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Five Down, One To Go: Best Options for Leafs Last Remaining D Spot

Neil GrewalCorrespondent IIIJune 5, 2010

TORONTO - JANUARY 31:  Mike Van Ryn #26 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates during the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Air Canada Centre on January 31, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

As it stands right now, on paper the Leafs have one the most well-rounded blue lines in the league. Whether they can play like one is a completely different question.

If we take a closer look at their blue line we can see that it is very complete. It has a mix of offensive ability, responsible defensive assets, and a physical presence that could potentially be one of the best in the league.

Offensive Ability

Although the Leafs may not have had some of the most offensive production from the back end this season, they have a number of players capable of producing.

Since the lockout, Tomas Kaberle has been one of the premiere puck-moving defensemen in the game, averaging just over 50 points a season since 2004.

Dion Phaneuf also has been one of the top overall defensemen in the league. He was nominated for the Calder Trophy as top rookie with Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin in 2005-06 and was nominated for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman in 2007-08.

Phaneuf also has that hard shot that the Leafs have missed from the back end since the departure of Bryan McCabe to Florida.

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Francois Beauchemin is arguably the most complete defenseman on the team. He has a hard shot, which we have seen at times on the power play, and also does not make too many mistakes defensively.

Although he is not the power play quarterback that the team covets, he produces a modest amount of points among defensmen.

Carl Gunnarsson has been a surprising story for the Leafs this season. This season, the rookie managed to collect 15 points in 43 games while battling injuries throughout the season.

He has seen time on the power play and has the makings of a good power play point man in the years to come.

With all signs pointing to the departure of Tomas Kaberle this offseason, the Leafs may face a decline in offensive production but it is not an area that they need to worry about.

This, in my opinion, was the primary reason why Dion Phaneuf was brought in; to replace Kaberle's offense next season.

Defensive Abilities

When we look at the Leafs defensive abilities, while they may not have been effective in past seasons, they have a lot of responsible defensemen.

If this blue line can play to their strengths and avoid trying and do more than their role requires, it can be very effective.

In past seasons, we have seen defensemen come to the Leafs and automatically try and do more than what is required of them.

We've seen Mike Komisarek come in and try and carry the puck more than he ought to. We've seen Pavel Kubina try and play more like Kaberle but constantly lose the puck. We've seen Ian White get out of position trying to be more physical than he actually is.

And then we have seen Jeff Finger....enough said.

Right now, the Leafs blue line looks very promising and if every player just plays to their strengths, I have no doubt that they will be very effective next season.

Physical Presence

When we look at the physicality of the Leafs defensive end, I can't think of any other team who could potentially be more physical.

They have two of the hardest hitting defensemen in the game in Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek, along with the up-and-coming physical force in Luke Schenn.

Together, these three are some of the most physical defensemen in the NHL today and could make the Leafs a very tough team to play against if they are all in the lineup.

Francois Beauchemin could also be added to this list. While he may not be a feared defenseman in the NHL due to his style of play and size, when he gets physical he is more often than not very effective in that role as well.

Physicality is something that Brian Burke looks for on his blue line and in my opinion he has done a great job remodeling this team's blue line.

The Leafs have a good mix of offensive minded and defensive minded defensemen on the team. Two of said defensemen in Francois Beauchemin and Dion Phaneuf play more fo a complete game.

Phaneuf is also one of the most complete defensemen in the game, regardless of the less than spectacular season he just had.

If the Brian Burke does in fact trade Kaberle this offseason, the Leafs spectacular blue line will have a gaping void. There are many options Burke can look for to fill that void.

He can look to free agency, trying to find the best fit among some proven NHL talent, or he can rely on the Leafs' prospect system and see if one of their top five defensive prospects can impress.

Keith Aulie

Keith Aulie is now one of the Leafs' top defensive prospects after being acquired in the Dion Phaneuf trade. He has the size to be a physical force if he can fill out his 6'5" frame a little better.

The areas of his game he needs to work on is his skating and consistency before he can be an impact player in the NHL. He will most likely need to spend another season in the AHL to work on these areas before having a likely shot at the big club.

Jesse Blacker

Jesse Blacker has the makings of a good defenseman in the coming years but as it stands now his overall game still needs some work. He likes to play a complete game and there is not one area in which he is more dominant. He has good hockey IQ and knows how to make smart defensive plays.

His chances of making the Leafs squad next season isn't too high but stranger things have happened. He will most likely need at least one full season in the AHL before he will be ready.

Juraj Mikus

Juraj Mikus' chances of making the Leafs next season are not great. Standing at 6'4" he will need to fill out his 185-pound frame before he is given a worthy look by the Leafs coaching staff.

Mikus has impressive puck handling skills for a big guy but the defensive aspect of his game could still use a little work. He will more than likely face another full season in the AHL to improve his game and conditioning before he is given a worthy look.

Korbinian Holzer

Korbinian Holzer has a chance at making the Leafs lineup next season but it's not a good one.

His only flaw would be his physical size. At 6'3", Holzer is only 190 pounds and will need to fill out his frame before he can be a physical force.

Holzer is a responsible defensive player but may need to become more physical before he can be as dominant in North America like he did in Europe.

Holzer has played the last three years in DEL and this past season amassed 22 points in 52 games with DEG Metro Stars. Holzer was even named to the German Olympic team this past year.

While he may be one of his country's best, he will likely need a full year in North America to adapt to this style of hockey before he can even start to be considered one of the world's best.

Phil Oreskovic

In my mind, Phil Oreskovic has the best shot out of any of the Leafs prospects to make the team next season. At 6'3", Oreskovic already has a solid 217-pound frame which he is known to use to his advantage.

Oreskovic is a pure defensive presence and provides little offensive upside. He is very physical which could appeal to the Leafs coaching staff and, while he may make mistakes, is very solid defensively.

If the Leafs look to promote a player from the Marlies next season, it will most likely be this three-year AHL veteran.

Of course, there is always to possibility that the Leafs can look to free agency to find the best fit for their blue line.

When looking at some of the possible free agents next season, the ones who could definitely be a fit in Toronto would be Dan Hamhuis, Willie Mitchell, Anton Volchenkov, and or course Mike Van Ryn.

People have been talking about the possibility of Dan Hamhuis in Toronto and I believe that he would be a great fit. He's solid defensively and can produce offensively as well.

He would be a perfect fit in Toronto in my mind. He has averaged around 22 minutes a game each season since the lockout and has been one of Nashville's top three defensemen along with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.

The only concern with him would be how much he would ask and how much Burke will be willing to pay him.

I mention Willie Mitchell and Anton Volchenkov because they are some of the best defensive defensemen in the league. They would undoubtedly be perfect in Toronto and could potentially put the Leafs over the top in the back end. Either one of them would officially give the Leafs the best blue line in the league.

The only thing is that Leafs fans can expect to see neither one of them in Toronto next season. If we don't include Kaberle and Finger (both of whose salaries will most likely be gone this offseason), the Leafs have roughly $18.5 million dedicated to defensemen next season.

That accounts for about 32 percent of the Leafs salary cap next season. Both Mitchell and Volchenkov will likely command $4 million-$5 million next year which is a little too much for the Leafs. That would dedicate over 40% of the Leafs salary to defensemen.

The most likely option for the Leafs would probably be re-signing Mike Van Ryn. Although he has been injured for the majority of the last two seasons, Van Ryn is a very good and capable defenseman.

He makes good decisions with the puck and can even chip in offensively when needed. He has expressed his desire to return to his hometown Leafs and show them what he can do.

After only playing only 47 games in the last three seasons due to injury, Van Ryn will be hard fought to find a suitor.

If the Leafs were to re-sign the now healthy Van Ryn, he would likely only command around $1 million, which could be a huge bargain for a guy with his upside next season.

With everybody looking to see what Brian Burke does to improve the Leafs offense next season, I am pretty interested to see who will fill the void on the blue line if Kaberle is moved.

In my opinion, the most likely candidates are Phil Oreskovic, Dan Hamhuis, and Mike Van Ryn. But if the Leafs are looking for the cheapest and most capable fix, I think Van Ryn would be the perfect decision for the Leafs and Brian Burke.

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