The Toronto Maple Leafs got bigger and meaner at the draft on Day 2, and they did it in a much more immediate way than picking an 18-year-old who’s years away from making the NHL.
Whether or not they got better is up for debate.
In one of the few trades involving established players on draft weekend, GM Dave Nonis pulled the trigger on a deal with the St. Louis Blues to land defenceman Roman Polak in exchange for Carl Gunnarsson and a fourth-round pick on Saturday morning.
The differences between the two blueliners aren’t all that hard to see.
Essentially the same age (and price, cap-wise, given Toronto retained some salary) as Gunnarsson, Polak is bigger, stronger and more of a stay-at-home type, the kind of simple presence Leafs coach Randy Carlyle was desperate for all year given how often he turned to Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger and Tim Gleason despite their limitations.
He is also a right side defenceman and Gunnarsson plays the left, something that has taken on extremely high importance in the organization under a coach that likes to lock his blueliners in on their dominant side.
Both also come with some risk.
Polak had become a third pairing defenceman with the Blues and had a very tough first round series against the Chicago Blackhawks, which was a big reason why he was on the block. He’s not a player that drives possession – something Toronto needs to add more of this off-season – and judging from some of his underlying numbers may be slowing down.
The Leafs expect he can play in their top four, however, and give them an element there they really missed last season.
They’re also quite high on his mobility, which is unique given Polak weighs in at nearly 240 pounds.
“He is very physical,” Nonis said. “He’s very strong. I think there’s a perception because he’s so big that he’s not mobile, but I don’t think that’s true at all. We think one of his strengths is his skating ability. He’s going to provide a little bit of edge. Tough guy to play against. Decent penalty killer.”
“I’m incredibly impressed with a guy that size with his skating ability,” added Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who did some of the homework on Polak by contacting friends in the St. Louis organization, where he played four seasons earlier in his career. “He’s a tight gap guy who doesn’t back in. He’s surprisingly quick.
“I think we’re going to give him some important responsibility in Toronto, and he’s an element that we don’t have.”
Gunnarsson, meanwhile, had been playing on the Leafs top pair for years but had obviously been limited by a chronic hip issue that never got fully treated. He finally had surgery on the area after the season ended and is expected to slide in alongside Kevin Shattenkirk on what could be an effective second pair for the Blues.
If he’s fully recovered and back to the way he was playing two or three years ago, the trade may well end up a win for St. Louis.
“He played through some pain the last probably three years,” Nonis said. “So you’ve got to give him credit for what he did.”
Overall, the deal is symbolic of how the Leafs are trying to improve. Management still believes the team’s issues come down to intangible issues like compete and physicality more than anything, and there’s no question Polak brings both.
Aside from his on-ice contributions, he has a great reputation around the league and is a popular teammate, a veteran with the kind of leadership qualities Shanahan would like to add more of.
Talent-wise, he appears to be a downgrade from Gunnarsson, especially if he can’t play on one of the top two pairings effectively over the last two years of his contract.
Ultimately, the biggest positive in the deal for the Leafs may be that it opens up room alongside captain Dion Phaneuf – where Gunnarsson has played the last few seasons – for a young defenceman like Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly (both left shots) to step in.
They represent the future of Toronto’s blueline and getting them more ice to develop isn’t a bad thing.
“Those guys are going to have to take steps forward,” Nonis explained. “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… I think Jake is a good possibility as well. That’ll be up to Randy to see what he wants to do with that. We feel there’s other people that can play that role effectively with Dion.”
As for further adds on the Toronto blueline, Nonis wasn’t tipping his hand on Saturday.
He explained that upgrading the blueline was his top priority this offseason but that he felt Saturday’s deal went a long way toward that.
Finding more help in free agency when it opens on Tuesday afternoon is a possibility but not a certainty at this point.
“We’re comfortable with what we have right now,” Nonis said. “But if there’s a change there that might fit us a little better then we would look to do it. I wouldn’t say that we’re set, but [defence] was the one area we wanted to address and we feel like we did.”