Dion Phaneuf's Return: What It Means For The Maple Leafs' Defense Core

Jon NeelyAnalyst IDecember 8, 2010

TORONTO - NOVEMBER 2:  Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is taken off the ice by head athletic therapist  Andy Playter and Carl Gunnarsson #36 during NHL action against the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre November 2, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

Dion Phaneuf was lucky when the skate of Ottawa Senators forward Peter Regin sliced his thigh and caused him to miss over a month of action. It could have been much, much worse. 

The Maple Leafs might get lucky and see their captain return earlier than expected Thursday night at home to the Philadelphia Flyers

He went down on November 2 and underwent surgery to repair his MCL. Since then, the Leafs have been playing without their captain and main voice in the dressing room. 

The team has gone a pedestrian 5-8-3 without him, though they have won their last two games, both in a shootout, and have recorded points in three of their past four games. Needless to say, the return of Phaneuf will be a boost to a club that finds themselves still in search of an identity. And a winning streak. 

With Phaneuf's return comes a demotion for one of the current blue-liners that have been filling the void since he went down. The decision of who comes out for Phaneuf might be a little more difficult than coach Ron Wilson may have expected, but count it as a good thing for a club whose defense is finally starting to look like a $23 million blue line. 

Tomas Kaberle and Luke Schenn are obviously a lock to stay in as the top pair for the Leafs, sincethey've been the best two defensemen for the team this season. Kaberle, though he's fought through his fair share of struggles, has been his steady self, while Schenn has vaulted himself up to the team's number-one defender, something many would have laughed at before the season began. 

Then there is everybody's favourite pairing of Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek, who have been good at times but also been diabolically useless at others. Beauchemin has been a turnover machine through stretches this season, yet still is rewarded with around 25 minutes a night. 

Komisarek, who also has been victim to frequent turnovers, has not been so lucky with rewards as of late, and currently finds himself in the doghouse. In the past two games he's played 10:35 and 9:43 respectively, and it doesn't seem like he's gotten the message yet. 

Carl Gunnarsson had a rough start to the season and though he's been a healthy scratch for more than a few games, the 24-year-old Swede looks to be back on track and has earned his way back into the lineup. 

Of course there's Brett Lebda too, but he's been pathetic for most of the season, managing to pile up the worst plus/minus on the team (minus-11) in just 12 games. He's been a healthy scratch for most of the season, which is ironic since he's been a cancer to the team when on the ice. 

Keith Aulie might be the most interesting situation in all this Phaneuf-returning business, as he's played just nine games this season, but over the past two has seen a huge increase in minutes. He found himself playing more than 21 minutes against Boston on Saturday and over 19 minutes in Washington on Tuesday. 

His increased role is a great sign for the team, and would suggest that he's not the one going back down to the Marlies once the captain returns. 

So with the young defenders playing great, and the guys making big money struggling, what does Wilson do?

The likelihood is that Gunnarsson will spend time in the press box or head down to the minors, as that's the easiest move to make. But something should be said for sitting Komisarek for a few games first, to send a louder message to the slumping veteran. 

Unlikely that it would come to that, not at this point anyway. But if giving him limited minutes doesn't do the trick, it might not be a bad idea. 

It would be a shame for Aulie to lose his spot, since he's done so much to prove to the team that he belongs in the NHL, and Wilson should do the right thing and keep the kid in the top six. 

The others are safe for now, as Beauchemin hasn't been a stranger to trade rumours this season. With Phaneuf almost fully healthy and ready to come back and play, everyone on the blue line should take notice. 

There are more bodies than open spots on the Leafs when it comes to defense, and if players are planning on filling one of the spots, they better continue to play like it, because with the captain back in the lineup, there is one more open seat in the press box. 

For a player in the NHL, there's sitting out games when you're injured, and there's sitting out games as a healthy scratch.

And it's tough to say which one hurts more.