Leafs Evaluations : Defense – Part I
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The Toronto Maple Leafs had an extremely successful regular season, but fell below the expectations of some with a first round loss to the Boston Bruins. One of the primary tasks ahead for newly installed GM Kyle Dubas is to evaluate the players that currently make up the club and determine which should be retained and which Toronto should move on from.
We continue the evaluation of the Leafs with a look at their blueline:
Morgan Rielly – Rielly was given more latitude and more offensive responsibilities in his third season under Mike Babcock and nearly doubled his scoring total from 27 to 52 points last season and led Toronto in defensive scoring in the playoffs with five points.
The 24-year-old was given the point duties on the first power play unit and along with veteran Ron Hainsey made up the Leafs top pairing, getting the most ice time and in most instances matching against and the opposition’s top line.
Rielly rounded into a legitimate top two defenseman in his fifth season with the Leafs, with the speed, hockey IQ and top end offensive abilities and is improved enough in his own zone to be play 25 minutes a night, but will only grow more and have more of an impact if new GM Kyle Dubas can find him a defense partner with equal or greater skills.
Grade : A-
Ron Hainsey – The 37-year-old was signed to a two-year free agent deal last summer to provide experience and stability to the Leafs blueline and he accomplished that goal. Hainsey played on the top pairing alongside Rielly (which was not the expectation), but his more amazing feat was to play nearly the full two minutes in most Toronto penalty kills during the regular season and playoffs.
Babcock’s heavy reliance on Hainsey saw the veteran tail off slightly late in the season, but he was still solid and steady in the Boston series, with one assist in seven games and playing nearly double the ice time of any other Leafs defender on the PK.
Grade : B+
Nikita Zaitsev - Zaitsev struggled mightily with injuries and the dreaded sophomore jinx in the first year of a seven-year contract extension, dropping from 36 points as a rookie to 13 points in 60 games in his second season with the Leafs.
The 26-year-old suffered a broken foot in mid-December that kept him out for six weeks and an illness later in the year. His play was tentative at times and Zaitsev did not benefit from having the burden of being the responsible partner of a tandem with Jake Gardiner.
Grade – C+
Roman Polak – The 31-year-old veteran had trouble early in the season just six months after breaking his leg in the 2017 playoffs, but improved later in the season and was one of the few players on the Leafs that provided a physical deterrent and a willingness to hit, laying out some heavy checks and inflicting some pain on opposition forwards in front of Frederik Andersen.
In spite of his speed limitations, Polak saw his role with the absence of Zaitsev in the lineup, especially as a penalty killer. He also worked well as the experienced defense partner for rookie Travis Dermott late in the year and into the playoffs.
Grade – B
Defense – Part II on Wednesday
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