As soon as the Leafs signed Roman Polak to a PTO during training camp, opinions of the veteran defenceman began floating around. Many debated the purpose of the PTO. Are the Leafs really interested? Is the team just rewarding him with a look for paying his dues and rehabbing well? Can he even play after his brutal injury last year?
All these questions were answered when Polak signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract in late October. Yes, the Leafs, especially Mike Babcock, wanted Polak back on the team. No, they weren’t just throwing him a bone – they wanted someone they trusted to carry some of the heavy PK load that was borne by Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey through the first eight games of the season. But, can he still play? Well…
We already know Polak has not been great over the last few years. In my opinion, he’s a borderline bottom pair defender and definitely should not have been playing over Martin Marincin and Frank Corrado last year. He’s a very strong but slow player who is much better at pinning guys in the corner and clearing the net than breaking the puck out and making pinches. In other words, he doesn’t fit into the Leafs’ creative, high-flying offence that benefits from defenders with good vision puck moving abilities. After breaking his fibula in the playoffs, how much of a step has he lost? From this great article by Bruce Arthur, it sounds like the injury and recovery were absolutely brutal, so I expected the worst. Now that he has played four games for the Leafs, we have a clearer picture of his abilities and it doesn’t look good.
In just his four games played, we can already see a downward trend this year compared to Polak’s previous results. The chart below shows how he’s fared in terms of relative shot attempts over the last four seasons. All stats in the article are courtesy of Corsica.
Over the past few seasons, Toronto’s possession has consistently worsened when Polak is on the ice, 2017-18 being the worst yet. Whether he’s still recovering from injury or declining naturally with age (or both!), the Leafs have absolutely caved in while Polak is on the ice. The bulk of his issues lie not in his offense (which has never been his strong suit) but in his defensive skills. When Polak is on the ice, Toronto has allowed 70 shot attempts against per hour at even strength. The team’s allowed just 60 with Roman on the bench. This is very bad.
If we look at his four games played, the picture is bleak. The Leafs are 1-3-0 in that span (albeit against some good opponents) and Polak’s pairing has been crushed in terms of possession, especially against Carolina and San Jose.
Polak was never great to begin with, but now he looks like a ghost of his former self. He looked slow and clumsy against the speedy Hurricanes and the team’s excellent forecheck and puck movement. Maybe it’s just rust after a long summer of rehabbing, but that’s beside the point. The Leafs have younger, better options, namely Connor Carrick, who shouldn’t be sitting in the press box while Polak earns minutes for his grit. Looking at the guys available to sub in on the bottom pairing, Polak sticks out like a sore thumb.
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Polak’s contract may be a sunk cost but it doesn’t mean he needs ice time. In my opinion, Toronto’s best course of action is to let Carrick and Andreas Borgman handle the bottom pairing and keep Polak in the press box. While the team does have more options on the Marlies in Marincin and Calle Rosen, they can still use a guy like Polak on the roster as a 7D in case of injuries.
As the Leafs gear up to play the Ducks in Anaheim tonight, Polak is on the bench with Carrick drawing in. Let’s hope these pairings stick and that we see less and less of Polak as the season goes on.