Toronto Maple Leafs: Does the Defence Need a Complete Makeover?
Granted, there have been a few great showings thus far: the 5-2 win over Penguins, the tilt against the Sabres during which Matt Frattin scored the overtime winner in dramatic fashion and the 3-2 comeback against the Washington Capitals at home.
However, with the good comes the bad, and with the bad comes the ugly. The ugly has been the revolving door of ineffective defencemen to grace the Leafs' blue line to this point.
Sophomore Jake Gardiner started out his second season as a Leaf on injured reserve and came back rusty. In an attempt to shake off the rust, the Leafs believed that sending him down to the AHL was the way to go.
The final preseason cut on the blue line, Morgan Rielly, is an offensive defenceman who will be counted on to lead this team for years to come. However, this was not his time.
Since being sent back to junior, Rielly has been steady with the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors, tallying seven assists in eight games. His latest contest saw him notch four assists and finish with a plus-three rating. Moose Jaw is the sixth-worst team in the WHL, so maybe a move to another team could increase Rielly's production. Nonetheless, he's a future stud on the Leafs' blue line.
Matt Finn, the second-round selection of the Leafs, has had a hard year battling injuries with the OHL's Guelph Storm, yet he's also been a guy scoring at near a point per game on the blue line.
Steadying force Stuart Percy, who reminds many of current Leaf Carl Gunnarsson, has picked it up after a slow start and has had a good year with the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads.
Percy, Finn and Rielly are all great prospects to have, but the Leafs need results right now. Though they'll likely see stellar contributions from these defenders down the road, the Buds' current defence has been inconsistent to say the least.
Gunnarsson has been battling a hip injury all season and finally took some games off to rest. His start wasn't that impressive. John-Michael Liles has been steady, but he's also prone to turnovers.
The Leafs' best defenceman thus far, and by a landslide, has been Cody Franson. He has gotten beat a few times by faster players, but offensively, he's been great, consistently getting his point shots through traffic and on net.
Unfortunately, the Leafs are running out four No. 5, 6 or 7 defencemen and are expecting big things from a few of them.
Playing rookie Mike Kostka over 25 minutes a night is beginning to take its toll, as he's been a mess defensively and has contributed next to nothing offensively.
Mark Fraser has been good for a fight or two every three games, but other than a few nice plays on the defensive end, he's been fairly invisible out there—not necessarily a bad thing.
The second-highest-paid defenceman on the team, Mike Komisarek, has found himself up in the pressbox most nights, and to me, when you pay a player that much, you have to play him regularly. To Komisarek's credit, he has played well this year.
Korbinian Holzer has been pretty awful so far in limited action, but one can't expect too much out of the rookie.
Dion Phaneuf has been the real problem with the anemic Leafs defence. Counted on to be a power-play specialist, Phaneuf has been nothing short of terrible on the man advantage, consistently missing the net with his slap shots, and to make matters worse, injuring more players on his own team than on the opposition.
Dion, or should I said "Di-Off," Phaneuf has been far too aggressive on both ends of the ice, which has led to a terrible minus-six rating in only nine games to start the season.
Monday night's game against the Carolina Hurricanes provided a telltale sign of why Phaneuf should never see the ice on a penalty kill, as he allowed the Hurricanes' best player, captain Eric Staal, to come out of the corner untouched and score a goal off of Kostka's skate.
Right now, the biggest problem with the Leafs defence is turnovers. They can't head-man the puck, and to a man, are not very good defensively.
With the likes of Gardiner and Rielly still probably a year away, the Leafs defence as a whole needs to make a more concerted effort in making better outlet passes and starting the offense out on the right foot.
The more you turn the puck over and proceed to skate around in circles, the more you put pressure on your goaltending.
As it stands, the Leafs defence has no offensive skill. With Gardiner and Gunnarsson hurt, Rielly still a year away and your best offensive defenceman having a difficult time even hitting the net, the Leafs will need to make a move for blue-line help sooner rather than later.
Otherwise, this season might spiral out of control.
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