Building up the Blue Line

TORONTO– Since taking over the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, GM Brian Burke has always stood by his belief that a winning team is built from the net out. Argue all you want about the James Reimer/Jonas Gustavsson tandem and if they are good enough to carry their team when need be, but this year’s defensive core is as solid as any the organization has had in recent years; filtering all the way down to the minors.

“I think we used 10 defensemen when we won the Stanley cup in Anaheim. I think you need to have depth at that position”, said Burke at this summer’s prospects camp. “It’s a wear and tear position, players get injured and I think you need depth. (Plus) it gives you assets to put in a trade. Were in a position now to move a defenseman if we need to or want to.”

It’s true.

John-Michael Liles- Image Courtesy Marc Piscotty

Burke does have enough depth on the blue line to make call-ups from the Toronto Marlies and not lose faith in who is on the ice with the big club. He also has commodities that, if packaged right, could potentially fill some of the offensive gaps the team so desperately needs to have fixed.

The two newest D men who will don the blue and white this season are John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson.

After being rumoured in trade talks with Toronto for over a season, Liles was finally acquired from Colorado on draft day for a second round pick in 2012.

“Obviously we think he adds an offensive dimension to our blue line that we need,” said Burke when discussing what the native of Indianapolis, IN brings to his new club.

The expectation with Liles is that he can exceed Tomas Kaberle as the power-play quarterback and hopefully brings the Leafs special teams out of the basement it has sat in for so long. At 30 years of age, Liles is not just the oldest defender on the club, but the oldest player on the team. Age shouldn’t matter however as his veteran presence will be a positive on a young D squad whose average age is only 24. Last year with the Avalanche, he had 40 assists and 46 points; numbers that would have led last year’s Leafs defensemen. Plus, his contract is up at the end of this season. If he doesn’t work out, he buys time for the likes of Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker to develop with the Marlies and says good bye at the end of the year.

Franson, who hails from Salmon Arm, BC, looks to fit the mould of what Burke looks for to protect his keepers and was very satisfied in acquiring him from Nashville along with Matthew Lombardi.

“From our perspective he was the key to that deal. (He’s) a six foot five defenseman, who is young. We think he has an offensive up side, he can hammer the puck, he’s big and I think it really rounds out our blue line nicely,” stated Burke.

Keeping the problematic special teams in mind, Burke went on to add, “I loved him in junior I think he has a good chance to be a great player in this league. The way he shoots the puck, he gives us a second shooting option on the power-play.”

Cody Franson- Image Courtesy of Stephen Dunn

A 2005 third round pick of the Predators, Franson has played two full seasons in the National Hockey League after developing for two seasons in the American Hockey League with the Milwaukee Admirals.  Entering his third year of NHL calibre hockey, Franson will be expected to continue developing as he is only 24. He too has a contract ending at the end of this season but, unlike Liles, Franson will becomes a restricted free agent; meaning he should be signed back for the future.

Being a restricted free agent has its limitations on players, which is why Luke Schenn should be back in blue for this season.

There’s no denying that the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native has already had ups and downs with his pro career, but he’s the longest serving member of the D core at only 21 years of age. Defensively, his sophomore season exposed some weaknesses that led to a decrease in playing time but last year he earned back those minutes and then some with consistent hard work. Offensively, his point totals have increased every year as a pro while his penalty minutes have gone down. The fact is, he is only getting better and makes up one half of a great top D pairing.

The other half of that pairing in Dion Phaneuf. A quality, and still very young, defenseman, Phaneuf has taken criticism much of the short time he’s been in Toronto because the expectation was that he would come in and produce the same way he did in Calgary. It doesn’t help that fact either that he is the highest paid player on the team at $6.5 million per season or that Burke handed him the C after the club had gone so long without one.

Injuries and the notion to pinch on the point on almost every play hurt Phaneuf early last season, but near the end of the year he showed his most promising play in a Leafs uniform. Big hits seemed to be timed right and with five of his eight goals coming in March, seemed to have found the net again. If the D wants to be successful this season, it starts with their captain.

If Phaneuf, Schenn, Franson and Liles are in opening nights line up, that would mean only two other spots remain up for grabs. A bittersweet situation when there are four men who could be in there.

Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson, Keith Aulie and Matt Lashoff were all in the line up to finish last season and all have a chance to crack the roster; just that the odds are better for some.

Luke Schenn- Image Courtesy of sportsnet.ca

Komisarek is a lock to be in when the puck drops October 6th against the Montreal Canadiens. The three years and $13.5 million left on his contract shows that Burke expected the 29 year old to be a staple in the rebuild and beyond. No doubt he has underachieved in his first two seasons, but if he can minimize his giveaways, that alone will improve his game. He’s big and physical but injuries wrote off his first season in blue and inconsistency did the same to last years. With other player’s improving, Komisarek has seen a plateau in his game since swapping jerseys. However, if you look past his contract, he is a great bottom pairing D man who can increase his ice time when coach Ron Wilson regains his confidence in him.

Gunnarsson resigned for two seasons this summer and, because he too is only 24, will become an RFA when it expires; not a UFA.

Being only one-way, his contract leans towards the side of everyday NHLer and it will be his spot to lose come training camp. His game gives flexibility to Wilson as the young Swede is rounding into an all round blue liner. He can make an outlet pass from his own zone on a power-play or protect the front of his net on the penalty kill. Being a 7th round pick from the JFJ era, he has been a pleasant left over from a terrible team.

Then there is Aulie.

“I think we thought Keith Aulie would be ready at Christmas time, we had to rush him in November and he wasn’t ready so we sent him back down,” said Burke about the 22 year olds first NHL season. “He came back up I thought he played really well.”

A bigger than average body at 6’5, his second go around earned him a spot on the blue line as he quickly showed his size and skating were much improved. Although he can handle the puck, Aulie’s role with the Leafs leans more towards being responsible in shut down situations and it was shown when the Leafs put together a few extra wins at the end of last season. If Aulie has anything against him, it would be that his contract is an entry level two-way, making it easier to return him to the Marlies for further development. But that’s only an option. If he shows in camp that the Leafs need him right now, dressing a seventh man and rotating in could happen. Regardless, Aulie will be part of this team’s near future and then some.

“I’ve said before that down the road people might be talking about the Keith Aulie deal, not the Dion Phaneuf deal. He’s a real good player.”

Matt Lashoff- Image Courtesy of Eliot Schechter

Another good player who loses a contract battle is Lashoff. After resigning this off season on a two-way deal, it is almost certain the 24 year old will rejoin the Marlies; the team he played much of last season with.

Although he showed he’s not a liability, at this point in time there are too many quality player’s ahead of him.

Perhaps forgotten about, unless you are talking only contracts, is Jeff Finger. Heading into the final year of his four year deal, he will make $3.5 million whether or not he ever plays for the Leafs again. After clearing waivers and being demoted to the Marlies last season, he showed up to the Ricoh Coliseum and accepted his role. Unfortunately a back injury forced him out of action and, after only 23 games, was done for the year. Not knowing where his career is heading, he will have one final shot to prove his value.

“If he can make our team that’s great. We haven’t written off Jeff Finger,” voiced Burke. “People think that Toronto was the only team that tried to sign Jeff Finger and they weren’t. He’s a quality player who had injury trouble last year and with the depth we have it’s probably gonna be a tough time but if he can take a job that’s great.”

Other D men who saw time with the Leafs last season were Tomas Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin, Brett Lebda and Korbinian Holzer. In total, that’s the same amount of men to suit up as did with the Ducks in their Stanley Cup year; 10.

Another season of seeing 10 defensemen suit up could happen, the biggest difference this year though is who replaces the three who were shipped out. Both Gardiner and Blacker will be NHL blue liners; it’s just a matter of time and blending chemistry. You may also hear the name Simon Gysbers being mentioned, if needed, based on how well he performed last year with the Marlies. He led all Marlies D in scoring with 32 points in 60 games and much of that production came late in the season after spending the beginning of it on the sidelines.

Holzer only got a peak at NHL hockey last season as he played two games for the Leafs in early November. With the Marlies, he played 73 games and led all D in plus/minus with a plus 10. He played heavy minutes and received many compliments from head coach Dallas Eakins as the season winded down.

If the Leafs do need to go 10 men, Gysbers could be that guy, but Holzer will get a look too if he continues his progress.  And with the blue line being so deep, if you needed an 11th, Finger isn’t a bad selection.

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