Breaking Down the Back End
As we gear up for the commencement of the 2012-13…check that: the 2013 NHL season, Coach Carlyle stresses that
a commitment to defensive hockey will be required of all donning the Blue and White, regardless of how the goaltending issue is resolved.
Cue the Luongo rumours once again. What? Already in full-effect? No shock there. Cue speculation of Reimer working out in Vancouver, and the implications thereof. Make whatever deductions you are comfortable with about either, but let’s be clear on one thing: in this, the Carlyle era, the blueline is the proverbial “hill we die on”; to borrow Bill Daly’s absolute beauty of a phrase. Without sound D, the Leafs are destined to repeat their morbid modern history.
The Bud’s back end is an interesting one, isn’t it? While there may be a pronounced absence of crushers like Schenn on the current roster, they have rushers in spades, who are quite adept at diffusing potentially dangerous situations with their ability to initiate offensive breakouts by way of a sharp pass, or by utilizing their mobility to advance the puck into the attacking zone.
Not so long ago, Leaf fans despaired over the idea of losing a bonafide puck rusher/distributor like Tomas Kaberle. Without a poised veteran with the vision and wheels to move the biscuit up-ice, many postulated about how the team would be hemmed-in their own zone all night, thus mitigating the team’s speedy, offensive capabilities.
To date, captain Dion Phaneuf has done much of the heavy lifting, but he cannot be expected to be an army of one every single night. And to this end, the Leafs management team has assembled a very respectable group of defenders, in terms of offense and two-way play.
Dion is a physical, hard-shooting back-ender with all kinds of assets to offer, not the least of which being confidence. There is simply no lack of it, and as the team’s leader, he must be able to instill a bit of moxy among his cohorts.
He also has that ability to change the momentum of a game with a spine-jarring hit, a courageous rush into the offensive zone, or a howitzer-esque point-shot. Problem is, fans want and expect him to do all the above and more every time he steps onto the ice, and when he doesn’t, sports radio shows are rife with rebuke of the Leaf’s fearless leader. Criticism notwithstanding, Phaneuf is a heck of a hockey player, and the opposition is always aware of his presence, lest he make them pay one way or another.
Carl Gunnarsson has proven himself to be a solid contributor who can play a relatively simple, mistake-free brand of hockey, and has been quite effective when paired with Dion. While the name Gunnarsson may not scream Norris candidate, the 4th year pro has rounded into a stable, complementary piece, quite able to provide quality minutes. He has a decent frame, and he relies on good reads and solid body positioning over brute force in order to win puck battles. A reliable foot soldier who can chip in with some points as well.
John-Michael Liles is still an unknown commodity to much of Leaf Nation, due to a lengthy absence resulting from a significant head injury sustained just over a year ago. The slick, undersized powerplay QB struggled to regain the ability to process the game at top speed; something all-too common with players battling head injury issues. When healthy, JML can take some of the heat off of Phaneuf in terms of back-end offense, thanks to his excellent mobility, as well as an uncanny knack for opening up shooting lanes with a couple quick lateral strides. The questions surrounding Liles are related to his health, his contract status, and the need to plug other, younger offensive defenseman into the lineup in meaningful ways. While there is no urgent need to move Liles, It wouldn’t be a stretch to think he could ultimately be dealt much the way Beauchemin was, in order to promote a young player ready to assume a larger role.
Jake Gardiner is, by all accounts, in a class of his own with the Marlies. The wheels, the vision, the smarts and the stick-skills make him a dominant force in the “A”. And like Dion, he has a level of composure that translates well at the NHL level. With a full recovery from a December head injury, Coach Carlyle would like to see Gardiner at camp and in the Leafs lineup, pending medical clearance.
Gardiner isn’t skating, but he’s involved in off-ice workouts with no relapse of symptoms being reported.
Of the four mentioned, the only player with any real physical package to his game is Phaneuf. Neither Gunnarsson nor Gardiner, despite their decent size, are predominantly rugged in their style of play. That’s not to say either is in any way sheepish or intimidated; but neither could ever be called intimidating, with a straight face.
The Leafs simply need to be tougher to play against in their own end, and that requires a different breed of player. Let’s take a look at the rest of the group:
I will say, once again, that unless traded, Mike Komisarek will have a very real shot at claiming a significant role as a shutdown defender in Toronto this year. A noted gym rat, Komisarek is expected to report to camp in excellent shape, ready to hit the ground running. Coach Carlyle made it known during exit meetings that he expected Komo to trim down, and become more mobile during the off-season. Time spent working on his skating with the likes of Barb Underhill and one Sidney Crosby should prove beneficial. While he’s got a lot to prove, with Luke Schenn out of the mix, this is the opportunity Big Mike has been waiting for. He simply needs to stick to a straight-forward, physical game and make smart, safe outlet passes, without playing outside of his natural abilities. If Komo isn’t traded or bought out, expect to see him on opening night VS his former Montreal team.
Between Dion and Komisarek, that’s two big bodies who aren’t afraid to throw their weight around, but that’s still not enough to keep the opposition honest in the Leaf’s defensive zone. Far too many liberties will be taken with this decidedly unintimidating group as it stands, and the need for another physical defender who can handle the puck without being a liability is apparent, if the Buds are to be competitive going forward.
Cody Franson is a tall, offensively-gifted defender with all the tools to be a regular top-four contributor. While he has the tangibles, what he has possibly run out of, is opportunity. And, in my opinion, that sucks, for him and also for Leaf fans. Despite rumour that he has committed for the entire year with Swedish Elite League’s Brynas, Franson’s agent confirms that his client is free to return, should the Leafs make an offer to his satisfaction. The only real knock on Franson is his lack of physicality for such a big man. He also over-extends himself on occasion, and makes gaffes in timing which I believe to be confidence-related. I personally liken him unto a younger Kurtis Foster, another relatively non-combative big man with an impressive point shot. Without a deal in place, I don’t like his odds at this point, as much as I’d like to see him get his shot.
Paul Ranger intrigues me, and I don’t think I’m alone. Listening to pre-season interviews last fall, it was clear that he’s a switched-on pro-caliber hockey player, and would quickly assume a leadership role with the Marlies. The 6’3’’ two-way defender has been a very pleasant surprise, and has stepped in to powerplay duty in Gardiner’s absence without a hitch. He can lay the body and play quarterback with the man advantage, and by all accounts, he’s bull-strong, as well as exceptionally fit. Ranger amassed 92 points in 270 NHL contests with Tampa Bay, and could easily resume his pro career as a Leaf without looking out of place. While he is currently signed to a minor league deal, Nonis has the option of getting him under contract once the new CBA (a term I don’t want to use again for the next eight to ten years) has been ratified. Considering the fit and the opportunity, there is no reason to believe this option cannot be explored at some point during this abbreviated season. I believe Ranger was brought to the organization in anticipation of Holzer graduating to the bigs although he may ultimately prove to be more than what they signed him for. Ranger has 18 points in 28 outings, and leads with a +17.
Other AHL’ers who deserve a long look include Korbinian Holzer, the 6’3’’ German defender who has anchored the Marlies back end for three seasons. Holzer has played just 2 games with the Leafs, and promises to return stronger than ever if and when opportunity presents itself.
Mark Fraser, the bruising, physical former Devils/Ducks prospect brings a level of tenacity that few can match. Fraser is a bonafide crease-clearer, with a full NHL season’s worth of games under his belt in New Jersey. He plays a no-nonsense, stay-at-home style that Carlyle likes. A safe bet for a call-up.
Mike Kostka, the 6’2’’ former Norfolk Admiral who scored the now-legendary overtime heart-breaker during last year’s cup finals, has been a destroyer-of-worlds for the Marlies, with 34 points in 33 games. This 27-year-old defender’s minor-league record screams that he is simply a man among boys, and could very well take care of business in the bigs as well. He’s a sturdy 200 pounds, and specializes in special teams, particularly, the powerplay. Despite a strong Florida Panthers camp last season, Kostka was ultimately cut although he apparently out-performed some of the Panthers blueliners on one-way deals.
Morgan Rielly has simply excelled in every way since coming off a serious knee injury last season, and has earned the right to get a look with the Leafs. It won’t surprise if Nonis rewards him with a handful of games if the training camp performance warrants it, but I would also like to see him compete with the Marlies for four months next year and force Nonis’s hand in twelve months time. The skill, the vision, the drive, the work ethic; it’s all there in spades, but there’s no need to rush the kid who will more than likely be a Leaf hero for the next generation of Leaf fans.
Clearly, there are ample resources in the system, and we haven’t mentioned Percy, Finn, Blacker, or Granberg. It’s nice that there is some actual depth in a highly-demanding position, for a change.
Here’s a look at my opening-night defense roster, obviously, pending training camp performance:
Gunnarsson - Phaneuf
Liles - Komisarek
Fraser - Holzer
Komisarek could quite easily be swapped out with Korbinian Holzer should he prove to be incapable of handling 2nd pairing duties, but I’m banking on Carlyle giving Komisarek a fair shot at an increased role with the club. Holzer can be relied on to play a safe, steady and physical game, and should not be out of place in either the four, five or six spot.
With the head injury he suffered, I’d give Gardiner a 3-4 week conditioning stint in the A before contemplating throwing him into active NHL duty. If he remains symptom-free, a late-February recall makes sense.
Burke once said he expects 150 points per season from the back end, in order to win. And once again, by win, we mean make the damn playoffs. Does this group give you that? I don’t know, but I have my doubts. Personally, when the team finishes 10th in league scoring and can still have one of the worst goals-against records, I don’t think point production is your biggest problem. I think you need to look a little deeper, and figure out what it takes to keep the puck out of your own net. For me, the solution lies in bringing in the types of players who can punish the guilty, and take a regular shift without hurting your cause. The Garnet Exelby’s of the game, bless their cotton socks, just don’t cut it. There needs to be some skill mixed in there with all that snarl, and the organization has done an admirable job of procuring players with the physicality, the experience, and the tools to provide a safe performance on a consistent basis. Give Jake and Morgan a year or two and 150 points from the D won’t be a problem…