The Stanley Cup playoffs are still going, but the Leafs season is over. That means that moves will be happening very soon. Since the beginning of the season, it was blatantly obvious that the Leafs’ defensive corps was not top-notch. But is it really that bad?
Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak were despised by Leafs Nation, but Matt Hunwick was great in the playoffs and Roman Polak was an amazing penalty killer and shot blocker.
Gardiner and Rielly got a lot of flack for their defensive mistakes, but they lead the team in time on ice and were tasked with the toughest matchups. Gardiner played 21:32 minutes a game and Rielly played 22:10 minutes a game. If you play that much on a consistent basis, you’re going to make mistakes. The fact that their mistakes are so enhanced upon is because they rarely make them and when they do, it surprises everyone. Also, Gardiner is 26 years old and Morgan Rielly is 22. They still have plenty of room to grow and get better.
Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick both played in their first full NHL season (Carrick played 67 games which is still a lot.) and did a great job. Zaitsev was second on the team in average time on ice with 22:01 minutes a game and second on the team for points by a defenceman with 36. For your first season in the NHL and in North America, that is extremely impressive. Zaitsev showed this season that he has a huge offensive potential and I guarantee that – barring injury – he will get more than 36 points. next season. Maybe 8 goals and 40 assists. (48 points) Carrick hit other players like a madman. He is only 5 foot eight, but he delivered huge hit after huge hit. In fact, I had no idea that Carrick was shorter than Marner until after I did some research for this post. He played a huge chunk of the regular season and was really dependable. You could always count on him to get back in time and that is what Mike Babcock loves. And you just know that his offensive numbers are going to climb year after year. He’s shown signs of his play-making ability. Nest year he will be more confident and that will really help him develop his game.
Looking up and down this defensive corps, I don’t see much of an issue. They are all pretty dependable players. But, Polak and Hunwick are UFAs this summer and Zaitsev is an RFA. A resigning of Polak and Hunwick seems really unlikely so maybe the Leafs will look at the free agent market to continue their quest for defensive supremacy.
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