Under the leadership of Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster is likely to remain a constant work in progress.
There will always be a market inefficiency to tap into; a weakness to address; a missing piece to acquire. It’s the natural path for any forward-thinking team. And while operating within a league that requires constant ascension, Dubas is a GM who rarely finds happiness in the concept of “good enough”. Which, at the moment, is more or less what these Leafs project to be.
Could another dip into the free-agent pool be enough to change that? Good question! And after centring on three different names last week, let’s continue our quick look through the remainder of the 2019 UFA class by refining our focus to find out.
Position: Left-Shot Defence
Age (as of October 2nd, 2019): 32
2018-19 Cap Hit: $2,100,000
2018-19 Stat Line: 0 goals, 2 assists for 2 points in 18 games
How does a nightly dose of “third-pairing Ben Harpur” sound to you? Not great? Then maybe hear me out.
David Schlemko‘s 2018-19 season was an abject disaster in pretty much every conceivable way. Between two separate trips to the IR – the first of which coming courtesy of a knee injury Schlemko suffered during a preseason tilt with, you guessed it, the Leafs, which sidelined him for the first six weeks of the season – a few healthy scratches, a cameo on waivers (he cleared), and two separate AHL stints for two separate organizations interrupted by a midseason trade, Schlemko is not exactly the belle of the free agency ball. Which, as you probably could’ve guessed, goes lengths to explain why he sits contractless into the dog days of July.
But that’s the whole point of this endeavour, my friends. The popular kids already have their prom dates. It’s time to scrape the bottom of the barrel and find the “Mike Stephenses” who still need one.
There was a time, not too long ago, when the NHL community viewed Schlemko as one of the league’s most underrated depth defencemen. When healthy, he’s the type of player who any coach can confidently slot into their bottom-six with the assumption that Schlemko, in turn, will reward them with some quality minutes. And for the most part, that’s exactly what he’s has done. Over a full-length season – which, in all fairness, he’s never actually done; his career-high games played is 67 – Schlemko is more or less a set-it-and-forget-it lock for roughly 10-15 points, 16-18 minutes per night, and fewer than 20 penalty minutes.
He’s not going to move the needle against top competition. In fact, few would ever categorize Schlemko’s career usage as “difficult” – his average oZS% since 2015-16 sits at a towering 54.8%, per HockeyReference – but, then again, containing the Connor McDavids of the world is not what anyone expects from their 5-6 rearguards. Rather, Schlemko’s value lies in how well he dictates play against comparatively weaker opponents.
He’s a “big fish in a small pond” kind of guy, making Schlemko’s definition of “proper deployment” read as the ability to funnel him into situations that allow for him to become Billy Madison playing dodgeball against a class of third graders.
Would Billy stand a chance in a regulation match against the Globo Gym Purple Cobras? Of course not. But head-shotting a bunch of Pee Pants McGees is much more his style. He does it well. And after taking even a single passing glance around the league, you’d surprised at how many teams happily stock the bottom rungs of their blueline with a Pee Pants or two.
That, unfortunately, applies to Mike Babcock, as well.
The names that have occupied Babcockian third-pairs in recent years offer a cringe-induced trip down memory lane; Roman Polak, Igor Ozhiganov, Martin Marincin, Matt Hunwick, etc. The prospect of lumping in Ben Harpur now threatens to add an entirely new and equally terrifying chapter to that horror story. Trotting him out for even 14 minutes a night would be like pouring gasoline on an already-blazing fire; Harpur won’t kill you all by himself, but he’ll certainly do his best to help.
Schlemko, on the other hand, is more like the sand you toss over an oil leak to prevent a fire from even starting at all. He won’t solve your problems – that’s not his job – but he won’t start any, either. What more can you ask for?
Don’t take my word for it, though. We’ll let the charts decide!
Below is a 5v5 WOWY shot map which showcases the defensive-zone performance of the San Jose Sharks with Schlemko on the ice during the 2016-17 season, the last time he cracked the 60-game barrier.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
In Schlemko’s nearly 900 total minutes of zone time, the Sharks surrendered unblocked shots, from both the slot and periphery of the left-side circle, at a significantly lower rate than their team average. Why is that important? Well, because Schlemko happens to play the left side, and it was this ability to lock down many of the high-danger areas under his jurisdiction that demonstrated his effectiveness as a depth luxury piece.
Of course, it’s not all perfect. Nothing in life truly is. That deep-green spike in shot rate from the upper-left slot/circle on Schlemko’s side is a troubling, albeit fixable, phenomenon – and yet one that surprisingly doesn’t resurface in his most recent (and admittedly, much smaller) sample.
Case in point: If properly deployed in a bottom-pair role, Schlemko can suppress high-danger chances in the defensive zone at an above-average rate while, additionally, driving possession in both the neutral and offensive zones to the tune of a career 51.9% CF/60 at 5v5 – all for what will assuredly be an AAV that flirts with league minimum.
Now let’s compare Schlemko’s results to Harpur’s…
Remember: Green is bad and purple is good. And the thing about the areas Harpur is responsible for is that they seem to feature a heck of a lot more green.
On the bright side, though, if you identify as a fan of unblocked shots from the backdoor, you’ll love this guy. He’s gonna allow a ton of them. So many, in fact, that it’s a miracle every Senators goaltender made it out of last season with their groins intact after 52 games of Harpur standing in front of them.
The main drawback with Schlemko, however, is health. No hypothesis or projection can be developed for him without ultimately succumbing to an asterisk. It’s a fair marker, too. Schlemko is one of the most injury-prone players in the NHL today – his most recent ailment being of the lower-body variety, which tend to be particularly gnarly when suffered by mobile athletes descending deeper into their 30’s.
At this point, no team can expect Schlemko’s body to withstand the rigours of an 82-game season. It’s just not reasonable. But the Leafs are actually one of the few suitors who don’t really need it to. Their visions of “David Schlemko: NHL Regular” end with the return of Travis Dermott in mid-November, shifting Schlemko’s duties into more of a spot-duty role and occasional load management-style fill-in, all while he takes full advantage of the cutting-edge sports science facilities afforded to him by being a Maple Leaf.
It’s a perfect marriage. All both sides need to do now is say “yes”.