If there's one thing to take away from the Maple Leafs' terrible start to the 2013 NHL Playoffs against Boston, it's this.
The Leafs defence is just plain bad. Dion Phaneuf's decision-making and passing are clearly overrated, Carl Gunnarsson is playing on half of a hip and John-Michael Liles rarely gets ice time unless it's on the power play. He has also seen his fair share of the press box this season, making him and Mike Komisarek the most expensive press-box defensive duo in hockey.
That, then, leaves Cody Franson, who has surprisingly had a bounce-back season. Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka make up the rest of your defensive corps.
Fraser started the year out on fire, a magnet it seemed for pucks, as he led the Leafs in blocked shots and eventually hits.
As for Kostka, the free-agent pickup was originally slated to be a Marlies defenceman and not a Leaf defenceman. His consistent play in exhibition earned him a spot, and spelt the end of Komisarek in a Leaf jersey as he was sent back to the AHL. To Komisarek's credit, he has taken the demotion like a champion and hasn't complained.
However, as the season went on, the holes began to show. Despite the Leafs leading the league in hits and blocked shots and ranking in the top two in penalty killing, they also led the league in giveaways and were in the top four when it came to shots against per game at a whopping 32 shots against.
Many people will say that's a team stat, and yes, you are likely correct. The system Randy Carlyle employs isn't very appealing for a fast, young, skilled team. His system is more geared towards bigger, more physical teams.
Yes, the Leafs do lead the league in hits, but their leader in hits was Leo Komorov, who is one of their smaller players. Others like Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr, who added to the hit total, only see the ice in limited action.
I feel the Leafs, who also ranked third to last in shots per game at 26 shots a game, need to get started better from their own end. Better outlet passes and better vision overall could really help their offensive attack get more consistent.
Game 1 exposed some glaring holes in the Leafs attack. It started with Fraser, who looked lost out there, coughing up the puck repeatedly and even taking a delay of game penalty. Moving on down, Kostka finished the game much the same, looking lost. He managed a minus-three rating and eventually broke his finger, which many in Leafs Nation hope keeps him out the rest of the series.
Phaneuf took a slashing penalty that eventually led to a back-breaking, game-winning goal by Nathan Horton with 12 seconds remaining in the first period. From that point on, the game was over as the Bruins took it to the Leafs as they outshot them 40-20 and won Game 1, 4-1.
As many of you know, the Leafs boast a ton of cap space, as the contracts of Tim Connolly, Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak and Orr are all expiring. The Leafs will need to sign restricted free agent Nazem Kadri to a new deal, as well as Joe Colborne and the rest of the RFAs.
The Leafs may have more cap space if they so choose, as they could buy out two players. The most logical choices for that are Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski, who make close to a combined $10 million.
Obviously, the Leafs will be seeking another top-six forward and possibly a veteran goalie, but their main focus should be on defence. Adding two top-four defenceman should be a priority.
Here are three free agents the Leafs should look into signing.
Defenceman Ryan Whitney: Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers were nearly as bad as the Leafs defensively, but Whitney was on the outside looking in most nights. Straddled with a $4 million price tag, Whitney quickly fell out of favour in Oil Country, as the club elected to go with their younger defencemen which included Justin Schultz, Nick Schultz, Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid.
Whitney is a wonderful puck mover and is a veteran. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, his ability to really get an offense moving is his calling card.
Up until two years ago, he averaged over 23 minutes a night, and was a top-three defenceman on the Penguins, Ducks and even the Oilers for a short time. His best season came in his sophomore season, where he finished with 14 goals and 59 points in 81 games played.
He'd be a bit of a risk due to some of his injuries, but he could be had at a much cheaper market price than what his 2013 salary dictates.
Defenceman Mark Streit: New York Islanders
Streit could easily become the Leafs' top-paired defenceman. He's very skilled offensively and adequate defensively. His ability to run a power play is also a great asset.
Streit won't come cheap and to be honest, might be out of the Leafs' price range, but I still feel he's worth a shot. I can see him re-signing with the Islanders as they begin their transformation into the Brooklyn Islanders.
As soon as Streit left Montreal, he turned into a stud defenceman playing over 25 minutes a night. The best part about him is he's consistently healthy, minus a knee injury back in 2008-09. He still managed to play 74 games and finished with 16 goals and 56 points.
Defenceman Ian White: Detroit Red Wings
White hasn't played many games the past few seasons due to injuries, but he's a great locker-room guy, a great puck mover and a solid veteran. A former Leaf, White was included in the package that sent four players to Calgary in exchange for Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie (now with Tampa Bay after being dealt for Carter Ashton) and Fredrick Sjostrom.
White was probably the player in the deal I was least happy to see dealt. He was a great defenceman and a very gritty defender despite his lack of size.
His best season came last year in which he finished with 32 points and an astounding plus-23 rating with the Red Wings.
White will be a cheaper signing and one I personally hope the Leafs at least explore. A few other names include Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, Douglas Murray and Sergei Gonchar as potential free-agent defencemen pickups.
In closing, the Leafs defence does need work—that's for sure. But they do have a few top-six NHL defencemen already in the system.
Jake Gardiner, despite his defensive shortcomings, is still an elite-level skater, puck-handler and a great passer. His presence on the back end could help out their exits from the defensive zone.
Add to that Morgan Rielly, who was the last cut at training camp this season. He's close, but may need another year of seasoning in the AHL.
Paul Ranger has been a steady influence on the Marlies' back end, and at 6'3" and 215 pounds, poses a much better puck-moving option over the RFA-to-be Mark Fraser.
The last name is Jesse Blacker, who is also very close to his debut with the Maple Leafs. Blacker is very strong defensively and is a pretty good passer out of his own end.
With that said, Leafs GM Dave Nonis will be working the phones feverishly, I hope, looking for veteran defencemen, because I'm dreading looking at an 82-game season with the current Leafs defence they have right now.
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