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Can the Leafs win with this defense corps?

With all the fanfare surrounding the long-awaited return of David Clarkson, I wondered how the hockey team itself would respond with number 71 back in the lineup on Friday night in Columbus.  Would they unconsciously sit back and think, “OK, we carried the can for ten games, you do your thing now…?”.

For the most part they were the same old Leafs—and for a while it looked like they may yet again grab two points in a game where they were outshot, out-chanced and at times outplayed.

But the thing I really wanted to talk about (and I would have raised the question regardless of the outcome in Columbus) is this:  can the Leafs win—and I don’t mean now, in the regular season, but when it matters, come playoff time—with this defense corps?

I guess I raise the issue/question because while I like the team a lot, and believe they have plenty of speed and firepower (and they should be fine in goal—and in the grit department with people coming back from injury), I just wonder about our backline.

I won’t go into great detail.  But my  quick two-cent synopsis is that most Leaf fans have come to see Phaneuf as a solid front-line defenseman, maybe not quite in the super elite category but he’s pretty darn good overall. He plays against the other team’s best and generally acquits himself well.  Gunnarsson is what he is, not fancy but a dependable all-around defender.

My sense is most Leaf observers like Franson a lot, and especially so at his current modest (by modern-era terms) cap hit.  And who doesn't like Jake Gardiner’s skills, skating ability and calm demeanor? (Some of us are less than enamored with his seeming determination to rush the puck at will, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

That’s our “top four”.  And this kind of brings us to the question of depth as the season moves along.

Clearly, the Leafs have wanted (as I’ve written for weeks) Rielly here all along and so he is staying.  He’s someone who may be an impact defenseman some day. If you just look at him as a 19 year-old NHL player, what’s not to like?  Paul Ranger?  Leaf enthusiasts appreciate everything he has done to get to this point.  I’m just not sure he is at his best yet.  He is playing hard and tough, but the second Columbus goal Friday night seemed to summarize a lot of what he has been fighting through this season.  One small misstep and suddenly the puck is in our net. 

I’m not anywhere near enough (despite following this team and the NHL overall for more than five decades) of an expert on defensive positioning to be able to assess whether a defenseman makes the right or wrong move in particular situations. But at times in this young NHL season, Ranger has seemed a step slow or not quite in position.  Maybe that’s unfair.  I don’t know.

Mark Fraser is hardly fleet afoot but he is generally reliable in his role.  We’ll see when he returns if he is able to deliver what he did during the 2012-’13 regular season.  But bottom line, I think that while we are a much better team than we were three years ago, two seasons ago and even last year, I have concerns about the actual quality of our defense corps. 

Maybe it’s just me…


One additional thought.  Bernier made some outstanding saves Friday night and kept the Leafs in there.  But it’s hard not to look at the third Blue Jacket goal and not think that, if Reimer was in goal and was beat high on the glove hand, his legion of critics would never stop talking about it.  To me, the truth is that it was an outstanding shot by Dubinsky. Goalies do get beat high. These guys can shoot the puck.)


  1. Michael, I have to agree with what Anthony said on the last Hangout episode. Gardiner back with Franson and on the left side and soft minutes for Ranger and Rielly with PP minutes for Rielly. It made sense to me and it will help Jake who is not used to the right side. Rielly has played on the right. Hopefully we'll have Fraser back in a week or so.
    I thought the Columbus fore-check was brilliant, too fast for Ranger and too strong for the kids to handle. Though our wingers were much better in the last two periods against the Ducks, they were back up on the offensive blue-line again against Columbus, forcing long passes through neutral from their defensemen. Every time they do this it's like they are splitting their team in two, often having to slow, stop completely or straddle the line as they wait for a pass. How do you work as a unit when forwards and defense are always so far apart? There's no flow or build up of the speed needed through neutral to back up the other team's defense.
    I hope Reimer is over the flu and ready to play against Pittsburgh. Honestly, I've seen nothing so spectacular from Bernier that I would rule out Reimer IF he is given an equal chance. If they wanted a really good competition between these two it should have been a fair one, with Bernier having to prove himself not James who already has. C.N.

    1. I'm not a technical hockey guy, but as you note, C.N., you're a lot slower as a team when you have that much of a gap between your forwards and defensemen and you are not moving when the puck gets to you. Sometimes you'll hit a "bomb" with a guy in full flight, but generally you are passing to a stationary target, as Anthony alluded to on the last Hangout show. Whether they are playing this way by design or they slip into habits, I don't know. They've won more than they have lost, often playing sub-par compared with their capabilities, so I guess we'll see where this all goes.

      As for Bernier, he's played some very good goal, but at the end of the day so has Reimer, albeit in far fewer opportunities.

      I've written about a truly fair "competition" since the summer began. Has it been 'fair' so far?Thanks C.N.

  2. Hi Michael,

    You do a great job of coming up with topics to discuss, kudos to you sir. In thinking about an answer to your question, the conclusion I draw is, no. As long as you meant to ask if the Leafs can win the cup as presently constructed. Might they win a playoff round with a favourable opponent, yes. There is very little separating teams in the league these days. A few weeks ago everyone here would have agreed that the Leafs were playoff bound and Columbus wasn't. Yet, Columbus didn't hand the Leafs anything last night, or bow to their superior off season acquisitions. Ten games in every team, to one degree or another, is dealing with missing players. Toronto is no longer unique, everyone has good players out of commission.

    Phaneuf is a fine player, there is no part of the game that he is terrible at. No part of his game is what I would consider elite, either. He is a solid first pairing guy. Not a Suter or Weber, but he's fine. The problem I see is that there is no one to really play with him on that first pairing. We mention Gunner in a way that suggests if we don't remember him playing in the game, that he must have had a good game. In the way that we always notice the terrible things a d'man does before the good things. The bar of expectation for a top pair guy is awfully low in this case. I think we should expect far more than not be noticed from whomever plays on the top pair with Dion.

    Paul Ranger has underwhelmed me so far this season. Especially after everyone and their mother wouldn't shut up about how great he was last year in the AHL. Maybe he will improve and regain his form from his days in Tampa, maybe you really can't go home again. We'll see how this works out but I'm not holding my breath for this guy to win comeback player of the year.

    Gardiner sure did play a great five games in the playoffs last year. Perhaps thats all he has to give at this level of competition, a number of inspirational games followed by a good dose of infuriating mediocrity. Remember that Kostka was playing ahead of him on defense before he got injured. Yes, the same guy who left for Chicago, so he could sit in the pressbox. It must be tough to improve at the NHL level, with coaches yelling at you, and reporters nit picking after games. Every time a really young and gifted player comes up and stays when I don't think they are truly ready, it hurts the organization. Sure they got a chance to play, but they don't really get a chance to improve. The NHL is about winning, not development.

    To me, Cody Franson suffers in the same way that Dion does. The team just really doesn't have someone good enough to play as his partner. Call it complementary if you like, the best we have in that way is Mark Fraser, who is injured. I will welcome him back, mostly because he does the little things well in hockey, and because he is the best fit to play with Franson. Fraser does hit and fight, as well as take the body, every time. He's slow but I think most of the time he makes a good safe play with the puck. These two should be paired together when Fraser returns.

    Rielly should be playing with Moose Jaw, and captaining the Canadian World Junior team to a gold medal this year. If it were up to me, he would then spend the next two years in the AHL learning how to become an elite NHL'er. Third pair minutes and pressbox time, aren't going to help him do that. The fact that he is their best option right now, tells me more about the Leafs than it does about Morgan.

    The goalie competition, is what it is to me. Whomever plays best, will get the majority of the starts in goal. I think that is fair. This league is about winning, not about avoiding hurt feelings.

    The only place I think the team is weaker than the blue line is at center ice. A serious upgrade at center would be appreciated, and go a long way to bringing my dreams of a cup appearance to reality.

    1. As I sometimes say here, I was nodding along as I was reading your post today, Jim. (And yes, I am talking about a championship run, not a decent regular season in a mediocre Conference.)

      To your point re injuries: absolutely. It can never be a legitimate excuse. It's the NHL. Next man up. Very simple.

      Fair point re Gunner (he really isn't a first-line defenseman, at least he doesn't quite play like one) and yes, Franson needs the 'right' partner to allow him to bring his best.

      I think you know my feelings on the vast majority of 18/19 year old defensemen and whether they should be in the NHL. But this was almost a done deal, it seems. They want Rielly around. Better not mess this one up as they have so many before.

      I think we have improved up the middle, but not quite enough.

      Good stuff, as always. Thanks Jim.

  3. It's been said we are deep in defensemen but they are all lower pairings, certainly not the big, rugged type we need. They will need more support from the forwards.
    I'm all for competition between goalies. When does it start? There is no competition here, no motivation for Bernier to improve, and there IS room for improvement.

    1. The goalie competition seems to have become an audition for Bernier to play as often as he wants, Anon. I am assuming is Reimer plays and has a bad game (has he actually lost a game this season? Maybe the one he was going to use when he was pulled...), he'll be back on the pine. No second chance for him.

  4. Michael, just a question here. We are lacking veterans on defense yet we have a decent one sitting in the minors. Would Lyles not be a good option for the Leafs while Fraser is out? I think he would be a good mentor for Rielly as he was for Gardiner. C.N.

    1. Liles does not seem to be in the plans, it seems. I'm thinking that experimenting will come with the pairings. Some liked Franson/Gardiner in the playoffs...

  5. Hi Michael,

    I'm still tempted to pull the "too soon to tell" card because when I consider your question, there still pops into my head two quite disparate possible scenarios. With the possible exception of Gunnarsson, there seems like equally possibly happy face/sad face options for them all:

    Phaneuf re-energises from getting to play less minutes and gets his contract renewed OR Phaneuf's minutes creep up as his fellow D-men struggle, gets lethargic and Nonis let's him walk.

    Franson begins to play like last year OR Franson decides he's been shafted one too many times by Nonis and struggles for motivation

    Rielly continues to develop game by game and looks comfortable by playoff time OR Rielly gets stage-fright and his development stalls.

    Ranger continues to acclimatise (he already has some nice numbers that are oddly being ignored by the MSM) OR Ranger never regains his form from Tampa.

    Gardiner rediscovers his form from the playoffs last year and looks assured and on track to be great OR Gardiner continues to make poor decisions like during the last 10 games and never settles.

    If they keep playing the way they are: no way are they good enough. Having said that, none of them appear to be playing to their realistic potential just yet. Delicious prospect for all thatgames like last night were enough to make me grind my teeth.

    1. You've well captured the two ways this can go, KiwiLeaf. 70 games to figure it out!

  6. After the win against the Pens I think I will have to reset what I thought I knew about Leafs defence. Obviously some problems were a reflection of the teams play as a whole. I can't agree with the Hotstove that the loss of Bozak helped. It sure didn't help against Boston. By the same token we could say the loss of Lupul helped us all last season as well against the Pens last night. I do agree that Kadri would do well with Kessel but I don't see him staying once Bozak returns. Fun game last night. I hope it continues out west. C.N.

  7. An interesting topic Michael and one I'm sure most avid Leaf fans have thought long and hard about. I tend to lean towards KiwiLeaf's point of view. I think that this group is still evolving and that we should wait a few more games to see how the present group shakes out.

    The Leafs have added 6 new players to their core of 20 regulars, 2 of which are defensemen. The defensemen have had to adapt to unfamiliar forwards, a new goalie and in two cases new partners. Added to this have been injuries (and a suspension) to 5 core forwards and the resulting call-ups of more unfamiliar players. Thus it is not surprising to me that there have been missteps among the defense corps.

    Further complicating matters is the fact that Franson is the only right hand shot among the current top 7 defensemen, leaving both Phaneuf and currently Gardiner to play their off side. Phaneuf is used to this but I believe that it is a new experience for Gardiner. Also there has been talk of shifting Rielly to the right side. Apparently he played some right defense in junior.

    It seems to me that Phaneuf has elevated his game this season.He has been mors positionally sound and is playing a calmer game, making fewer mistakes. He kills penalties, plays on the power play and hands out some punishing body checks. He is indeed a #1 defenseman.

    Carl Gunnarsson has become a whipping boy for many. I see him as a positionally sound defenseman whose major flaw is that he is unspectacular. He is not a big hitter. He does not rush the puck much. He does not have a booming shot. What he does is lead the team in blocked shots and make few mistakes. There are an awful lot of NHL teams that would love to have him.

    Cody Franson has all the tools. He leads the team in hits and the defensemen in scoring. He has struggled somewhat at times so far this season but I believe that his potential is huge.

    Morgan Rielly has certainly acquitted himself well for a 19 year old rookie. I think he will exhibit growing pains throughout the season but will continue to improve.

    Jake Gardiner has also struggled but I have seen his game improve. Last night was the most aggressive I have ever seen him. He was hitting and pinning his man in the defensive zone. It remains to be seen if he can continue to develop into a complete defender but the signs are encouraging.

    I had/have high hopes for Paul Ranger but he seems to be a step slower than in his Tampa days. He has cut down on his defensive zone mistakes but still makes too many. I believe that unless he continues to improve he will be on the bubble when Frasor returns.

    Mark Frasor brings a physical presence and is particularly valuable on the penalty kill. It will be interesting to see where he fits in on his return.

    Two right handed shots on the Marlies are intriguing. Petter Granberg is going to be given time to acclimatize himself to the North American game but could be a force later in the season. Andrew MacWilliam is a 6'2", 23 year old bruiser with a definite mean streak. I believe that he could be the next defense callip and would provide a definite physical presence.

    I feel that by the end of the season this defense group will have morphed into a unit that will provide the Leafs with every chance to win.

  8. Great post, Pete Cam. Fair and thoughtful. If your projections play out as you suggest, it would be good news indeed. Thanks Pete.