56 long days before the start of the Toronto Maple Leafs season opener, excitement is ramping up as news of potential roster configurations slowly break in the news and on social media. One such update came in the form of coach Babcock announcing that he would start the year with Ron Hainsey paired up with Morgan Reilly such news has already riled up some in Leafs Nation who had predicted Hainsey would start the year on the bottom pairing.
This decision baring any trade for another top 4 defenceman isn’t a prime choice from a fan perspective but there is some logic to this decision. This move would allow Morgan Reilly to play to his strengths, which is leading the fore-check up the ice leaving a reliable defenceman back to clear any defensive issues should play turn around the other way. Watching Reilly play more of a hybrid role last year while his partner Nikita Zaitsev learned the ropes meant Reilly lost some of his offensive chances and which in turn minimized opportunities for him to produce offensive pressure and scoring chances.
To Mike Babcock, possession is key so having Reilly dictating play and carrying the puck into the offensive zone, allowing for the forwards to setup instead of chasing the puck can only lead to more offensive chances and time in the offensive zone. Dictating the offensive side of the puck, also has another benefit, by not chasing the play the Maple Leafs can minimize the pressure on the defensive side of the puck which also reduces offensive chances against which in theory brings goals against down.
That would then leave Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev as a second pairing option for coach Babcock. Gardiner has all the skating and offensive flare of a Reilly, but at times Gariner is known to have lapses in his defensive zone coverage. Zaitsev has shown his ability to close gaps and play a very dependable defensive game to cover for these lapses in Gardiner’s game. Where Zaitsev could improve on from last season is his offensive game, with a year of experience under his belt and being used to the NHL game this should contribute to better offensive numbers in the upcoming season for Zaitsev.
The bottom two defensive pairings could see any two of Connor Carrick, Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen, and Andreas Borgman depending on the outcome of training camp and exhibition games. Martin Marincin is also an option if Babcock doesn’t see what he likes from the aforementioned four.
I wouldn’t expect to see this year’s first round draft pick Timothy Liljegren making the team right out of camp, but he may get some early looks in training camp and a couple of exhibition games just to see where his game is currently at. One year with Marlies at the very least is probable as the Maple Leafs take a slow approach in developing Liljegren along his transition to the NHL. Making sure Liljegren is not rushed if he is not ready is key to his future success for him and for the Maple Leafs.
The great thing about these defensive pairings is that nothing is set in stone. Trades and effectiveness of these options will dictate if they remain or changes will be needed. The Maple Leafs will need to improve this side of the puck, if they are to build on last season’s amazing success.
Part two of the Crystal Ball: Toronto Maple Leafs 2017-2018 Season blog series, We will look at potential areas of concern leading into a very exciting and hopeful season for this Maple Leafs franchise.