Toronto Maple Leafs Don't Need an Elite Defenseman to Win the Cup
A No. 1 d-man would surely help, but the Leafs are already a top contender in what's a wide-open field this season.
Illustratiion by Moya Garrison-Msingwana
One of the hardest parts of getting older is breaking patterns, especially ones that provide comfort, success, or both. "This is how it's always been done," they say, "so that's the way we will do it because that's the way we have to do it." Innovation's biggest enemy is routine.
Routine is what makes sports teams thrive and wither; it's hard to find the line between "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "hey we need to stay on the cutting edge of things." The patterns of hockey hold longer than most but the good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs—a team that has been on the cutting edge of both analytics and tanking—is one pattern that seemed a requirement for a championship may no longer be necessary.
The Leafs lack an elite, top-end, No. 1 defenseman, but they don't necessarily need one to win a Stanley Cup.
Consider the aftermath of the 2010 playoffs for the Philadelphia Flyers, a perfectly fine team that caught fire at the right time but lost with a Brian Boucher/Michael Leighton goaltending combo to a better, ascending Chicago Blackhawks team in the Final. The Flyers took all the wrong lessons from the experience and one year later detonated a team in order to overpay goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who was the answer to a question that had long since been asked and answered.
A franchise that had been running full speed after a No. 1 goaltender for decades finally ran off a cliff, unaware that you could win a championship without a dominant goaltender, like Antti Niemi or Jonathan Quick, if you have good enough players in front of him. The Flyers practically traded the Kings a Stanley Cup because they felt they had to have a certain thing to win because that certain thing was almost always needed to win in the past.
That's where the Leafs exist in this moment, although without the years of baggage and pressure to win now that the Flyers were feeling six years ago, so they won't be trading their Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to create room for... what, exactly? The first problem with solving the Leafs' No. 1 defenseman problem—where is this No. 1 defenseman coming from?
Unless you have quite possibly the dumbest GM on the planet willing to part with one of the five best defensemen on the planet for 70 cents on the dollar, the Leafs aren't getting their guy that way. Having someone of PK Subban's caliber dropped in your lap is a once in a generation trade and it's already happened. Unless Lou Lamoriello or Kyle Dubas can get David Poile to sign over Subban like two mob guys taking over a degenerate gambler's club to erase a debt, that window has closed.
Free agency? You don't get franchise-shifting defensemen there. You get Karl Alzner, Mike Green, Kevin Shattenkirk or Jason Demers, perfectly fine defensemen that cost way too much money. Nobody that fits the bill of a first pairing anchor that will shut down the opponent's best forwards while delivering 40-50 points a season.
So are the Leafs screwed? Are they forever doomed to fall just short of a Stanley Cup because they don't have Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith or Drew Doughty (at least not until his contract with the Kings expires in 2019). It's possible.
It's also possible that the concept of a No. 1 defenseman as a championship necessity is an outdated one, much the way the No. 1 goaltender doesn't matter like it did 15-20 years ago.
The Penguins won the 2017 Stanley Cup without Kris Letang, a prototype No. 1 defenseman. The six most frequently used defensemen by the Penguins during their run were Ian Cole, Ron Hainsey, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Trevor Daley. That's just insane. That's like winning the Oscar for Best Picture with the cast of Friends.
This year's Leafs team has rolled with a blue line of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Andreas Borgman, Connor Carrick, Nikita Zaitsev and, somehow, Hainsey. You can't tell me the Leafs' defense group is demonstrably worse than what the Penguins iced for two months last season. It's maybe a little worse, but the problem isn't a lack of a No. 1 defenseman—it's a lack of... good defensemen.
When you get to late October and decide Roman Polak is the answer to a problem, you have bigger issues than the lack of a No. 1 defenseman anyway.
The major difference between the Penguins and Leafs, obviously, is the quality of forwards and overall experience. God bless Patrick Marleau but him on the third line of the Leafs doesn't compare to Phil Kessel on the third line of the Penguins. Auston Matthews and William Nylander are delights, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin they are not.
It's important to not lose sight of the fact that this is supposed to be Year 3 of "pain" for the Leafs' rebuild, not the year they have to win a Stanley Cup or otherwise be painted as disappointments for all eternity. If two years ago someone told you the Leafs would miss the playoffs in 2016 and 2017 and lose in the first round in 2018, you'd be ecstatic with that as a fan. Crosby didn't get his Cup until Year 4 so sweating the lack of a No. 1 defenseman in Year 2 of the Matthews Era shouldn't even be a big deal.
And it especially shouldn't be a big deal when that No. 1 defenseman isn't a must-have anymore. The NHL is so wide-open right now that the Leafs were listed as 8/1 Stanley Cup favorites less than two weeks ago despite Vegas having full knowledge that the Leafs lack a No. 1 defenseman. Hell, the Edmonton Oilers were the fourth biggest favorite at 12/1 with Kris Russell flopping around the ice and Adam Larsson not being Taylor Hall.
The era of the Doughty-led Kings and Keith-led Blackhawks is over; there are about eight teams that can win a Cup this year, and the Leafs are among them. They may not be the favorite right now, even if Vegas views them that way, but to have a chance this quickly after the Leafs took a bulldozer to the previous regime's core is incredible.
The Leafs and their fans should treat this year as gravy; whatever you can get out of it this soon after a full teardown and rebuild, savor it. No matter what happens, don't pull a Flyers and trade Mitch Marner and someone else to create space to overpay for [looks over 2018 UFA d-man class] John Carlson (God, man) just because you think you need to fill a hole that may only exist in your mind, especially when filling that hole may not be as important as it was five years ago.
Do the Leafs need better defensemen? Sure. Everyone does. But this group is capable of winning a Cup in the next year or two with the group they already have. There's no sense to sweat filling a hole that may not ever be capable of being filled anyway.
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