Toronto Maple Leafs: Life Without Right-Handed Defensive Depth

The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t fail at the deadline, but they could have done more.

The Toronto Maple Leafs needed a right-handed defenseman. Unfortunately, the front office couldn’t deliver one. Instead, they watched other NHL teams add right-handed defensemen. It just seems like there was a lot of hostility towards making a small move to upgrade the right side.

My guess is that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas was a bit fearful of another trade based on other teams who experimented with adding right-handed defensemen with upside via trade. Perhaps, Dubas was worried that he’d make a trade similar to one that the Edmonton Oilers made.

Edmonton Oilers

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Earlier this season, former Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli was quite active in acquiring right-handed defensemen. He made trades and brought in right-handed defensemen including Chris Wideman and Alex Petrovic. Both defensemen have shown to have a lot of upside potential and perhaps that’s why Chiarelli made the moves.

Unfortunately for Oilers Nation, neither Petrovic nor Wideman proved to be a good fit in Edmonton.

Per the visual below (from CJ Turtoro), Petrovic and Wideman showed throughout their play this season that they were effective in shot contributions and entry defense. But, they neither are solid defensemen when you hone in on entry possession and exit possession. Neither defenseman has shown to be reliable at moving the puck from zone to zone. The Oilers truly needed a right-handed defenseman that was capable of moving from zone to zone with the puck. They needed a Travis Dermott or Nick Jensen. Instead, they didn’t get that.

visual from CJ Turtoro, stats from Corey Sznajder

Jake Muzzin

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Instead of hunting for a right-handed defenseman with upside, the Toronto Maple Leafs went hunting for a proven top four defenseman.

A few weeks prior to the deadline, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas pulled the trigger and added defenseman Jake Muzzin in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings. Muzzin has been a great addition to the Maple Leafs blue-line. In his short stint in Toronto, he’s shown that he can be physical when needed and a sniper at the point. But, Leafs fans have been debating whether it was the right move.

My assumption is that Dubas acquired Muzzin with the intention of him playing top line minutes alongside Morgan Rielly. While it makes sense, the idea of having two left-handed defensemen on one line doesn’t seem to resonate with Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. Babcock is an old school hockey coach. He is a coach that sees the value of having left-handed defensemen playing on the left and right-handed defensemen playing on the right.  Initially, Babcock tried having Muzzin play alongside Rielly, but he clearly didn’t love having a defenseman play on their wrong side.

Struggling With Zaitsev

Unfortunately, since the deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been dealing with two painful injuries to their defensive unit. Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner are both out of the lineup. This means that Babcock had to re-shuffle his defensive pairings. So, he’s placed Muzzin alongside Nikita Zaitsev. Sadly for Leafs fans, this hasn’t worked out well. Per the tweet below from Mike Stephens, co-expert at Editor In Leaf, Muzzin has shown to be at his best when he isn’t playing alongside Zaitsev.

If Dubas added a solid right-handed defenseman at the deadline, Babcock could’ve potentially rolled out that defenseman alongside Muzzin and there wouldn’t be any issues. Instead, there are issues and the Leafs defensive core is struggling.

Nick Jensen

If I were in Dubas’ shoes, I would have still made a move for a right-handed defenseman at the deadline, regardless of some of the trades that had gone awry. Sure, not every trade will work out, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. Before I go on, I just want to explain that I’m a fan of Dubas and I’m not trying to belittle his efforts. I just would have made a move for some additional defensive depth. It’s always a good thing to have additional defensive depth and a defenseman like Nick Jensen of the Washington Capitals would have been a great fit in Toronto.

Prior to the deadline, the Capitals acquired Jensen in a trade with the Detroit Red Wings. The Capitals dealt Madison Bowey and a second round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft for Jensen and a fifth round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The Capitals noticed how Jensen is able to control the game quite well in every zone. He’s a solid puck mover and isn’t afraid of quarterbacking the offense when needed.

In the video below from Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_), you can see Jensen truly showing off his remarkable puck-handling, speed and offensive awareness. Just imagine if Babcock had Jensen to fall back on when injuries came up. Perhaps, the Leafs defensive core wouldn’t look as bad and wouldn’t lose against teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Ottawa Senators.

 The Lesson At The End Of The Day

The lesson for the Toronto Maple Leafs front office is simple. If you are a club who is capable of winning it all, but will likely struggle to get past teams like the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs, you need to do whatever you can to add depth. The Maple Leafs would have been better off with a solid defenseman like Jensen in their lineup. Unfortunately, Jensen isn’t a Maple Leaf and Kyle Dubas now needs to look at some other defensive options across his organization. Maybe he decides to call up Rasmus Sandin (Mike Stephens suggested this in his post) and persuades Babcock to play him on his wrong side.

At the end of the day, it was a mistake not to add a defenseman like Jensen, but it’s not the end of the world. The Maple Leafs have options internally, but it would’ve been nice to have someone who has been battle-tested at the NHL level, especially when it comes to the playoffs.

stats from Corey Sznajder, Mike Stephens,

visual from CJ Turtoro

featured image photo credit – Josh Tessler

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