Defensive Upgrades That the Leafs (Or Insert Your Playoff Bound Team) Can Make Now.

Defensive Upgrades That the Leafs (Or Insert Your Playoff Bound Team) Can Make Now.

Do the Maple Leafs need upgrades to their defense heading into the playoffs?  I think I heard that somewhere. I’ve also heard it about a few other teams. While there are some big names with potentially big price-tags attached, I thought I’d focus the lens on some under the radar names that could possibly be upgrades for teams trying to get stronger on the back-end for a cup push.
All statistics are as of date of publication

NHL: MAR 05 Wild at Predators
Brad Hunt: 31 years old
Left Handed Defender: Minnesota Wild
Height: 5’9 (175cm), Weight: 176 lbs (80kg)
Current Contract: Expires 2021 UFA, AAV: $700,000
Stats: 44 games played; 7 goals, 8 assists.  GameScore per 60min; all situations: 1.56
Brad Hunt has been around a while.  The 31 year old has 287 AHL regular season games and 164 NHL regular season games.  What’s relevant to note though is that until the 2017-2018 season Hunt only had a total of 33 games played between 3 teams, across 4 seasons.  In Vegas in 2018, and last season between Vegas and Minnesota, Hunt established himself as a reliable bottom pairing option, playing 45 and 44 games respectively.  Hunt has matched that total this season, playing in 44 contests for Minnesota. His usage is completely in a 3rd pairing role for Minnesota, averaging 15:20 per game, so far this season.  What makes that usage interesting though, is that Hunt averages a fair amount of power play time. In fact, of Hunt’s 15 points, so far this season, 8 have come on the power play and 3 of those were goals.  31 year old Brad Hunt has 1 less point than Matthew Dumba this season, in 6 less games played. What this player gives you is a reliable 3rd pairing/7th defender option who CAN fill in and QB your power play if you need him to.  His salary hit is a measly $700,000 against the cap this season and next. I cannot imagine Minnesota would put too high of a price tag on acquiring him either. Hunt might only be a fringe guy, but he has shown this season that he can play if called upon.

Joakim Ryan: 26 years old
Left Handed Defender: Los Angeles Kings
Height: 5’11(180cm), Weight: 185lbs(84kg)
Current Contract: Expires 2020 UFA, AAV 725,000
Stats: 28 games played; 1 goal, 2 assists.  GameScore per 60min; all situations: 0.94
Joakim Ryan might be my favorite player on this list.  His contract is cheap and it expires this season. He was a 7th round pick of San Jose in 2012.  It took him a while to catch on, and then just when it looked like he did, he fell out of favor with San Jose coach Peter Deboer.  He saw his usage drop, he saw his minutes drop and then at season’s end he was turned loose. LA picked him up and I don’t think even they were 100% sure what they’d get.  Through his first 12 games in LA, Ryan averaged 15:46 of ice time. Then something changed. Starting November 29th and through his next 15 games, he averaged 21:14 per game and saw his role and usage expand greatly.  And then he got hurt. Ryan has recently returned to the lineup and was very solid in his first game back against Tampa Bay. You are not getting a point generating player with Joakim Ryan. What you are getting, instead, is a steady, defensive defender who positions himself well and is cool under pressure.  So often he’ll make a simple poke check, or a quick read that allows him to negate defensive zone issues before they even develop. In my viewings he’s also seldom out of position in a way that leads to a goal against. With Drew Doughty out of the lineup against Tampa, Ryan slotted in, to the play the left side, paired with Alec Martinez.  He didn’t look out of place, playing hard minutes against some of the nastiest firepower in the league. A team that gets Ryan would certainly be thinking rental, but in the case of a team like Toronto(or other team seeking defensive upgrades), who could use some stability on their backend, Ryan could be a guy that is acquired at the deadline, with the intent to extend him if he works out well.  This is not the only player LA will have on this list, but if I were to go after one in particular, this would be the one.

Sean Walker: 25 years old
Right Handed Defender: Los Angeles Kings
Height: 5’11(180cm), Weight: 196lbs(88kg)
Current contract: Expires 2020 RFA, AAV $745,000
Stats: 51 games played; 4 goals, 15 assists.  GameScore per 60min; all situations: 2.00
Sean Walker is a puck moving defender that LA picked up, undrafted out of Bowling Green University.  He’s produced fairly steady point totals, for a defender, at every level he has played. The Kings have Walker averaging 19:06 per game.  He averages almost 2 shots on net per game, 16 of his 19 points are at even strength and his corsi is 56.6%. He’s actually, what I would consider, one of the bright spots for the Kings this season.  I just don’t know how tied in to keeping him around LA is going to be. They have a lot of young defensive talent potentially clamouring for a roster spot as early as training camp, so it’s possible, looking ahead to that, that LA would see the wisdom in moving Walker.  I think if they got the right offer for him, at this point in their season, they’d take it. His Restricted Free Agent status makes him an attractive target for a team looking for a right handed puck mover to add to their backend. He has seen usage in every on-ice situation and has had varying degrees of success.  The ONLY problem with him, that I have seen, is a propensity to turn the puck over, but he has the awareness and compete level to do his best to make up for those errors and try to get the puck back. The ability to sign him to a bridge deal of some kind for a few years at a good salary number could make him very attractive to a team like Toronto.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Carolina Hurricanes
Mark Borowiecki: 30 years old
Left Handed Defender: Ottawa Senators
Height: 6’2(188cm), Weight: 204lbs(93kg)
Current Contract: Expires 2020 UFA, AAV $1,200,000
Stats: 48 games played; 6 goals, 11 assists.  GameScore per 60min; all situations: 0.63
I am a Mark Borowiecki fan boy.  I’m not even going to try to hide it.  Mark Borowiecki has 14 total goals in his 370 game NHL career and 6 of them are this season.  He’s one of the great warriors in the NHL today. If you look at a picture of Mark Borowiecki’s smile, you can see what his game is about.  In a game against the New Jersey Devils this season, Borowiecki took a spear to the face from Blake Coleman that required him to get stitches.  I think he missed maybe 1 shift before he was back out on the ice with his face stitched up. On that shift, he was boarded by Miles Wood (also didn’t get called) opening the wound on his face up again.  He went for stitches, again, came back out and finished the game. And then he played again the next night. He’s a living embodiment of toughness and integrity and a throwback to days gone by. That makes him EXACTLY the type of player you want in a playoff series.  You bring in Borowiecki to clear out your crease on the PK, and punish guys for entering your zone. He’s everybody on his own team’s favorite guy and everybody on the opposing team’s least favorite. When people scream “OLD TIME HOCKEY” it’s Mark Borowiecki that they’re talking about.  I know I have seen Leafs fans begging for toughness on twitter. You’ve seen Ottawa play. You know what Mark Borowiecki is all about.

Dylan Demelo: 26 years old
Right Handed Defender: Ottawa Senators
Height: 6’0(183cm), Weight: 191lbs(87kg)
Current Contract: Expires 2020 UFA, AAV $900,000
Stats: 40 games played; 0 goals, 8 assists.  GameScore per 60min; all situations: 0.95
Dylan Demelo averages 20:06 of ice time this season for Ottawa.  Because Ottawa has Thomas Chabot and DJ Smith doesn’t seem to like using his third pairing much, that actually puts DeMelo 4th in ice time, among Senators defenders, behind; Chabot, Zaitsev and Hainsey.  He goes through excessive scoring droughts that cannot be explained because he has a decent shot and he hits the net on about 51% of shot attempts. He skates with pace, he’s capable with the puck, and he just does everything you want a middle to bottom pairing defender to do.  If I’m honest, I cannot understand why Ottawa hasn’t gotten an extension done for him. Ottawa has a pile of expiring contracts and looks to be a mover and shaker at the trade deadline. If a team can sneak in there and grab DeMelo for the right price while the GM is moving other assets, it would be an excellent move and I would certainly consider his time after the deadline as an audition for an extension.

Connor Carrick: 25 years old
Right Handed Defender: New Jersey Devils
Height: 5’11(180cm), Weight: 192lbs(87kg)
Current Contract: Expires 2021 UFA, AAV $1,500,000
Stats: 11 games played; 0 goals, 3 assists.  GameScore per 60min; all situations: 0.22
The New Jersey Devils seem like they haven’t quite figured out what to do with Carrick.  He missed a ton of time early in the season after a puck hit his finger in practice and basically imploded the thing.  It was reported (By Corey Masisak on Twitter) that, had he not been an athlete, they would have amputated it. It was bad. So after missing about 2 months of the season he came back and his usage (when the Devils let him play) has been kind of all over the place.  Some games they give him 18 minutes and some it’s as low as 13. His first game back they gave him 5. It’s just been too small of a sample size this season to really draw any conclusions, so you’re left looking at his body of work from the past. His past as a member of the Leafs organization is a big part of why he’s on this list.  He played his way out of favor under Babcock and the Leaf’s traded him in favor of keeping Ozhiganov in the lineup. I’m sure that move had nothing to do with the fact that Igor was 6’2 and Connor is 5’11. I just wonder if Sheldon Keefe would have an interest in acquiring a player who had so much success for him in the 2016 AHL playoffs.  Dallas liked him enough to trade the Leafs a pick for him instead of letting somebody else claim him off waivers. The Devils liked him enough after a 20 game audition last season to give him a 2 year contract.

Matt Roy: 24 years old
Right Handed Defender: Los Angeles Kings
Height: 6’1(185cm), Weight: 200lbs(90kg)
Current Contract: Expires 2021 RFA, AAV $700,000
Stats: 51 games played; 4 goals, 10 assists.  GameScore per 60min; all situations: 1.84
We’re back to the Kings.  I believe that either Matt Roy or Sean Walker is being traded at this trade deadline.  I’ve seen Roy used with Ben Hutton a bit and that seemed like LA’s 2nd pairing as far as their usage.  Matt Roy does not see the power play time that Sean Walker does, but his PK usage is similar. On paper Roy and Walker are VERY similar hockey players.  Roy’s game is a bit more on the physical side and he’s a bit better at protecting the puck, but he’s not as offensively inclined as Walker. Roy has size, an extra year at a lower cap hit, and is 2 years younger.  In theory he’s the more desirable player as far as assets go. But Walker’s additional offense and power play usage might make him the player LA is more interested in keeping. If that’s the case, acquiring Matt Roy is a good move for any GM out there looking to add defensive depth, especially Toronto.  However, he’s not the big ticket item that Alec Martinez is. That means that he might be able to be had for a bargain.

pet nemeth
Patrick Nemeth: 27 years old
Left Handed Defender: Detroit Red Wings
Height: 6’3(191cm), Weight: 228lbs(103kg)
Current Contract: Expires 2021 UFA, AAV $3,000,000
Stats: 45 games played; 1 goal, 7 assists.  GameScore per 60min; all situations: 0.64
You almost have to ignore Nemeth’s stats.  Detroit is such a gongshow that it’s hard for any of his stats or analytics to really matter.  Nemeth had a really difficult time catching on in Dallas before arriving in Colorado in the fall of 2017.  At 25 years old, in Colorado he established that he could be an NHL regular, chipping in occasional offense, but mainly being a big, strong, stable defensive zone presence.  The acquisition of Ian Cole in 2018 made Nemeth a bit redundant, but he was able to maintain himself as a regular 3rd pairing guy who was reliable in his own end. In Detroit he’s having to play well outside his capabilities.  With the long term injury to Danny Dekayser, Nemeth has had to step into playing top pairing minutes on the worst team in the league. He’s averaging nearly 22 minutes of ice time per game, playing alongside 22 year old, Filip Hronek.  I’m not sure that this was the role Nemeth envisioned for himself when Detroit signed him. Nemeth will turn 28 on February 8th and is currently drastically underpaid for the workload he’s performing. A team that could turn Nemeth into a 2nd pairing, or even 3rd pairing player would find that he’s a great fit alongside a more offensively minded defender.  He’s a bit of a late bloomer but he’s a much better hockey player that he seems; playing in Detroit right now. Could the Leaf’s make his $3 million caphit work? I’m not 100% sure, but it could really be worth a try for them. Even teams in sell mode like the New Jersey Devils should be giving Nemeth a look. Just somebody, get this poor guy out of Detroit.

All salary data obtained from: CapFriendly
GameScore data and stats obtained from: Corsica Hockey
(Top Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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