D-Lightful: Toronto Maple Leafs Defense Has A Bright Future
Acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in the Francois Beauchemin deal, Jake Gardiner put together an impressive rookie season, registering seven goals, 23 assists and a very respectable plus/minus rating of minus-2.
At just 22-years old, Gardiner looks to have a very bright future ahead of him. His smooth-skating style and ability to rush the puck should help the kid they call the “silver stick” earn more power play minutes, which should see his minutes per game climb from the 21:35 he averaged in 2011-12 (third most on the Leafs roster).
While an increase in minutes played and/or an increase in power play time does not guarantee more points, penciling Gardiner in for 40 points next season would hardly seem like a stretch.
Meanwhile, captain Dion Phaneuf (27) redeemed himself for what many felt to be a sub-par season in 2010-11 where he registered eight goals and 22 assists through 66 games, registering 12 goals and 32 assists in 2011-12.
Phaneuf’s first half efforts earned him a trip to the All-Star game, and while his second half was more of a struggle for the one-time feared defender, he looks to be on an uptick.
With Gardiner and Phaneuf poised to have solid seasons for the Maple Leafs the future looks bright for the Maple Leafs backend—and there is plenty of other talent in the system.
Fellow youngster Carl Gunnarsson (25) also had a solid season establishing himself as a workhorse on the Blue and White’s blueline. While the man I affectionately call “Uzi” for his cannon of a shot has yet to fill the net on a consistent basis, there is hope that he will find his way offensively, while his overall defense is a work in progress.
Used sparingly last season, Cody Franson (25) filled in nicely for the oft-benched Mike Komisarek, posting five goals and 16 assists (21 points) in just 57 games played. While still listed as a restricted free agent the smart money suggests Toronto Maple Leafs will re-sign Franson once the CBA agreement is settled.
A core of Gardiner, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Franson is a nice start for any NHL team. Add in prospect Korbinian Holzer (24), who is expected to take the place of the departed Luke Schenn as a stay-at-home defenseman next season and the Maple Leafs defense looks even stronger.
Prospects Morgan Rielly (18), Stuart Percy (19), Jesse Blacker (21) and Matthew Finn (18) give fans hope that there is reason to believe that the Maple Leafs backend could dominate in the not so distant future.
When it comes to prospects nothing is for certain, but NHL scouts are high on Rielly and Finn, while Blacker and Percy also look like legitimate future NHL players.
Rielly has the makings of a top-pairing defenseman with considerable offensive upside and a solid defensive side to his game. Finn projects to be more of a defensive defenseman, but his offense is developing at a quick pace. Percy looks to be a solid two-way defender, while Blacker is more of a positionally sound player,
All four prospects are said to have an above average hockey IQ, which should serve them well making the transition to the NHL.
The biggest upside looks to be with Rielly and Finn, both of whom were selected in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft with the number five and number 35 selections, respectively.
Where the Maple Leafs backend seems to be lacking is in the grit department. Both Phaneuf and Gunnarsson could step up the physical side of their games, an area where Phaneuf once excelled. At 6’2” and 196 pounds Gunnarsson has good size, but his mean streak is just not there yet.
The sleeper in the grit department is Holzer who, if he develops his craft, already has good size at 6’3” and 206 pounds. Known for his solid transition game, Holzer is not afraid to initiate contact and was a key member of the Toronto Marlies run to the Calder Cup Finals last season in a shutdown role.
Another wild card is 6’4”, 210 pound Mark Fraser. Fraser, who has spent some time in the New Jersey Devils organization, has the skating ability to be an NHL defenseman and is not afraid to lay the body on opposing forwards. This kid is a tough as they come and if given a chance could emerge as the Maple Leafs muscle on the backend. Fraser will compete for that role with Holzer and tough luck veteran Mike Komisarek as a stay-at-home defender.
At 6’4” and 243 pounds Mike Komisarek has the size the Maple Leafs so badly need on the backend, but injuries and an inability to keep up with opposing forwards has limited his play since his arrival to the Maple Leafs via free agency in 2009.
Once thought to be one of the better hitters in hockey, Komisarek (30) has looked like a shadow of the player he was when he played for the Montreal Canadiens. Should Komisarek continue to struggle on the ice it is widely believed he will be bought out or let go when he becomes a unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2013-14.
Should Komisarek find his way in the physical department the Maple Leafs defense gets noticeably better, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Still, with three very good pairings (Phaneuf—Gardiner, Gunnarsson—Rielly, Holzer—Finn) in the not so distant future and the likes of Franson, Stuart and Blacker pushing them, the Maple Leafs defense looks to be as good as any going forward, which is great news if you are a member of the Leafs Nation.
Given Burke’s organizational needs up front and between the pipes it may be tough for Burke to hold onto all of his defensive prospects as he may have to use one or more of them in trades, but he’ll weigh those options when the trades present themselves.
The future may still be a couple of seasons away, but Burke should be commended for assembling a terrific group of young talent on the backend from which he should see big dividends soon.
The future looks bright Toronto—at least on the blueline.
Until next time,