PHILADELPHIA – The Toronto Maple Leafs loaded up on youth and gambled on the future at the NHL draft Saturday.
But they also looked after the present, acquiring Roman Polak from the St. Louis Blues for fellow defenceman Carl Gunnarsson and the 94th pick in Saturday’s draft.
At six foot and 236 pounds, Polak is a wide body.
“He makes people pay a price,” said Toronto president Brendan Shanahan. “He’s honest but he’s tough. He’s a hard-worker, he’s a low-maintenance guy.”
“He’s going to provide a little bit of edge. A tough guy to play against,” added GM Dave Nonis.
The 28-year-old Czech native has 79 points in 424 NHL games, including four goals and nine assists last season. Nonis said Polak would probably “play in the (No.) 4-5 hole” on defence.
“We envision him having a pretty significant impact on our back end,” he said.
Despite his size, Polak can also skate.
“People who don’t think he has skating ability really aren’t watching,” said Shanahan.
Gunnarsson, a 2007 seventh-rounder, had spent five seasons with the Leafs and played with captain Dion Phaneuf on the team’s top defensive pairing.
Gunnarsson’s departure opens the door to Jake Gardner and sophomore Morgan Rielly to step up the depth chart.
“Those guys are going to have to take steps forward,” said Nonis. “It might be a lot to ask for Morgan in his second year but he made some pretty big strides last year. And we would expect that he’ll take some more next (year). I think Jake is a good possibility as well.
“Again that will be up to Randy (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 with Dion.”
The Leafs piled pressure on their goalies last season, giving up shots in high numbers. Change was needed.
“We liked our defence individually. We didn’t necessarily like how they fit together last year. So we wanted to move some pieces and change the look, rebuild it a little bit. 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.”
A right-handed shot, Polak also fills a void on the Toronto blue-line.
Nonis sees Petter Granberg, listed at six foot three and 200 pounds, as a similar-style player to Polak. But the Swede is just 21 and has played only one game for the Leafs.
“To ask him to play that way and fit in as a top-six (defenceman) right away, I think might be difficult,” he said. “If he does that, great, then we have even more options there.”
Nonis said the Leafs will “be active” during the free agency period.
“If there’s a fit there, I wouldn’t rule out adding a defenceman and/or a forward,” he said. “But I wouldn’t promise it either.”
Toronto took Russian winger Rinat Valiev of the Kootenay Ice in the third round (68th overall), USHL winger John Piccinich in the fourth round (103rd overall), USHL centre Dakota Joseph in the fifth (128th overall), USHL winger Nolan Vesey in the sixth (158th overall) and Swedish winger Pierre Engvall in the seventh (188th).
The Leafs used their first-round pick Friday night to take Swedish winger William Nylander eighth overall.