Toronto Maple Leafs: Who Goes Where on the Crowded Blueline?
Yesterday, I examined the Toronto Maple Leafs' forward corps, assigning each of them to roles and shipping a few out.
Today, it's time to whittle the Leafs' very crowded blueline down to a manageable size.
Following the June entry draft, which netted highly-touted shutdown defender Luke Schenn, and the free agency period, which brought in stay-at-home types Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren, Toronto currently has 10 defensemen with a shot at making the roster.
Only six can be dressed in a game, so obviously there's a bit of a problem here.
Every coach will tell you that you can't have too much defensive depth, and that's true to an extent. But you can't have so many NHL-calibre defensemen that you're losing some on waivers when you're forced to send them to the AHL.
So Toronto will have to move at least one defenseman by the end of September, and most likely two.
Let's take a look at the actors on this crowded stage.
Kaberle is the indisputable No. 1 man on the Leafs' blueline. He is untouchable, not only because of his no-trade clause but because his talent and experience dictate it.
He is a lower-tiered version of Nick Lidstrom, a player with a near-unparalleled package of skating, puck control, poise, vision and positioning. Some believe he should be the Leafs' next captain.
Whether that happens or not, he is certainly the leader of the defense unit.
The Supporting Cast
Jeff Finger, Anton Stralman
This pair is anything but proven, but they will get many opportunities to change that this season. Fletcher and Wilson see these two as a big part of the Leafs' future. Accordingly, it seems likely that they'll be given big minutes.
Finger, as everyone knows by now, is a 28-year-old from the Avalanche with one NHL season under his belt.
He is a stay-at-home defenseman who likes to get physical, and that makes him a good fit on a pairing with any of the Leafs' offensive defensemen, whether it be Kaberle, Stralman, or someone else.
Stralman, meanwhile, enters his second NHL season looking to build on a campaign in which he displayed flashes of brilliance, but didn't put everything together on a consistent basis.
He figures to see greatly increased ice time and indications are that Wilson will give him the leeway to experiment, make mistakes and grow as a player. Depending on player movement and Stralman's training camp, he could see significant time playing with Kaberle.
Pavel Kubina, Bryan McCabe, Ian White
It's safe to say that one of these players will be traded by October, and possibly two. Fletcher would love to be rid of McCabe, but the defenseman and his agent are playing hardball, refusing to waive his no-movement clause.
If that avenue doesn't pan out, Fletcher will be forced to trade Kubina by Aug. 15, when the trade window in his NTC expires.
Kubina has drawn mixed reviews from Leaf Nation since being acquired. His massive four-year, $20 million contract made him a whipping boy right from the beginning, which was compounded by a tumultuous, sub-par first season in Toronto.
Most agree that Kubina's game was greatly improved last season, particularly in the second half, when he was arguably Toronto's best blueliner on many nights.
He is a solid two-way defenseman who does pinch a little too often for his own good, but with the skyrocketing market for defensemen, his contract doesn't look so bad now. It would be preferable to keep Kubina and move McCabe.
Speaking of the latter, his inflated salary isn't the only reason he needs to be sent packing. The gaffe-prone veteran is holding down a valuable roster spot at more than 25 minutes a game, a role that the Leafs would much rather give to someone like Stralman.
McCabe's presence hinders the development of Toronto's young defensemen.
McCabe's attitude is the other reason. Not only does he fail to take responsibility for his mistakes, but his willingness to stay with a losing team that wants no part of him is not an attitude that Toronto wants in their dressing room.
It hardly sets a good example for young players in which the Leafs are trying to instill values of competitiveness and work ethic.
White, on the other hand, is simply the odd man out on the third pairing. He's a decent offensive defenseman who isn't strong defensively, and that makes him a spare tire on a Leafs blueline filled with offense-oriented players.
Stralman is a more gifted playmaker, skater and puckhandler than White, while Carlo Colaiacovo plays a much better physical game when healthy. Staffan Kronwall is also steadier in his own end, which is Frogren's calling card as well.
Simply put, Toronto doesn't need White and they might be able to get as much as a second rounder for him.
I didn't even need to write his name. Thanks to his torrent of serious injuries over the past half decade, Colaiacovo and "Bubble Boy" are synonymous all over Leafdom. It's an agonizing situation because the 25-year-old first round pick has obvious potential.
When healthy, he's a heavy hitter with good positioning and some offensive talent. But every time he gets into a rhythm, the injury bug nails him again.
If he could ever get past it, he's got the talent to be a top-pairing defenseman. But that's unlikely to happen.
So, where to put him? When healthy, he's capable of playing on the second unit. But with plenty of competition on the blueline, he's likely to start on the third pairing—if he's able to play at all.
Last year, he missed the first 37 games rehabbing his troubled knee, and he sat out the last nine games with a groin injury. Trading Colaiacovo isn't really an option because his injury problems have reduced his trade value considerably.
Jonas Frogren, Staffan Kronwall
Assuming Colaiacovo is healthy and two players are moved, these two will likely find themselves duking it out for the No. 6 spot, with the other serving as a seventh defenseman—which probably won't be much of a demotion, with Colaiacovo's injury woes and the fact that Frogren is used to playing 45-50 games per season in Sweden.
Frogren is a complete unknown to most Leaf observers. He comes from Farjestads of the Swedish Elite League, where he has plied his trade for the past decade.
The 27-year-old won't dazzle anyone, to be sure, but if he can give the Leafs a steady, poised presence on the back end, he'll be a good pickup.
Kronwall, meanwhile, has been trying to crack the Leafs' top six for the past three years, and the 24-year-old is running out of time.
He spent 34 games with Toronto in 2005-06 and another 18 matches last year and has established himself as a steady, reliable, unspectacular defender. Unfortunately, he's always been trapped by the numbers game.
Schenn is the wrench that could change everything. While the 18-year-old is straight out of junior, and it usually takes defensemen longer to develop—especially shutdown guys—Schenn has been described as one of the most NHL-ready players in the 2008 draft.
But he would have to play himself into the top four to get a regular roster spot, given that the Leafs would rather see him make a Memorial Cup run with the Kelowna Rockets and captain the Canadian world junior squad than play seven minutes a game in the NHL.
If he doesn't play head-and-shoulders above Frogren, Kronwall, and Colaiacovo, it's unlikely he'll stick—though the Leafs may give him nine games to show what he can do before sending him back to the WHL.
Who should go?
Obviously, the No. 1 candidate is McCabe, for a number of reasons: his salary, his attitude, the backlog of young defensemen, and the likelihood of getting some good draft picks in return.
It's possible that the Leafs will sit him in the press box if he refuses to waive the clause (Wilson has indicated that McCabe isn't in his plans), though Fletcher has softened his stance on the blueliner in recent weeks.
If McCabe can't be forced to leave, Fletcher will have to move Kubina, both for his salary and roster reasons. That would be unfortunate because Kubina is the better defenseman and he's a team player, but he'd also net a sizeable return—probably more than McCabe.
Judging from the Dan Boyle trade, Toronto would be in line for at least a first round pick and a good prospect or young roster player.
Regardless, White is sure to be dealt. Everything he brings to the table is represented by other defensemen, and he'll likely bring more in return than Kronwall or Colaiacovo.
A team like New Jersey or Columbus, with very little offense from the blueline, might be willing to give up a second rounder for him, or a third at the least.
Kaberle-Kubina | Finger-Stralman | Colaiacovo-Kronwall/Frogren
AHL callups: Richard Petiot, Jaime Sifers
There you have it, the Toronto Maple Leafs' blueline for 2008-09.
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