By DAVID SHOALTS
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
The Toronto Maple Leafs will have no trouble scoring goals this season, even if the William Nylander contract squabble drags on.
But unless their ability to prevent goals improves markedly, the Leafs are not going to come close to fulfilling expectations the Stanley Cup is theirs to lose.
While the Leafs did sport a gaudy plus 45 goal differential last season, they were a shabby minus eight in their opening-round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins when everybody gets serious about defence.
Except the Leafs did not make any major moves in the off-season to improve the defence.
There are two ways to look at this. One is elite defencemen are the rarest and most expensive commodities on the NHL market and the Leafs lacked either the nerve or the resources to get one.
The other is that management believes a significant upgrade can be achieved internally.
Sticking with the latter view, there is some evidence Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Mike Babcock might be right. But only if a lot of notions fall into place.
This starts with third-year defenceman Nikita Zaitsev. After a solid rookie season, the Leafs signed him to a seven-year contract worth US$4.5-million a year and then saw him struggle through a nightmarish second season.
Zaitsev, who was one of the NHL's leading shot blockers, sustained a broken foot in a game on Dec. 15 while carrying out his specialty.
He was out for 17 games and after he returned on Jan. 31 was never able to play as well as he did in his rookie season.
After his arrival in training camp, Zaitsev said his fitness and confidence are much better.
The Leafs have to hope he is right, because an improved Zaitsev is important to the state of the Leafs' top two defence pairs.
If Zaitsev, 26, is indeed an improved version of his rookie self, then he should be the kind of defensive protection his partner, Jake Gardiner, needs.
Gardiner may be 28 years old and entering his eighth NHL season, but he remains the highrisk, high-reward player he was at 21. With Zaitsev covering up Gardiner's defensive miscues, Babcock will have a reliable second pair.
This is critical because even though Morgan Rielly should be even better this season, his partner, Ron Hainsey, will turn 38 in March. Hainsey played a ridiculous amount last season, especially on the penalty-killing unit, and giving him that sort of minutes again is risky.
If Zaitsev can take some of that penalty-killing time and eat more even-strength minutes with Gardiner, equalizing the load on the top pair, life will be a lot easier for goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Three of the four top defencemen are superior puck movers - Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev.
Now that the Leafs have the best overall trio of centres in the league - John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri - simply getting the puck moving to them quickly in the Leafs' zone should mean a big improvement in their defensive game.
The fight for jobs on the third pair, plus the one or two extra defencemen the Leafs will carry, is the most intense fight in training camp.
Going into camp, the assumption was Travis Dermott, who came up from the Toronto Marlies farm team last January and won a job, had a spot locked down.
But Babcock must have seen something he didn't like when camp opened last week, probably a comfort level, and made a point of saying Dermott was not guaranteed a place on the big team.
However, it would take quite a tumble for the 21-year-old Dermott to play his way off the team. At this point, Babcock's remarks should only be taken as a warning shot.
The other candidates for the sixth through eighth spots are veteran Connor Carrick, free-agent signing Igor Ozhiganov, Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen and veteran farmhand Justin Holl.
It is way too early to make any predictions, but with Babcock playing Ozhiganov with Dermott in the first week of camp, it's an indication he at least wants the Russian to have a good opportunity to play on the third pair.
If any of Ozhiganov, second-year men Borgman and Rosen, or even the latebloomer Holl makes a case for the sixthdefenceman spot, look for Carrick to become the Josh Leivo of the defence, the designated press-box sitter.
At 24, he's been around the NHL for five years, can play well in stretches but has never shown the consistency to be a regular on an above-average team.
Nikita Zaitsev, centre, was a leading shot blocker until he sustained a broken foot in December, 2017. He was out for 17 games and had a lower level of play when he returned in January. This year, he says his fitness and confidence are better.
CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES