Handicapping Toronto's Defensive Pairings
The bulk of the off season work orchestrated by the Maple Leafs has been completed, so it’s time to look ahead to the regular season and begin predicting the line up for opening night. The goaltending situation is the clearest position, with Jonas Gustavsson and Jean-Sebastien Giguere splitting time between the pipes. Where things appear to be uncertain is on defence, with Tomas Kaberle likely to be traded and Jeff Finger shipped to the Toronto Marlies.
Assuming Kaberle is traded, the Leafs have Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Brett Lebda as their top six defenseman.
Newly minted captain Dion Phaneuf will anchor the defensive corps on the first pairing, likely playing alongside Francois Beauchemin. Beauchemin plays a solid two-way game with the ability to play both the powerplay and the penalty kill. His positional play in his own zone will make up for Phaneuf’s insufficiencies in his own end. Beauchemin can also complement Phaneuf on the powerplay by making one-timer passes. Beauchemin was a complementary player during his stint in Anaheim and will be most effective in a complementary role with Dion Phaneuf. Phaneuf will benefit from playing with a player who will make up for his deficiencies.
Mike Komisarek will return after an injury-plagued season and mentor Luke Schenn on the second pairing. Komisarek and Schenn play a similar game, although this would provide a shutdown element to the defensive corps. Komisarek has an outstanding physical presence and shot blocking capabilities. However, he doesn’t have any offensive prowess and lacks the ability to effectively move the puck out of his zone. On the other hand, Luke Schenn has a good first pass and joins the offense in some situations. Carl Gunnarsson will merit some consideration to play in the top four, but another season of playing relatively under the radar will benefit the sophomore.
On the third pairing, Carl Gunnarsson will play alongside Brett Lebda in what looks to be a formidable pairing. Both are very underrated and could turn out to be surprise players for the Leafs. Gunnarsson came out of nowhere last season and blossomed into a quality two-way defenseman. His offensive instincts and positional play will help fill the void lost from Tomas Kaberle (assuming he is traded). Gunnarsson is developing into the same mold as Niklas Kronwall in Detroit and Niklas Hjarmlsson in Chicago. Brett Lebda played in the shadow of Niklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski in Detroit, but could benefit from increased playing time in Toronto.
Jeff Finger would be a very pricy seventh defenseman at $3.5 million, so waiving his contract and bringing up a younger player is a more effective option. The battle for the seventh spot will be an intriguing storyline at training camp, with Danny Richmond, Keith Aulie, Korbinian Holzer and potentially Jesse Blacker winning the spot. Danny Richmond was signed recently to a one-year contract to provide a physical presence with either the Leafs or Marlies. It will be his spot to lose because he has more experience over Keith Aulie, who is still recovering from a shoulder injury suffered last season. He needs some time with the Toronto Marlies to continue to adapt to the rigors of professional hockey.
The Leafs top six defence can stack up against anyone and ranks amongst the top five in the league. On paper that is. Last year’s group was respectable, but poor goaltending and injury struggles caused them to rank among the NHL’s worst in goals against and penalty killing success. The addition of Dion Phaneuf in January paid significant dividends at both even strength and penalty killing. Now that Mike Komisarek has rehabilitated and the goaltending situation is solved, things are looking up for Toronto.
There are many interesting storylines going into training camp and the formation of Toronto’s defence will be among the most debated one’s.
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