One of the interesting things about this offseason is the number of analysts’ articles and panel hot takes built around an old standby about the Maple Leafs — they need help on defence. It seems odd because defensive play by defencemen was not the trouble in this playoffs or even the Qualifying Round series against Columbus last year.
The Leafs added Ben Hutton as some depth insurance at the most recent deadline, and T.J. Brodie last offseason. They have also been patiently bringing Rasmus Sandin up to NHL readiness. The defence is better.
Kyle Dubas found himself in a situation at this deadline, likely not a surprising one, where his bargain acquisitions of last offseason had not yielded enough forwards to fill a top nine, and still have insurance to cover injuries. That need overrode any consideration for meaningful change on the blueline — not that there were many options out there — and the Leafs had almost no cap space to operate with. He went big on a forward, which is hard to criticize as a concept even if you don’t like which forward he went for.
But none of that should assure anyone that the defence corps of the Leafs is a finished product. A lot of people noticed that the North Division had very poor defence in general, and trying to decide whose team was best is actually hard because they fit in the narrow range of bad, not very good or just barely passable. No one north of the border was going to be discussed in Norris Trophy conversations, and that may have led Leafs fans, seeing the best Leafs defensive corps in decades playing in a milieu of mediocrity, to ignore how theirs stacks up to the rest of the league.
It’s not very good. But, it’s not bad either.
And, okay, not every team is going to get Cale Makar or Adam Fox. Not every team has put their eggs in the defence basket, and the Leafs have multiple elite and excellent to very good forwards. (Yes, you’re mad at them right now, but they still are great players.) What Dubas has been doing last year and then this season is shifting the balance of the cap space taken up outside the top echelon of forwards towards defence and goaltending. He traded Nazem Kadri, in part to afford the top four forwards, but also to open up room on defence. It took two tries, but the deal ended up being Kadri out and Brodie in as the major choice made. He then traded Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen to be able to afford a whole host of choices around depth forward cost, and Jack Campbell’s raise, and make enough room on top of that for Brodie.