Part of the enjoyment of the fan experience is, of course, “projecting”. As in, how many goals will Kessel get this coming season? Will Lupul stay healthy? Will Reimer be as good as he was last season? And the old standby—who will play with who on which forward lines?
Many words have been written (including in this space—yes, it is a short off-season but long when you are writing a daily column…) since the end of Toronto’s regular season finale in April about how the team will do in 2011-’12. I’ve posted on this subject, as have many others. I’m not sure there is a consensus. The Leafs, in my mind, are 3 out of 5—a borderline playoff team. But all kinds of factors, including injuries, will determine whether they are precisely that, better than that or worse than that.
Now, when it comes to their defense corps, well, most of us likely agree that, on paper, it is a potential team strength. We all know the names: captain Dion, young Aulie, Gunnarsson and the emerging Schenn, along with newcomers John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson. I’m not forgetting Mike Komisarek, who I have written many times still may become the kind of rugged, stay-at-home rearguard that Burke (and many of us) envisioned when he first arrived. There are some youngsters who will be vying for playing time, but logically it will be with the Marlies, not with the big club, at this point.
As much as I am an optimist when it comes to assessing the potential of the Leaf defense (and they will need the depth they have, because if you want to go deep into the playoffs at some point, you need to be ten-deep on the backline…), I can’t help but think in terms of a note of caution, as well.
Well, I think pretty much every guy on the Maple Leaf defense still has something to prove this upcoming season.
Let’s start with Phaneuf. For me, he has not yet struck the notes he hit in his early years in Calgary. I’m not saying he hasn’t played some good hockey, I just believe he has been inconsistent for much of his relatively short time in Toronto. Injuries have not helped, for sure. But before I am prepared to anoint him as a top-ten NHL defenseman (and let’s remember, he was once an end-of-season All-Star with the Flames, meaning he was top-four in the league, so top-ten should be within his reach) again, I still need to see that consistent combination of skill, smarts and toughness that is not always present in his game.
What about Schenn? You may be thinking, “hey, he proved himself last season. He’s already bounced back from a sometimes rough sophomore season….and he’s only 21”. Fair enough. But we know that between now and training camp, he will sign a new contract that will suddenly take him from kid-with-potential status to a highly paid (albeit awfully young) veteran who is being paid huge dollars. People in this town are not as forgiving when you start making big money and don’t perform. So yes, he was a solid contributor last year and took important steps forward in his game. In the same breath, he needs to be a consistent physical presence and he will face a new and different kind of pressure this season—and even higher expectations after that new contract.
Gunnarsson is my choice to be a guy who steps up big for the Leafs, but as they say, he has to actually do it. Last year was an adventure for him. He wasn’t awful, but he didn’t exactly jump even further ahead in his game. Unless he does, he will be just an ordinary NHL defenseman. Given that he was being compared in some quarters to a young Lidstrom two seasons ago, “ordinary” would be a huge step backwards.
Aulie came out of (relatively speaking) nowhere to emerge as a steady, solid young defenseman in 2010-‘11. His progress certainly made the Phaneuf ‘steal of a deal’ with Calgary an even bigger theft. But Aulie has never played a full season in the NHL. I like his game, most of us do, I’m sure, but again, he will have a brighter light shining on him this season. He will seemingly be counted on to play “top-four” minutes and that’s a lot of responsibility for a guy his age. (Schenn is young, too, but already has three NHL seasons behind him.)
Liles came on the scene in a big way for the Avalanche several years ago, and the Leafs will be his first team other than the Avs. He’s a nice player and by all accounts a guy who is already fitting into the Toronto hockey environment very well. He’s that offensively talented d-man who may not be exactly imposing in his own end, but he can play. Still, he’s never played in a market like this one, and we have seen more than a few good players over the past decade plus who started off loving the Toronto hockey atmosphere but soon found it was not an easy place to play.
Franson was on the receiving end of recently deposed talk-show host Bill Watters saying he was a soft player before he even played a game in blue and white. So people will be watching and wondering if Franson is a Burke kind of player. Again, his reputation is that of a young player with skill. I’m shocked that Nashville moved him, and he could do very well here. But I would make the argument that he, like the others, has something he will want to prove.
Finally, the guy who may have the most of all to prove is indeed the greybeard on the blueline, Komisarek. This is a proud, capable, veteran NHL’er who has never found his total comfort zone in Toronto. I said it last year at this time and I’ll say it again: I think the guy can help here. But he has to stay healthy. He has to be put in a position where he is likely to succeed. And, he has to do it, not just talk about doing it.
So there we have it—the seven defensemen who will likely be the backbone of the Leaf defense corps throughout 2011-’12.
Each and every one, in my view, has something to prove. And if you’re a Leaf fan, I that’s that ‘s a very good thing.