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Maple Leafs trade for Polak to change defense

by Dan Rosen

PHILADELPHIA -- The Toronto Maple Leafs liked the pieces they had on the blue line last season, they just didn't think they fit together in the puzzle. General manager Dave Nonis said he feels the Maple Leafs addressed that issue Saturday during the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center.

The Maple Leafs acquired right-handed defenseman Roman Polak from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for left-handed defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and the No. 94 pick in the draft.

Prior to the trade, Cody Franson was Toronto's only right-shot veteran, but he's a restricted free agent. Rookie Petter Granberg is a right-shot defenseman but played one NHL game last season.

"If you look at how our [defense] was put together, we had a lot of the same, particularly down the left side with Gunnar, [Jake] Gardiner, [Morgan] Reilly … so we felt we could use a different look, a right shot, a guy that plays a little harder, more difficult to play against without giving up anything because we still have those other players," Nonis said. "We had an abundance of one thing and we were definitely lacking in the other."

Gunnarsson and Polak each has two years remaining on his contract. Gunnarsson's contract carries an NHL salary-cap charge of $3.15 million; Polak's contract is worth $2.75 million annually. Toronto reportedly retained $200,000 of Gunnarsson's average annual salary in the trade.

"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," Nonis said. "We might have that player in Granberg, but he's one year in, so to ask him to play that way and fit in as a top-six right away might be difficult. If he does, then great, and we have more options there."

Gunnarsson, 27, had 17 points and a plus-12 rating in 80 games last season playing primarily in a top-pair role with Dion Phaneuf, who is a left-shot defenseman playing on the right side. Gunnarsson has 86 points in 304 NHL games, all with the Maple Leafs.

Nonis said the trade clears room for Gardiner and Reilly to push for more playing time and potentially join Phaneuf on Toronto's top pair.

"Those guys are going to have to take steps forward," Nonis said. "It might be a lot to ask from Morgan in his second year, but he made some pretty big strides last year and we would expect he'll take some more next year. I think Jake is a good possibility as well. That will be up to [coach] Randy [Carlyle] to see what he wants to do with that, but we feel there are other people that can play that role effectively."

Polak, 28, not only gives the Maple Leafs a right shot, but is big (6-foot, 236 pounds), physical and can skate. Nonis and Brendan Shanahan, Toronto's president of hockey operations, commented on Polak's underrated skating ability and said it was an important feature in the trade. He had 13 points and a plus-3 rating in 72 games last season.

"People that don't think he has skating ability haven't been watching," Shanahan said. "In this day and age you can't be a guy that just stands in front of the net. You have to be able to skate and move. That's why other teams were looking for him as well."

Shanahan also said Polak gets a high percentage of his shot attempts on goal and he plays hard minutes because he starts the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone.

"He's a tough guy to play against," Nonis said. "You look at the minutes he plays, he plays against team's top players. He is very physical, very strong. I think there's a perception that because he's very 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, a tough guy to play against, a decent penalty killer and down the right side that's something we didn't have."

Nonis was clear that he's not even close to being done reshaping the Maple Leafs' roster. He said they may be able to make some trades between now and July 1, when the free-agent signing period opens. He added that Toronto will be active in the free-agent market.

"We've contacted a lot of different people; we'll be talking to them more on the 1st," Nonis said. "If there's a fit there I wouldn't rule out adding a defenseman and/or a forward, but I wouldn't promise it either. I'm not sure what's going to happen on the 1st, where the money is going to go."

Shanahan reiterated that the Maple Leafs would like to re-sign center Dave Bolland, who can become an unrestricted free agent. There is a chance Toronto will be in the market for a backup goalie to Jonathan Bernier; James Reimer is a restricted free agent.


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