At the beginning of my last article I mentioned that there are still a number of questions surrounding the Leafs this season. As it turns out there is also quite a bit of giddy excitement that's only going to grow as training camp approaches.
When training camp does finally arrive, all eyes of Leaf Nation will be glued to their televisions and computer screens trying to find as much information about who is playing well, how are top prospects are fairing, and who some of the surprises may be. Personally I can't wait. Its what we've been waiting all summer for, Or at least all summer since Brad Richards went off the market.
I don't believe that there is really much debate as to how our the top three lines are going to fill out when the puck drops on October 6th. The top two lines are set and the only question mark I currently see is whether it will be Bozak at the third line pivot between Kadri and Armstrong, or Lombardi. I believe it will be Bozak to begin with as I don't think Lombardi will be ready by the start of the season. But that's not what I'm here to write about.
Due to a pair of off-season trades, a couple of signings, and one more signing that we all know is going to happen, the Leafs have quite a few options on their back end for next season. That's also before we even get into the prospects who are chomping at the bit to get their shot at the NHL. Here is a breakdown of each Leafs defenseman and where he sits amongst the team. Then I will determine where the Leafs Defensive Group ranks amongst the rest of the league
So maybe there isn't much of a chance that Jeff Finger will be with the Leafs this season. Maybe there is no chance at all. However stranger things have happened in hockey, and if the Leafs run into a string of injuries then Finger could be back with the big team patrolling the blue lines.
In the 08-09 season, his first with the Leafs, Finger's point production wasn't all that bad. He scored 6 times and added 17 helpers for 23 points in 66 games. Not the worst, but certainly not spectacular either. However he wasn't brought in to help the Leafs put up points. Finger was brought in because he was supposed to be a shut-down type player that could play against top players across the league.
This turned out not to be true.
Finger's biggest issues with the Leafs were his defensive inconsistencies as well as turnovers. Last year with the Marlies Finger was limited to 23 games and posted 5 assists and was plus-1 through that span. Burke has said that he will have a chance to earn a spot in training camp this year. However most of know that he will be back down in the Marlies for the upcoming season, not just because of the youth we have that are ahead of him on the depth chart, but his salary as well.
October 6th: AHL. Not likely to get called up.
Jesse Blacker is a Memorial Cup winner who has made significant strides since being drafted by the Leafs. From his first season after being draft to last season, Blacker made a conscious effort to vastly improve the defensive side of his game. He went from a plus/minus rating of -22 in 09-10 to +17 in 10-11. Oh and his offensive production went up as well, jumping from .625 ppg to .871 ppg. Blacker also had a great Playoffs for Owen Sound posting 5 goals and 11 assist in 22 games this season.
Blacker is still not quite ready to see full time minutes at the NHL level. He still needs to add more muscle and needs to spend some time in the AHL and gain some experience with the Marlies. After Christmas Blacker could be a reasonable call-up if players are injured or others just aren't playing well.
October 6th: AHL. Still has some work to do to move ahead of other young defensemen in the system.
Lashoff made his Leafs debut mid-march in the midst of the teams push to stay alive in the playoff hunt. He played 11 games at the NHL level and recorded 1 assist. Though Lashoff was mostly used on the bottom pairing, his simplified game worked out very well and he was relatively effective in the Leafs defensive zone. He was not the liability on the back end that Leaf fans were so used to seeing from Brett Lebda.
Lashoff's consistent play took pressure off of the top two pairings and gave coach Ron Wilson a third pairing that he didn't have to worry about as a liability every time they were on the ice. For the beginning of the season I say look to Lashoff to be the first Defensemen called up to the bigs until Gardiner has had a little more time to mature.
October 6th: AHL. He will be ahead of Gardiner at this point to be called up if there are any needs from the Leafs.
Scott Niedermayer and Duncan Keith eh? Who wouldn't want to be drawing comparisons to those two players? His smooth skating and ability to find the open man make him one of the top prospects in the Leafs system. Last year he scored 10 times and added 31 assists for 41 points in 41 games at the University of Wisconsin. He was +22. After joining the Marlies for 10 games, he had 3 helpers and was +4.
Gardiner has the ability to make a tremendous impact at the next level. He can move the puck out of the defensive zone as well as jump up into the rush and make plays on the offensive side. He will be the puck-moving defenseman that will be able to play quarterback on the power play.
October 6th: He is the second player to be called up after Lashoff. He will need to spend a little more time adjusting to the AHL before he moves ahead of Lashoff on the depth chart.
Who doesn't love Luke Schenn in Leafland? When I heard the Leafs draft Schenn it was the first time I had hope for the future of the team in a very long time. His point production has slowly gone up every year and his penalty minutes have gone down. This tells me that he has now fully adjusted to the speed of the game and is no longer chasing the play around, but playing sound defensive hockey. The point increase is really just a bonus since he was drafted to be a shutdown defenseman.
The League leader in hits last season, Schenn has definitely filled out his frame and is now a very imposing figure on the Leafs blue line. So long as Schenn does not regress, and I see no signs suggesting that he will, he will be possibly the biggest factor out of the defensive group this season.
October 6th: Top 4. The only reason he's not on the top unit is because he and Phaneuf have not historically spent much time as D-Partners.
Keith Aulie is a big bodied kid who has a great upside. After a short stint in November and December with the Leafs, Aulie was sent back down to the minors for some more seasoning. His second opportunity came with the Leafs playing some of their best hockey of the season in mid February. Aulie blossomed into a very good shut down defender, many nights receiving top line minutes playing alongside Captain Dion Phanuef.
The only concern I see for next season is the possibility of the dreaded sophomore slump. While no one likes to admit it, there is always the possibility of regression in young players from one season to the next. If Aulie continues to improve, look for this to be his season where the rest of the NHL learns his name. Otherwise he may be riding the pine.
October 6th: Top 6. Its too hard to specify any further. With his lack of experience and the newcomers I expect to see him start the season with the Leafs, but from there he will have to play well to keep his job.
This is the only picture I could find of Franson in Leafs garb.
First I would like to welcome Cody Franson to the Toronto Maple Leafs. I feel like he will be a great addition to our youth core. Franson, like Aulie, is a massive 6' 5" and can move fairly well laterally, especially for a big man. Franson has only played two seasons professionally, but has posted good numbers in each campaign. His rookie year, Franson played 61 games, scoring 6 times and 15 assists while coming in at a +15. The following season he posted 8 goals and 21 helpers in 80 games and finished +10 on the year. Franson was mostly shuffled between the second and third defensive pairing during his time in Nashville.
Franson brings an additional booming shot from the point that gives the Leafs more options to improve their power play this season. He is also for competent in his on zone and is not known to display poor defensive zone judgement. The biggest knock so far on Franson, however, it that despite his size, he is not nearly as aggressive nor as big as a hitter as one has come to expect from players under Brian Burke. That's not to say that can't change. He does have players like Dion Phaneuf and league leader in hits Luke Schenn as potential partners on the back end, so he might up the tempo. If Franson works hard, I believe he will find himself fetching lots of minutes in the top 4 this season.
October 6th: Top 6. I can see him playing anywhere in this range so long as he continues his play from Nashville and continues to get better.
After a slow start, Gunnarsson picked up his play later in the season. He ended up finding himself across from Luke Schenn on the second pairing for most of the second half of the season. In 68 games this past season Gunnarsson managed 4 goals for a total of 20 points. He has shown flashes of forming into a defenseman who can play very well in his own zone and has the offensive upside to compliment.
I see Gunnarsson taking his lumps from last season and learning from his mistakes as well as motivation for the coming year. If he keeps his game simple and doesn't try to do too much with the puck, everything else will come for him. Even with the additions to the blue line this offseason, Gunnarsson still has the potential to be in the top 4 this year.
October 6th: Top 6. He will make a strong challenge to get back into the top 4 and potentially get back to playing with Luke Schenn.
Again, welcome John-Michael Liles, to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Liles has been brought in to be Tomas Kaberle's replacement. Simple as that. Throughout his career, Liles has averaged almost 30 assists per season with his lowest being 24 in his rookie campaign and career high coming last season with 40. He will be able to help move the puck out of the defensive zone and jump in on the rush and make plays. He will also give some much needed help and quarterbacking to the Leafs power play.
Look for Liles to make a big impact this season. Not only will he give some experience to the back end, but he will also be an excellent leader and mentor to some of the younger players. He is the oldest player on the team now, turning 31 in November. If his defensive zone play is as good as it should be, he should be a regular in the top 4.
October 6th: Top 4. He will have to play hard to keep his spot as I suspect that Gunnarsson among others will be looking move up to this spot.
Not much to say here really. Komisarek has often been the scapegoat of the teams poor defensive play and many in Leaf Nation have been calling for a trade for over a year to try and remove his salary from the Leafs books. As of his last, Burke stated that he thought Komisarek's play had definitely improved toward the end of last season and expected him to be a core part of the defensive group coming into the season.
Personally I think Komisarek still has the potential to be a main part of the Leafs blue line, however he needs to get going. As I've advised for some of the other players in this article, simplify the game and just worry about the basics. Don't try to do too much with the puck. I think this year he will do a much better job of making the simple plays and not getting caught looking foolish on defense because of poor giveaways.
October 6th: Bottom 3. I don't think Komisarek will be in the top 4 when the season starts. I feel like there is too much youth ahead of him that is just about ready for full time NHL work. The only way I see Komisarek some how jumping up is if Aulie, among others, have a poor training camp and Komi plays well, that could find him slotted alongside Phaneuf for the beginning of the season.
Yes I've been watching Pirates of the Caribbean lately. Hence the "Captain" Dion Phaneuf.
Anywho. Phaneuf really started to come back into his old self in the second half of the season. After he returned from his freak injury and had a few games to get back into playing shape, he was playing good hockey again. I think this leadership role has done a lot for him and really helped him get to where he needs to be in his career.
Moving forward, I think Phaneuf will have a comeback season worthy of talking about. If he continues where he left off at the end of last season I see no reason why Phaneuf can't have an all-star season. His first season as Captain is out of the way, the rest of the team is better, and he was playing better. He will be on the top defensive pairing this upcoming season so long as he stays healthy.
October 6th: Top Unit
The Leafs Defense can end up playing out a number of different ways with a number of different combinations. There are many different circumstances that will dictate where the players fall on the depth chart this upcoming season. It'll all depend on how training camp shakes out and how hard guys have been working this offseason (and barring any injuries). With that I give you my projected line-up for the Leafs Defense come October 6th:
This is how I believe things will be to open the season. I don't expect things to stay like that for very long however because of the youth that makes up much of this group. I feel like one of these players is bound to struggle out of the gates and thus make way for Komisarek to jump back up into the line-up.
As far as how the Leafs Defense stacks up to the rest of the league, that has been tough to deduce. I believe the biggest issue is trying to remain as impartial as possible while look things over throughout the the rest of the league. I've heard many people saying that this is one of the best in the league with the current depth and prospects while others still believe that the Leafs defense is as rotten as ever (mostly just haters here though).
What I believe is that the Leafs are definitely improved over last season but not enough I believe to get them into the top third of the league. Not yet at least. Currently I believe the Leafs defense probably would rank in the lower half of the league. They are to young and too unproven to be considered as good as Leaf fans hope they will be. However I believe that of the 30 teams in the NHL, Toronto has just as good a chance as any to move up on that list this season.
With youth comes growth, and more than likely growing pains. If things go well this year for this young defensive group, I could see the Leafs eventually making a push to be considered an upper tiered defensive team. But that'll all depend on if the players can continue to mature and develop like we all hope. All of us should hope.