The Missing Pieces to the Leafs Blueline

23 Mar

Dion Phaneuf Since the dawn of the Brian Burke era till the 2012 lock out the Maple Leafs defence has been an enigma wrapped in a mystery. They have been cursed with the “Looks good on paper” disease, but haven’t been able to show that on the ice. Fans begin to wonder, how can so many different combinations of talented defensemen continually put out such pathetic results?

Some would say it’s coaching, and they would be at least partially right, and as we’ve seen with the new Carlyle era, that Wilson did have a big part in not allowing the leafs defensemen to live up to expectations. Some would say the defence has looked bad because of the goalies they’ve played infront of, and one doesn’t need to look much farther than Toskala or Gustavsson to see the merit in that point, but the former goalies amongst us would argue that the Leafs defence was bad first, and the goaltending followed suit. Here at LefoHero we look to take a new perspective at the defensive conundrum in Toronto, with a new defensive system in place courtesy of Randy Carlyle and at least average goal tending from the hot and cold James Reimer, the next step for the leafs defence to over come the looking good on paper disease is finding the right balance between offensive and defensive defensemen.

The Holes In the Blueline

Any true hockey fan knows that you can not simply categorize defensemen into “Offensive” or “Defensive” but that all players lye on a spectrum, with many different variables at play, and we’ll try to keep that into account as we go forward. The leafs sub forum of the popular forum site hfboards recently gave out a series of massive polls to it’s fan base asking them to determine what each player on the Leafs roster is “capable of on a playoff team.” The options were as follows…

  • Elite: Top 5 in their position
  • 1A: 1st line/1st pairing/#1 Goalie
  • 1B: Able to fill in 1st line/1st pairing/Average Starter
  • 2A: 2nd line/2nd pairing/Back-up
  • 2B: Able to fill in 2nd line/2nd pairing/Too good for AHL Starter but not proven
  • 3A: 3rd line/3rd pairing
  • 3B Able to fill in 3rd line/3rd pairing
  • 4A 4th line
  • 4B: Able to fill in 4th line
  • Scratch: 13th player/7th dman
  • AHL player: Self explanatory

The results were…

Having asked a large group of fans on a forum board, where only those who wish to will vote obviously creates some inherent bias, but for the purposes of this article the values are all with in reason. In an ideal world, going by the hfboards system the Leafs defensive pairs would look something like this…

1A/B – 1A/B
2A/B – 2A/B
3A/B – 3A/B

Sorting the defensemen the Leafs have into make shift pairings, with out consideration for chemistry or styles of play

Gardiner 1B – Phaneuf 1A
Gunnarsson 2B – Franson 2B
Fraser/Holzer 3A – Liles 2B

As we can see, in terms of pure value (aka “on paper”) the Leafs have a playoff calibre Defence, but let’s take a moment and sort out the pairings in practicality, to create the back bone of our actual pairings, we look at some obvious points.

  • Phaneuf will continue to play on the #1 pairing, he has had this role for his entire tenure in Toronto and Carlyle has been happy having him in this role.
  • The teams two most successful defensemen this year, Franson and Phaneuf, are both more offensively orientated and like to jump into the play more. Which leads one to assume it wouldn’t be in either players interest to pair them together, clearly Carlyle feels the same and has not tried to pair them together in game very much. [% on ice together]
  • Gardiner has made an immediate impact since rejoining the Leafs, and is likely here to stay for good. Which Carlyle has also spoken about.
  • Gardiner is also a player who tends to play up ice often, at time being behind the oppositions net, who though he could play with Phaneuf or Franson, can use his offensive ability much more freely if paired with someone playing more at home.

Taking these four points into consideration the general framework of the Leafs defence pairs looking something like this…

_________ – Phaneuf
Gardiner – ________
________ – Franson

With that back bone in place, we now must find a partner for each defensemen, one who can allow those three to play the style of up ice, offensive game they excel at. When looking for partners for the players from with in the Leafs organization one obvious name sticks out and that is 26 year old Mark Fraser. Fraser and Franson have developed a strong chemistery, something Carlyle has recognized and been taking advantage of, the pair is on the ice for 20.02% of all Leaf games, making them the most consistent pair on the team. Both have done well in the not always reliable +/- stat, and have been able to generate some offence while using their size well, if both can be resigned this off-season that could become a staple 2nd/3rd pair for the team going forward.

_________ – Phaneuf
Gardiner  – ________
Fraser – Franson

Now comes the challenge of finding two top four defensemen who can help balance out Gardiner and Phaneufs game, and this is where I think the problem with the Leafs Defence begins. The Leafs have some talented top four Defensemen in Gunnarsson and Liles, and have some depth players who can occasionally step into the role with Kostka and Holzer, but none of them fit the bill of being the type of stay at home, responsible defensemen the Leafs need in their top four.

If the Leafs can move Liles, Gunnarsson or one of their extra forwards in some deal(s) to bring in two defensively responsible shut down blue liners the Leafs blue line will go from good on paper to just good, until that is addressed the Leafs will continue to struggle to find the right combination of players to have a consistent defence that they can depend on through the season, and hopefully depend on come playoff time.

Free Agent Options

The “cheapest” way to address the issue is to try and dip into the upcoming free agent pool, our top five options for shut down Defensemen the leafs can target.

  1. L. Smid [Smart, great poise, good size, excellent 1 on 1 in the defensive zone, physical]
  2. R. Scuderi [Keeps the game simple, veteran experience with two stanley cup rings, blocks shots, great on the pk]
  3. R. Regehr [Excellent 1 on 1, intimidating, physical, good work ethic, surprisingly mobile]
  4. S. Hannan [Good size, physical, plays overall very sound game]
  5. T. Lydman [Defence first guy, great skating, great positioning]

With the Leafs current age they would be best signing someone close to or under 30 years of age, to be able to stay with the team as they move to being a regular playoff team, which gives Smid the edge, but any of these five signed to a short term deal 1-2 years (to avoid another Komisarek situation) would be a low risk high reward move for the team.

Conclusion

The Leafs clearly have the assets on the blue line to ice a playoff level defence but a small shuffling of the deck is in order to find that right match that will allow all the pieces to flourish.

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