This came as a surprise to many who believed that Toronto's problem—having too many NHL caliber defensemen—would be solved by John-Michael Liles testing free agency this offseason.
Brian Burke, however, saw just how important Liles has been for this Maple Leafs squad. He's an under-the-radar type defenseman, who rarely makes mistakes in his own end, skates very well and can quarterback the power play with captain Dion Phaneuf very efficiently.
In fact, in an injury-shortened season, Liles has managed to tally 21 points in 38 games played (good for an 82 game average of about 45 points) and help the Leafs boast a top five power play in the NHL.
This made it easy for Brian Burke to re-sign the 31 year old defenseman, especially when he would actually be saving money compared with his current contract (Liles currently has a cap hit of $4.2 million per capgeek.com).
This means that of Toronto's top eight defensemen, only young gun Keith Aulie (currently in the minors) and Cody Franson are not signed beyond this year.
Both, however, are restricted free agents (RFAs), meaning if Toronto lets either of these talented young defensemen walk, they will at least receive some sort of compensation from the team that signs them.
Realistically, though, the draft picks Toronto would receive in exchange for their departing RFAs would not be worth the young talent they possess.
Brian Burke would be wise to lock them both up and try to make a deal involving one of his other signed defensemen.
We can probably assume that Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles and Jake Gardiner aren't going anywhere.
This leaves us with Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson and Luke Schenn.
Much has been made of rumors involving Luke Schenn (whether it be as a piece in a package to acquire Ryan Getzlaf, or Bobby Ryan, or Rick Nash, or as a straight up trade for James van Riemsdyk of the Philadelphia Flyers).
Mike Komisarek has also drawn the ire of many Leafs fans, who wouldn't mind seeing him, along with his $4.5 million cap hit, shipped out of Toronto.
As for Gunnarsson, he hasn't surfaced in any rumors to my knowledge, but is an extremely skilled defenseman, who is solid at both ends of the ice and can handle the puck as well. Any general manager around the league would tell you he'd be a welcome addition to their back end.
At this point though, one has to wonder if a trade is worthwhile. Sure, the Maple Leafs have eight solid defensemen, and it is unfortunate that one of them has to being playing in the minors, but there are a few reasons that should lead Brian Burke to stand pat when it comes to moving his defensemen come the trade deadline.
First, even moving a young defensemen like Keith Aulie could disrupt this team's chemistry. Although Aulie is not currently with the big club, he would likely need to be packaged with a player who is—most likely Mikhail Grabovski—in order to fetch something the Leafs would be willing to trade for.
The other reason is that as it stands, the Leafs are in a playoff position. If they continue to play well and eventually clinch one of the Eastern Conference's eight playoff spots, they will need all the help they can get. As the saying goes, defense wins championships. Logic would tell you that it is also rare to survive a playoff push of 28 games as well as a playoff series (or hopefully two) with your entire defensive corps intact.
That eighth defenseman waiting in the minor leagues means that the Leafs could potentially lose two starting defensemen and still have six NHL caliber guys manning the blue line.
With or without the signing of John-Michael Liles, Brian Burke would be wise to leave his defensive corps as it is as we approach the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
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