SIMMONS: Maple Leafs signings — The good, the bad and the ugly

The signing of Chris Tanev is everything the Maple Leafs, and just about every team in hockey, needs.

The signing of Jani Hakanpaa, who at one time would have helped the club, is one of those you might shake your head at.

That’s what happens sometimes during the annual free-agent frenzy. You make one deal and it’s great. You make another and it leaves some reason for doubt.

The betting here is that Tanev will help transform the Leafs the way he did the Dallas Stars in his few months in Texas. The Stars went 15-4 with Tanev on their defence. That’s a 128-point pace. Then they went three rounds in the playoffs, and probably should have gone four had the forwards not stopped scoring.

They wanted to keep Tanev in Dallas and they speak about him rather sadly now as he leaves for the Leafs. They just couldn’t find the money, the years and the will to make a deal with the defenceman they so badly wanted to keep.

It wasn’t that way with Hakanpaa, who signed with Toronto on Canada Day, as well. A year ago, maybe two years ago, Hakanpaa would have factored rather nicely on the Leafs defence. He’s a giant of a man at 6-foot-7, popular in the room, that great hockey vernacular, and a penalty-killer beyond compare. But one with a knee so bad that some think — although the Leafs disagree — that he may never play again.

The Leafs signed him to play but many doubt he will. It’s said to be bone-on-bone with not much knee left. It’s said to be trouble. Two years ago, Hakanpaa was playing 18 minutes for the Stars. He might have played his last NHL game in March. If he plays again, plays at all for the Leafs, it will shock those who were around in recent seasons.

Good health or bad — Tanev has averaged 17 missed games per season over the past 10 years — there is one similarity to all of Brad Treliving’s signings on Free Agent Monday. All of the players signed are considered high quality hockey people. All of them are considered to be beloved teammates. Not all players are that. Most aren’t.

And you can include Oliver Ekman-Larsson, signed from the Stanley Cup-champion Florida Panthers, and Anthony Stolarz, the backup to Sergei Bobrovsky, signed now to push Joseph Woll to a level he has not before known, on the list of popular teammates.

Ekman-Larsson bombed as high-priced help in Vancouver, was bought out and went on the cheap to Florida, where he found a place as a third-pairing defenceman and an occasional power-play point man. He has a fascinating tool box, can play offence, can play defence, can shoot, has a low panic point, is occasionally physical, and had a particularly strong playoffs for the Panthers, after scoring nine regular-season goals, eight of them at even strength.

The Leafs gave Ekman-Larsson too many years — you pretty much have to do that in free agency — and probably too much money but he should serve a purpose on the Toronto defence, playing either the left or right side. He’s comfortable doing both. General manager Treliving said before Monday that he wanted to upgrade the Leafs defence in free agency and he did that by adding Tanev and Ekman-Larsson.

The Tanev signing, though, is the big play here. He is the rare breed of shutdown defenceman in hockey. He is a human shot-blocker, and if he doesn’t block it, his stick is getting in the way or he’s taking away a shooting lane. He intrinsically understands what playing defence is in the NHL and the Leafs haven’t had anyone close to him in years.

This is an upper-level Jake Muzzin without the offence. This is a better version of Sylvain Lefebvre or Dmitri Yushkevich. Yeah, six years is a lot of term for a 34-year-old, but if the Leafs get four seasons out of him, the deal should work in their favour.

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The Stolarz signing is part trust, part hope, the kind of goaltending signing teams that don’t have much money make on an annual basis. Stolarz had a brilliant season backing up Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida. His only great NHL season. He was statistically one of the better goalies and, in keeping with the Treliving view of the world, he is a giant of a man. He is 6-foot-6, 243 pounds, and when he dresses in his goalie equipment, young people can confuse him for a transformer. That actually happened in Anaheim, where sometimes they make movies, and where he backed up John Gibson before he left for Florida.

Stolarz may or may not be what his statistics say he is, but understand this: The guy has been kicking around for almost a decade and he has made just more than 100 starts. He might be a late-bloomer and, if he is that, more power to the Leafs if they can push him and Woll in the right direction in a division that includes Bobrovsky, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark.

The Leafs likely won’t have better goaltending than Florida, Tampa Bay or Boston. All they need is credible goaltending to compete.

Their success, however — before these signings, after these signings — still comes back to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the forwards in need of a Connor McDavid-like playoff. They need their best to score goals when it matters most, raise the team and not lose 2-1 year after year.

Tanev will help them in close games. Ekman-Larsson should too. They won’t win them games. The big fellows still need to do that.

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