PHILADELPHIA – Restructuring the Toronto defence was primary in the objectives of Maple Leafs management as they strode into the busiest stage of a lengthy offseason. And on the final day of draft weekend, they took the first step toward doing just that.
Carl Gunnarsson, selected with the 194th overall pick at the draft in Columbus seven years earlier, was dealt to St. Louis on Saturday morning for thick Czech defenceman and longtime Blue, Roman Polak. He is the first addition to a roster that promised to change following another late season meltdown.
Adjustment to a mismatched and ineffective back-end was a must for the Leafs, who finished near the league basement defensively last season – yielding more shots against than any other club. Polak, while not an upgrade to the steady, but increasingly over-taxed Gunnarsson, does offer a different kind of presence to the Toronto defence, something brawnier and edgier for head coach Randy Carlyle, if not quite better.
Gunnarsson, it was ultimately deemed, could be replaced on the top pairing with something similar internally.
"We like our defence individually," general manager Dave Nonis said after the final round of the draft was completed on Saturday afternoon, "[but] we didn't necessarily like how they fit together last year. We wanted to move some pieces and change the look, rebuild it a little bit. I wouldn't say it's a major overhaul by doing something like this, but it does give us a different element and it's a player we didn't really have."
Maybe more significant is how the trade promises to open up further opportunity for the club's two top guns on defence: Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. By removing Gunnarsson – who teamed with Dion Phaneuf on left side of the top pair – and adding the right-handed Polak, the Leafs opened up room for Rielly and Gardiner to become more prominent members of the defence.
Rielly should move from a place on the bottom pair to something more substantial in the top-four. Gardiner, who led the team in even-strength ice-time, might be the one to replace Gunnarsson on the top pair.
"Those guys are going to have to take steps forward," Nonis said of the promising duo. "It might be a lot to ask for Morgan a little bit in his second year, but he made some pretty big strides last year and we would expect that he'll take some more next [year]. And I think Jake is a good possibility [of doing the same] as well."
Left-handed shots, Rielly and Gardiner were both forced to play the right side often last season – nearly the entire season for the rookie – due to the rarity of right-handed defenders on the Toronto defence (Gardiner, specifically, struggled with the change and eventually had to move back to the left).
The addition of the 6-foot-1, 227-pound Polak will ease that glut and allow more options for Carlyle.
The Blues, who ranked third in the league defensively a year ago, employed Polak in shutdown capacities as well as on their second-ranked penalty kill. He was known in St. Louis as a fierce, physical competitor willing to play through injury. The 28-year-old, who has two years remaining on a five-year contract ($2.75 million cap hit), led the Blues defence in hits and finished second in blocked shots.
"He's a tough guy to play against," Nonis said of Polak, picked in the sixth round of 2004 Draft. "If you look at the minutes he plays he often plays against team's top players. He is very physical, he's very strong. I think there's a perception that because he's so big he's not mobile, I don't think that's true at all. We think that one of his strengths is his skating ability. He's going to provide a little bit of edge."
The fifth overall pick in 2012, Rielly had a fine first season in Toronto, demonstrating improvement with each passing month. He finished with 27 points in nearly 18 minutes of nightly work, emerging as one of the Leafs top possession players in 73 games.
It remains to be seen whether he can climb another rung as a sophomore next season though the organization is certainly hopeful based on all that they saw a year ago.
"We are hoping that he improves next year," said Nonis. "He may not. He might go through a year where he's not quite ready to go up the lineup, but we're comfortable that he's going to get there and he's going to be an impact player and we're going to give him an opportunity to do that."
Gardiner, meanwhile, finished a rollercoaster third season on a high. He was easily the team's best defenceman down the stretch of another alarming late season collapse, totaling five goals and 14 points in the final 21 games.
"Jake's going to have times where [the media] sitting below me in the press-box will hear me smacking on the wall, but the fact is he's got God-given ability that you just can't teach," Nonis said of the 23-year-old. "I think he's getting the other part of his game under control. The last half of the season the turnovers and some of the mistakes he was making earlier were decreasing … He did come a long way."
Nonis expects the Leafs to be active at the outset of free agency on July 1st. He was inclined to add another defenceman to the mix, while stating his acceptance to the status quo if furthers upgrades were unavailable.
Gunnarsson had mixed feelings after a five-year stay in Toronto. He received word of the trade shortly after 11 a.m. on Saturday morning and was "kind of shocked". "I didn't expect it," he told TSN.ca, still piecing together the emotions of his first trade in the NHL. "Sucks leaving Toronto…it's been great."