It’s hard to believe there is anyone that doesn’t know what is going to be the top priority for the Toronto Maple Leafs is this offseason. It’s defense. The young Leafs roster took a huge step this past season and if they want to continue on the trajectory towards contention, improving the blueline is a must. The Leafs are going to need to make more than one addition. It’s an almost certainty that Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick will not be back – add that to the fact that Connor Carrick might be lost in the expansion draft and there are a few holes that need to be filled.
There are internal candidates to fill the holes on the Leafs blueline – though we don’t want Marincin and Marchenko to be legitimate options and it’s unlikely that Travis Dermott and Andrew Neilsen will be ready. The one guy that isn’t being talked about – but probably should – is Justin Holl.
So how do the Leafs get better? One candidate that makes all the sense in the world is UFA defenseman Brendan Smith, formerly of the Detroit Red Wings.
When talking about potential solutions for the Maple Leafs blueline, everyone is focused on the right side – and rightfully so. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are by far the team’s top-2 defenders and both play on the left. The team could desperately use a top-4 RD to play alongside one of them – though which team doesn’t.
While exploring options for more expensive defensemen on the right-side is going to be done, the most prudent move the Leafs could make is to sign Smith to play as the team’s 3rd pairing left-defender behind Rielly and Gardiner. He may not be the most exciting name and his offensive numbers aren’t something you’re going to be impressed with, but Brendan Smith is an elite shot suppressing defender.
Playing the minutes of a bottom-pair defender, Brendan Smith has performed at an elite level. When we compare him to the archetypical 2nd-pair – thanks to @MimicoHero for this amazing tool – Smith outperforms the average drastically. His point production and shot generation numbers are good, but where Smith really stands out is defensively. He is among the best defenders in the league at limiting offensive chances for opponents. Over the past three seasons, Smith ranks behind only Colin Miller, Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm in CF%rel among full-time NHL defenders. In that time, he’s top-10 in Corsi Against relative to his teammates and statistically speaking is everything you want from a shut-down defender.
Of course, these numbers need to be put into context. Smith doesn’t play the hardest minutes in the world. He as averaged about 18 minutes a game since the 2013-14 season. It can be argued that Smith’s numbers are inflated because he isn’t playing a big-time role on his team – but that shouldn’t matter given where he would fit into the Maple Leafs lineup. With that said, Smith played an expanded role in his short time with the New York Rangers this season – averaging more than 20 minutes a game – and his play did not suffer.
How He Fits in Toronto
Given that the Leafs best two defensemen play on the same side as Smith, it’s very unlikely that he would be asked to play a role much differently than the one he has excelled in. Playing on the third pair, with a spot on one of the penalty kill units. Last season, Matt Hunwick played 18 minutes a game on the left side of the blueline in Toronto. Brendan Smith would be a drastic improvement on Matt Hunwick. Replacing Hunwick with a 28-year old that is in the middle of his prime is one way for this Leafs team to take a big step next season.
The big question regarding Smith’s fit in Toronto is how Mike Babcock views him as a player. Smith played the majority of his career for the Leafs head coach and regardless of what the numbers say, if Babcock doesn’t want him, the thought is dead. Looking at his average TOI, Smith’s minutes dropped when Babcock left Detroit and Jeff Blashill took over. That likely doesn’t mean much, but at least we know Mike Babcock isn’t afraid to play him more than 18 minutes a game – something you can’t say about guys like Connor Carrick or Martin Marincin.
What Would He Cost?
Brendan Smith is coming off of a contract that paid him $2.75m a year over the past two seasons. He’s a UFA at 28 and since his ELC, he has not signed a contract for more than two years. We can’t know how Brendan Smith and his agent plan on approaching things, but if I’m him and I see how NHL GMs treat defenseman that don’t have impressive ‘traditional stats’, I’d be looking to take a slight hit on the AAV in exchange for the security of a three or four year contract. A $12m/4-year contract is something that seems pretty realistic – and for a 28-year old that plays the way Smith does, it’s definitely something I would be comfortable with.
Three million dollars would eat into a good chunk of the Maple Leafs cap space this off-season, and if the team thinks they can get away with playing one of their rookies on the third-pair, it might not be an area the team would want to allocate resources.
Will it Work?
This Maple Leafs team is on a development trajectory that has surprised everyone – including the people that put the roster together. It is a common belief among fans that the Leafs will be entering the contention window next season and if management agrees, signing a veteran like Brendan Smith would me a very important move. He fits a need on the team, he is underrated by those who only look at traditional stats and he would provide a depth to the team that is absolutely necessary.
While the player should be attractive to the Leafs, what’s equally important is if the team is attractive to Smith – and you’d have to assume that it is. It’s a young, exciting team on which he would play a role he’s used to. They’re the team he grew up cheering for and while it might not count for much, the young hockey fan inside has to perk up a little bit at the possibility of being a part of such an exciting team in Toronto. The big question is Mike Babcock. It’s no secret that a number of his former players are not a big fan of the head coach. Babcock’s coaching style has a tendency to wear on some and the prospects of being reunited with his former coach might be a deal breaker for Smith.
If he is open to a reunion with Babcock and the financials work, Brendan Smith and the Toronto Maple Leafs are a pairing that makes all the sense in the world.