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The night the music died in Motown—but going forward, the Leaf defense corps may be the new “Big Four”

Saturday night’s game in Detroit brought back memories of when my Dad would, on those wonderful though rare occasions in the 1960s, bring me across the border to see the Leafs (or "his" team, Montreal) play the Red Wings at the old Olympia.  It was always on a Sunday night, mind you, when the Red Wings were (usually) at home and the Leafs and Habs were always on the road after their traditional Saturday home game the night before.

There were always a lot of Leaf fans in the crowd in those days, some good-old fashioned yelling, threats made in the stands and the occasional fight between boistrous fans.  By all accounts Saturday night’s game had all of that—and that was indeed just in the crowd at the Joe Louis Arena as Leaf fans made their presence felt.


On a night when the power play (again) couldn’t deliver, the inspiring young goalie was simply human (though that third goal may well have been tipped) and the team gave away  the puck like it did earlier in the season, the unlikely (making the playoffs) became the virtually impossible for the Maple Leafs.

Kadri scored his second, Lupul made a huge extra effort to net what looked like it might be a pivotal goal, but it wasn’t enough.  (Maybe I was seeing with blue and white glasses, but I did not see that sequence as goalie interference—Draper knocked Lupul into Howard, I thought.) 

The Leafs wanted it, badly.  But perhaps the strain of always having to win caught up with them as they sometimes appeared, if not flat, at least out of sorts.

Then again, they were playing a poised, experienced side.  Draper was awfully good in the face-off circle, and the Leafs too often were chasing, having lost possession.  While they have struggled with the lead at times this season, historically the Wings are pretty good and holding a lead.  And even after Howard was injured, the Leafs couldn’t quite deliver on the chances they desperately tried to create.

I’ve been saying for many weeks that, despite the apparent odds, the Leafs can still do it.  So, is the season “over” now?

Yes, it is—now.  Not because the Leafs didn’t deliver down the stretch, but because, in the nick of time, Carolina and Buffalo won games they had to win, too. You can’t win every game, but the Leafs have come awfully close over the past few weeks.  But the teams they needed to catch deserve credit, too.


The truth is, every position on an NHL hockey team is important.  There is no question that goaltending can be a difference-maker, maybe the difference-maker.  But recent Cup winners seem to suggest you don’t always need a Hall-of-Famer to win it—just someone who plays well enough when it matters in the spring, like Niemi last year with Chicago.

So yes, the goalie position is key, but so is your defense, obviously. And the old adage about “strength down the middle” still rings true.  You always want top-end centers holding your four forward lines together.

But it doesn’t matter when you have strong centers if your wingers can’t work the corners and establish position in front of the net.  “Top-six” and “bottom-six”—the reality is you generally can’t win unless you have all of the above and are deep, talented, tough and well-coached, too.

This all said, and as riveting as the emergence of Reimer has been as the current season has progressed (and we should make no mistake, the Leafs wouldn’t even be close to a playoff hope without him) something else is hopeful for me as well.  And that is the prospect of going into next season, 2011-’12, with four young defensemen who may be in blue and white for years to come and can play at a consistently high level.

We can argue about who the “real” leader will be in the years to come on the Maple Leaf blueline, Schenn or Phaneuf, but they both make a valuable contribution.  Both Phaneuf (he "activated" himself in the third, for example, and that led to the Lupul goal) and Schenn have displayed a bit more of an offensive game over the past while, though as long they keep things tidy in their own end, that’s the most important thing.

Both guys can hit in open ice, and I’m sure I’m not alone in liking Schenn’s ability to rub opposition forwards out along the boards.  At 21, he should only get better. (It’s funny, I wondered last summer if Schenn might be a guy Burke would move to get some high-end offense back in return.  I have no idea if the thought ever crossed Burke’s mind in earnest, but it now seems wise, very wise, that he didn’t do it.)

As for Aulie, there’s a lot to like about his game, too.  He is big and mobile enough to get where he needs to go.  He can be physical and protect his teammates when necessary with his fists, as he has demonstrated.  Again, he’s awfully young and I did not expect him to be this important this early on.  If his growth arc continues, he will be a top-pairing quality d-man for years to come.

I’ve been writing about Gunnarsson since last season.  The Lidstrom comparison is no doubt premature, but I just think the guy has tons of skill and can be a top-four defenseman in the league.  He can skate and move the puck and when he is on his game, he is a calm, smart presence, with some of the qualities Kaberle possesed in his best times with the Leafs.

Each of these guys is drawing more than 20 minutes a night, and playing "top-four" minutes, in all key situations.  And they have been performing under the pressure of a playoff chase.

How many NHL teams have four quality defense like these guys, 25 and under?

Wait ‘till next year.

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