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Leafs final report card - Part II - Defense

May 20, 2019, 12:11 PM ET [214 Comments]
Mike Augello
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The Toronto Maple Leafs early exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins obscured a successful regular season, as the club reached the 100-point plateau for the second straight year.

The Leafs failed to advance in the postseason in spite of getting career-best performances from center John Tavares, wingers Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Zach Hyman, and defenseman Morgan Rielly. This will likely lead GM Kyle Dubas to make roster changes to improve his club to get past the first round for the first time since 2004.

Here is the second installment of the final report card of the Leafs for the 2018-19 season:

Defense - Part I

Morgan Rielly

Rielly was clearly the best defenseman on the Leafs entering last season, but emerged as one of the top blueliners in the NHL, setting career-highs in goals(20), assists(52) and points(72) and coming close to earning a Norris Trophy nomination.

The 25-year-old averaged over 23 minutes on the top pairing and was on the ice in most important situations, including quarterbacking the top power play unit and matching up against the opposition’s top line, and his responsibilities increased in the playoffs, where he averaged over four minutes more than any other player and scored five points in the seven-game loss to the Bruins.

Final Grade: A+

Ron Hainsey

Hainsey has been partnered with Rielly for his two seasons with the Leafs, and while at first it was thought that the younger blueliner was the beneficiary of his experience and stay-at-home defensive nature, last season the tables switched and the veteran benefited from Rielly becoming a legitimate top pairing defender and offensive contributor.

The 38-year-old led the club in average shifts per game (26.9) and plus/minus (+30), and also logged heavy minutes on the Leafs penalty kill, which is an indicator of the high level of trust Mike
Babcock has in the 16-year NHL veteran. His mobility did decrease noticeably as the season progressed and if he is re-signed this summer, he would much better suited for a bottom pairing role.

Final Grade: B-

Nikita Zaitsev

Zaitsev has not lived up to the long-term contract he signed two years ago, which is the reason why he has been a central figure in the criticism of the Leafs blueline, but the 27-year-old was able to stay healthy (81 games) after struggling with injuries in his sophomore NHL campaign.

The 27-year-old had 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists) last season, which is a far cry from his offensive numbers as a rookie, but it is apparent that he has been asked to play a more defensive role killing penalties and blocking shots, at the cost of other aspects of his game.

Final Grade: B

Defense - Part II later this week


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