leafs need to shore things up immediately before the results catch the lagging process.
Benoit, Lagesson, Timmins, and Lajoie aren’t likely to all continue their good play as the opportunities they’ve been given are now looking more like secure jobs. With that, and the loss of Giordano, Toronto’s defensive problems are poised to get worse, not better.
Treliving needs to make that first big purchase, and allow the Leafs to start feeling more confident about the foundation they’re built on.