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The Maple Leaf defense: there is always optimism in September. Is it well founded this season?

Maple Leaf fans, as we have discussed here in the past, are forever hopeful.  Oh, we grow frustrated, sometimes panic and often expect the worst, but every September, we come back.  And usually, beneath a perhaps caustic-sounding exterior, deep down we want to believe—we may even choose to believe—that things will be better this season.

A few days ago I posted about our forward group heading into the 2014-’15 NHL season.  We clearly have more depth there, though I’m still not quite sure we have a lot of high-end forwards.  Whether the new additions on the third and fourth lines (we’re not really sure how those units will look just yet, of course) ever become more than just another bunch of replaceable NHL players, well, we’ll have to wait and see.

But based on the sentiments expressed in the comments here, and a cursory headline review of some mainstream media commentary, it feels safe to suggest that Carlyle will at least have more options to work with in terms of configuring a lineup this season that will allow all twelve forwards to have an impact on game night.

This, of course, brings us to our defense corps.

Now, I’m guessing we will all agree that playing “good defense” is an overall team thing.  It has to do with the system employed by the coach, for sure.  But it also has to do with the players embracing the system and their individual role within it.  It also requires more than players saying all the right things.  They actually have to commit to being defensively responsible and not just expecting that from their teammates.

I’ve long believed that almost anyone good enough to be in the NHL can, if they want to, become an effective defensive player.  It’s simply a matter of “will”.  Does a player want it bad enough to put in the work required to be hard on his man, hard on the puck and hard to play against while putting himself in the right spots most of the time—again, within the team’s “system”.

So let’s look at our defenseman, though I’m not sure I have much, if anything “new” to say about them as we head to training camp within days.

Dion Phaneuf is the most important Leaf defenseman, in that he plays the most minutes just about every night and generally has the responsibility of dealing with the other team’s top line.  Depending on which Leaf supporter one approaches, the captain has either being a God-send for the Leafs or a player who has not lived up to his billing.

Regardless, he has been a generally solid defenseman here.

I’m not sure we can assume Dion will be better (whatever that might mean) this coming season simply because he has a new partner.  First, I don’t know for sure who the partner will be and further, I’m not sure Phaneuf still has a higher ceiling than what we have already seen during his years in Toronto.

He clearly brings the ability to log significant minutes. He plays special teams and is a generally physical presence on the blueline, a guy who can do a lot of things.  The eternal question in this market is whether Phaneuf is a true number-one defenseman, but I’m not sure it’s worth the debate any more.  He is a good defenseman, but he has played a lot of hockey already over the years.  Maybe at his salary we can expect more as fans, but we should probably be satisfied with him delivering what he does.  I’m sure we will hear the phrase “less is more” during training camp to describe Phaneuf’s approach this year.

What are my comments on Polak and Robidas, our off-season acquisitions?  Well, depending on my mood, I feel either very optimistic, or can’t help but feel that they will simply be guys that can play, but won’t make much difference.  I’d like to think Robidas will bring a physical presence, and if he can stay healthy, he may well add experience and that dimension of leadership that I still believe good teams need.  Polak is much younger, and whether his ceiling is more than as a third-pairing guy, I don’t know.  But as with the third and fourth line forward units, if your third defense pair is solid, that makes a significant difference. When a coach is comfortable opening the gate for all his forwards and defensemen at any point in the game, the coach’s decision-making should be better.

I’ve written more than enough in the past about Jake Gardiner.  Today I will simply say that there are certain little things I’d like to see in his play this season that would show me he wants to be more than a risk-oriented rover.  I know his “possession” numbers are evidently good compared with other Leaf defensemen, but I still see what I see—too many ill-timed solo rushes, too many giveaways, too many wide circles and not enough physicality in front of his own goalie, in the corners and around the net.  I don’t expect any defenseman to be great at everything, and Gardiner's skating and puck-handling alone should make him a Leaf for long time.  If he really wants to be more than just “good”, I think he can be. But he needs to be coachable.

It’s not a surprise that I would find Morgan Rielly the player I’m most excited about heading into a new season.  Like Gardiner, I’ve posted about him before and VLM readers know my thoughts on the sophomore rearguard. He's not just a guy in the pipeline who may be good some day.  He has already demonstrated that he can be a player at this level. There are some things that he does that few others can do as effortlessly as he can.  I don’t sense he will take backward steps this season. In fact, I would think he will only get better and improve in the areas he needs to, to become a complete NHL defenseman.  He seems to have the confidence and overall makeup to come back from mistakes and play his game.

This brings us to the player who, like Phaneuf, also triggers a lot of debate locally—Cody Franson. It sure feels that, at times, Franson plays like a guy who could be an All-Star.  He will eliminate his man and clear the zone effectively.  He can make smart plays. He is very good at getting the puck to the net from the blueline.  He can produce points. But there are also times when we don’t see that player.

At the end of the day, he was a significant minus player for the Leafs last season. I realize that statistic is not the be all and end all, obviously, but it may tell us something.  That said, I always remember Barry Trotz, an NHL coach I hold in high regard, saying he would love to have Franson back after the defensemen was traded to the Leafs from Nashville.  So he clearly was, at the time, a young defenseman with significant ability and potential.  Has he reached that potential in Toronto?

We’ll see if new assistant coaches make a difference.

Finally, there are the “kids”— Percy, Granberg, Nilsson, Finn, et al.  Most of you who follow the prospect pipeline know a lot more about them than I do.  I’ve seen most of them play a bit, but not nearly enough to feel confident in projecting what kind of NHL players they might be.  Again, as much as they all obviously have potential, I will believe it when I see them contributing and playing consistently well with the big club.  Until then, they remain in the prospect category for me.

So are we better off on the blueline than we were at the end of last season?  I really don’t know.  I think we know what we have in Phaneuf.  Could Franson be better?  I guess. If Gardiner and/or Rielly take that next step, as it were, hey, they may both be pretty darn good.  Robidas does provide grit and leadership and by all accounts Polak is hard-working D-man. 

It likely comes down to individual accountability.  Those six guys have NHL ability, and some have way above average NHL talent for their position.  There is depth here, too, with a number of youngsters waiting in the wings.

But I often look at NHL rosters at training camp, including the defense corps', like the projected pitching rotations in Major League baseball every year.  In March, during spring training, almost every team thinks they have five decent starting pitchers. But by June, injuries, performance (and reality) conspire such that many clubs are desperate for pitching help—and usually can’t find it.

So on paper, I will concede that the Leafs defense look OK—maybe even better than last year.  But a lot better?  Good enough to be part of a style of play that will make the Leafs a top player in the Eastern Conference?

I have no idea.  For me, the jury is very much out.  But hey, that’s why we have training camp, and why we play the games.  We will only know once we drop the puck.

I’ll just add this: if everyone can do a bit more, and Phaneuf is called upon to not carry the same burden, that would be a start. Just like most teams need balance on their forward lines, they need balance on their defense as well.

And this year, I will aim to delay any assessments about how much the Leafs have or have not improved—overall and on the blueline—until the season is well underway.  (I usually wait about 20 games into the year...this year it may be Christmas.) We’ve all seen the “season starts well, ends not so well” movie a few times over the past decade.

I need to see outcomes this time. How about you?


  1. I think the key is something you mention, Michael - defense is a team thing. It's difficult to blame last year's D-men when forwards were so lax about coming back to help. I also think we can question the Leafs' whole defensive approach last year, which almost invited opponents to take a shot - or multiple shots, as it turned out!
    Team defense is the area where we must see improvement this year. But when we look at our potential defensive line-up, it's very difficult to ascertain if we've really improved. Dion's a known quantity, but he can't play the kind of minutes he did last year - particularly if he's hurt as he was for the last third of the season or so. Which Franson will we see? Apparently he was #2 in the league last year in hits, he's still got that sweet low shot from the point - I can only hope (there's that Leafs' fan word again!) he finds his mojo this year. Gardiner and Rielly - who knows? I saw lots to like in Jake last year, but he was directly responsible for way too many odd-man rushes against when one of his excursions down ice went astray, and he coughed up the pick too easily in our zone. Rielly - here's hoping! All the others are just "possibilities" for me - not unlike Gleason or Ranger. I really wish we had at least one more proven player at the blue line - but perhaps that's a trade yet to come.
    As with so many other things about this year's Leafs, I believe it will come down to coaching. Whatever went wrong last season, it really went wrong. I'm apprehensive about Carlyle being given full rein to be even more "old school" than he was last year, but perhaps that's the only way we'll find out if he can handle this team or not.

    1. Lots of questions, for sure, Gerund O'.

      I think the young defensemen can be pretty good, but we also need shutdown defenders. Not sure we have anyone in that category.

  2. Hi Michael,

    no, we do not have a lot of high end forwards as we have established last week.
    It will be nice if some of the new guys are good enough to remain with the Leafs longer than this season or will proof themselves as high end 3rd or 4th liners.
    But that is not the point. They are only here to fill the space until some of our prospects are ready to take the next step and start their careers by filling a spot on the 3rd or 4th line.
    If there willl be some guys, Gauthier perhaps, that will be a high end third or fourth liners, that will make the diffrence in the long run.
    The Leafs have to be in a position where they can fill the third and fourth line consistently with their own prospects. If you can establish that you will have more room to keep or add high end offensive players. If you dish out 5 Million p. y. long time contracts to mediocre 3rd liners you will never have enough room to do so.

    Yes, everyone good enough to play in the NHL can become an effective defensive player.
    There is no excuse. It is about commitment, will, compete level and sticking to the rules.
    But I have to admit, as well as on the offensive side there are players that are far more talented defensively than others.

    It often seems people are not aware that hockey is a team sport. To often players are singled out and not viewed as part of a team.

    To have the right partner is crucial for Dion. It is possible for Dion to be better but that has nothing to do with his ceiling. For Dion to play better it comes down to:
    - having the right partner
    - reduce his minutes slightly
    - manage the type of shifts he gets better
    - take some of his burden and give the 2nd pair more heavy minutes
    - if he plays 25 min a night and gets the toughest situations night after night, never mind his ceiling,
    he won't be better

    It would be nice if people would stop the myth of the number one center or the number one D-man.
    According to Craig Button there are 15 number 1 centers in the NHL (I counted 18 to 19 but I think that comes down to taste) and there are far less number one D-man. Dion belongs to the top 20 D-man in the NHL. It will be difficult to get someone better.

    Polak is not more than a bottom pair guy.

    I like Robidas very much, he will be a terrific addition. I was never concerned about him breaking the same leg twice, but I am concerned about the Leafs making bad decissions. If he will miss 2 month into the season because he is not ready, it will be very bad .

    Gardiner's solo rushes are often not only ill-timed but also badly executed.
    Gardiner's decission making is very bad, that results very often in his giveaways. He needs to be more physical.

    Morgan Rielly, best player in the 2012 draft.

  3. Cody Franson has to go. Not only is he slow and not mobile, his decisionmaking makes it worse.
    If your point leading D-man has by far the worst +/- on your team, it tells your something for sure.

    Granberg is the only kid that has a realistic chance to step in. Percy may need another year.
    Finn has to play his firs year as a pro to say anything.

    At first, with the additions of Polak and Robidas, we had more balance on D.
    Now we have less and that concernes me a great deal.
    We have 4 players on the right and 2 on the left side. We still have no partner for Dion.
    Gardiner/Robidas and Polak/Rielly will be a lot better than what we had last year.
    Franson can, like Polak, only play the right side on the 3rd pair. He can not play higher in the lineup.
    If we move Phaneuf to the left, there will be no need to discuss how he can be better. If they make that mistake he can only be partnered with Robidas. So Robidas can not teach one of the kids and Franson or Polak has to move to the 2nd pair what is to much for each of them.
    And one pair will be Franson/Rielly or Franson/Gardiner, that went so bad last year that there is no need to try it again.
    We need a left shooting D-man who can play with Dion.

    If there is no further change, I don't want to see the outcome.

    The only other option will be: Percy has such a terrific training camp that he can step in.

    Give me a nice comment today Michael. It is my birthday.

    1. Hi Marcus- your comments regarding Phaneuf bring to mind commentary in Leafland years ago when fans were frustrated that Sundin seemingly did not have the right guys to play with. Maybe we're seeing a similar situation here.

      As I mentioned in my post, I think Gardiner can be better if he becomes a bit more coachable. Rielly should get better and better.

      We still need defense-first defenders, though. As Gerund stressed, defense is a team thing, but we do need our defensemen to do their jobs well.

      Marcus, best wishes on your birthday. Your contributions here at VLM have added a lot to the thoughtful dialogue here. Thank you.

    2. Oh yes. Sundin's situation was very similar. And his quality was (like Dion's) always questioned.

      I agree with Gardiner, you are right and his problems are coachable. The question is: is he not willing to listen? Or is the coaching staff not able to teach him properly?

      Defense is a team thing and as I said everybody can play defense I was thinking about the defensive contribution of certain forwards. You are right our D needs to do the job better. But Robidas and Polak are additions to strengthen that area.

      I thank you very much Michael!
      I am very glad I came across your wonderful site. It is always a pleasure to think about the things you write and join the discussion.

  4. Not sure if anybody has been watching the rookie tournament games but Loov and Nilsson have been terrific...Way ahead of what most expected and far ahead of Matt Finn. I can't see Finn playing on the Leafs for 3 years, His defensive game doesn't look good. He was responsible for some of the goals against. It they play well, Loov or Nilson might get a look this year or next

    Loov threw a big hit:|TOR|home

    You can tell that Loov and Nilsson have played against men before. They are positionally sound and well coached. Perhaps this is why they felt they could deal Gunarrson, they had additional sound positional players coming down the pipeline.

    With these players, plus Granberg even more developed, I could see the Leafs trading Franson and and shifting towards a more sound, defensively oriented game in a few years. Reilly and Gardiner will be still be making the rushes, but somebody like Granberg, Loov or Nilsson might be hanging back to break up the two on one.

    1. It will be interesting to see if any of the "kids" make a push for a spot. Injuries could play a role there, if one of the core guys misses time. Training camp will determine who is up next. Thanks DP.

  5. I think defense is still the biggest question for all of us. I really don't know what to expect but hope that tweeks to the d-system and more thoughtful usage may give us a better idea what we have in each player. Better forward support will certainly help and I think that the acquisitions this summer may address the problem at least on the bottom six. We don't have that strong defensive forward needed in the top six. Maybe someone will step up in this area.

    If Dion is forced to play on his off-side, still given too many d-zone starts, the toughest minutes and too many minutes, this season will end like the last for him. He'll falter and his offensive numbers will continue to drop, as we've seen under Carlyle. He'll be exhausted, playing with an injury and receiving the blame. It's been stated that he will still play 22 to 25 minutes. I'd bet it's 25+. Add the demand on him for better leadership. That's too much time and too much to expect from one player who, every season, willing takes on more than he can effectively handle. Thanks Michael. Colleen

  6. Just wanted to ad something---I've had an inflammation/ injury in my shoulder. It's not only painful, the muscles simply don't work and can't do what's asked of them. It would have been not only very painful for Dion to use his stick effectively in the last few months of the season, it would have been physically impossible. Colleen

    1. There have been perhaps unfair expectations placed upon the captain as you well outlined, Colleen. Hopefully help is on the way!

  7. I have two words to say: Peter Horachek. The Leafs have a new defensive assistant coach coming in who spent last ten years in Nashville - a team known for its defensive game and a team that developed two of the greatest defencemen playing inn the league today - Ryan Suter and Shae Weber. I'm more than happy to leave this in his capable hands. I really think we're in for a treat.

    1. I've long admired what Poile and Trotz (now gone) have done in Nashville since they launched that franchise, leafdreamer. If Horachek was an important part of that, great. The Preds' have had an identity.

  8. He was - he was in charge of Preds' defense and he was there when both Suter and Weber were acquired - right from the beginning. I really can't imagine a better guy to help develop Riley and Gardiner and help Franson and Phaneuf. Also, if any of our defenders turn out to be 'uncoachable' (i.e. Gardiner) I'm sure Horachek will know who to replace them with.

  9. Michael,

    Keep up the excellent work, I fear that a long winter will soon arrive on our collective doors. There sure are a lot of question marks for our beloved Leafs. It seems to me that this has been the pattern over the last dozen or so years, new players, new optimism. It has, as you point out so well, yet to be played out on the ice.

    So many things, in my opinion, need to go according to plan for the Leafs to improve upon last years finish. A lot of this can be laid at the feet of the defence corps, as well as the teams commitment to overall defensive play. This is not new, by any means. It is my overall impression that there are too many ifs, with respect to the returning defencemen, this could be said of the newcomers, as well. I guess that it is folly to believe that the deck will always favour our Leafs. There has to be a sophomore slump, or an injury, even a regression in there somewhere. It wouldn't be incorrect to expect more than one in all honesty. Is it possible that young Mr. Gardiner spends a significant portion of the season in the doghouse? Will Robidas be healthy, let alone will he be back at the top of his game? Is Polak going to thrive in Toronto? What will become of Franson? He made a nice transition to what the coaching staff asked of him, be a more physical presence. I'm not sure it made him a better player.

    I really am having trouble with a couple of things, can this group continue last years run of good health? Is the coach capable of changing some of the systems he employs to make a noticeable reduction in the number of shots his team allows per game? If Carlyle is willing to listen to his new assistants, perhaps there is a chance of the latter happening. If he is stubborn, and doubles down on his compete mantra, I don't expect him to be around very long.

    There really is only one constant as a fan of this team, the offseason brings a lot of changes to the roster, and optimism is renewed in the fans as soon as they can forget how the last game ended.

  10. Michael,

    Yes we are forever hopeful & we do want to believe. But let us honor the gods of logic & clear minded thought for a moment and endeavor to speak hard truths.

    Last week consensus held no sway over bottom nine Leaf forward opinion save a shared confusion on whether summer acquisitions make an appreciable difference. My own take is yes but not great net positive change. Conclusion in the form of a question: another frustrating line-up causing more Hope than Justifiable Belief?

    On to the D.

    Michael you said 3 great foundational things about defense:

    1. It’s a TEAM thing;
    2. Accountability is crucial; and
    3. Any player who can make the NHL can play good defense if they have the Will.

    Extending this metaphysics of great D to practice, good defense, in my mind requires only four things:

    1. Stopping the other team from shooting on your net;
    2. Clearing the puck effectively and efficiently from the defensive zone (tape to tape pass preferable);
    3. Keep puck in offensive zone with set up pass or a low hard shot somewhere on or near goal; and
    4. All five players knowing when to transition between offence and defense in organized and timely fashion.

    Old school? Perhaps, but as much as I love Bourque, Coffey, Potvin et al, a team only has to do these 4 things well to shut down other teams while contributing offensively (assuming competent forwards).

    You see where I am going with this...but before I get to the question of strategy I would set the table with comments on a player or two.

    There was a moment a couple years ago Phanuef looked like a Scott Stevens in the making. I can’t recall if this was before/after the awful cut to his leg. Now all I can see with certainty is (a) he plays lots of minutes and (b) is better than the average D by some but not a great margin. If he was great or bona fide leader, it would have been apparent by now. Can he get better? He got some gas petal left but another gear? Even with fewer minutes & a better partner…doubtful.

    Polak and Robidas, slight improvements on Gunnarsson, Ranger, Gleeson et al. You said well Michael so enough said… except why-oh-why does Toronto take so many flyers on injured Guys-hoping-to-find-a Bargain-Guy?

    Gardiner and Rielly. Like them both, but like Gardiner more on another team. Why? Three reasons.

    Reason One: you said it politely, I won‘t: he is defensively unreliable. Will that change? Maybe, but, with Reilly already good as he is and better at defense, Gardiner is expendable. Move him soon and we might even pick up that top six guy we are missing, esp. packaged with Riemer.

    Reason Two: Stuart Percy and Matt Finn, both mobile, smart, good passing D men in the wings. Again, no need to say more.

    Reason Three, and to strategy: Don’t build a D around Gardiner (remember Iafrate?). Let me explain with the question: what is the Leafs D strategy anyhow?

    Looks like the short term strategy is titled: Plug Holes, Play Dion Less, Hope Franson gets Better, and Let Gardiner and Reilly Mature into a Core. In the absence of a viable (or even observable) on-ice defensive system, this strategy may make Leafs a bit better. Result (assuming Robidas gets/stays healthy) Bernier might only as a result have to stop 40 pucks in only 10 games instead of 13, and 30 in 30 games instead of 37. We know where that gets us in the standings…

    Medium term strategy? If the short term Plug and Mature plan is near the mark, then the development program indicates mid-term plan is to have a mobile, point producing semi-forward like D man core strategy. Fits with much of where the game is going, and there are things to like about this strategy. Problem is if everyone is doing it (as most are) then it’s not much of a strategy with little chance of doing it any better than the next team.

    There are other ways to go strategically which may be better given the current config. but I am afraid I have abused my text limit and your patience!!!

    Leafs Fan in Mexico

  11. Good to hear from you again, Leafs Fan in Mexico. It feels as though significant improvement (either on defense, or with the team overall) may be two or three years away. What fans are likely looking for in the meantime is a team that is fun to watch and that provides some playoff excitement.

  12. Hi Michael.
    I've been watching the Leafs interview with Robidas and I admit that it's hard not to be very impressed.
    He sounds down to earth, sincere and committed to helping our young Leafs defense. I think he'll be a very calming influence on the whole team which was, I believe, the one of the reasons we valued Bolland. I'll cross my fingers he has better luck and a healthy season. Colleen