Toronto Maple Leafs Are In Need Of A Defensive Specialist
When Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke chose to fire Ron Wilson in favor of bringing in Randy Carlyle there were immediate rumblings that the Maple Leafs would go from a fire-wagon hockey club to one that puts an emphasis on physical play and defense.
A quick look at the roster Burke has assembled in Toronto reveals few players with above average physical prowess and no real defensive specialist. Burke made little changes on the backend which makes it tough for us to imagine a team that will improve dramatically in the goals against department.
After watching a couple of disappointing seasons, Burke shipped out Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers in return for James van Riemsdyk. Schenn led the team in hits last season with 270 while finishing third on the team with 115 blocked shots.
While Schenn’s minutes dropped dramatically from 2010-11 seasons 18:38 per game to last seasons 14:37, nobody ever questioned Luke’s heart or the effort he brought to the rink each night. Schenn may have struggled in his own end from time-to-time, but he was a warrior in terms of hitting and blocked shots, which will be hard to replace.
The plan is to have Korbinian Holzer step into Schenn’s place, with an outside hope of Mike Komisarek stepping up—neither option is awe inspiring, neither option is likely to replace Schenn’s considerable numbers.
Up front Carlyle and Burke look hell-bent on giving JVR a whirl at centre. With little experience at the centre ice position and questionable defensive skills the odds are against JVR being a success at centre, but when your hockey club has little in the way of options I suppose an effort to change should be applauded.
A line of Phil Kessel, JVR and Joffrey Lupul might be one of the more dangerous trios in terms of offensive output, but none of those players are known for their defensive play.
Sure, Lupul gets back when he can and Kessel is improving, but JVR can be a liability out there which means he will have to learn to back check responsibly next season, especially if he is going to be playing centre.
On the second line the Maple Leafs will choose three players from Mikhail Grabovski, Nazem Kadri, Nikolai Kulemin, Tim Connolly, Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur and Matthew Lombardi.
Of those seven Kulemin and Grabovski are the best two-way players, while MacArthur, Connolly and the speedy Lombardi can also play a little defense. With Carlyle going with that defense-first mentality a lineup of Kulemin and Grabovski with Kadri or MacArthur on the second line seems most likely. The thing is, none of those players are capable of the big hit, none of them stand out as elite defensive players.
If you fail to ice much defense throughout your first two lines you’d better address it on the third and fourth lines. Burke added defensive-minded forward Jay McClement in the off-season. His presence on the penalty kill will be a welcome addition for a team that finished with the 28th ranked PK and 29th ranked defense last season.
A line of McClement, Bozak and Matt Frattin might be a good mix of grit and speed, while a fourth line of Mike Brown, David Steckel and one of Leo Komarov, Lombardi or Connolly filling out the roster.
Still, when you consider the Maple Leafs bottom-six there is still a void in terms of a defensive specialist. If Burke fails to augment his roster he will have to rely on his players to bring a measure of snarl to the rink and be willing to pay the price to outplay their opponents both physically and in terms of physical fitness.
When it comes to the Maple Leafs roster Burke will have to rely on Hustle more than anything else. Hustle can overcome a lack of size, hustle can overcome a lack of skill and hustle can overcome a lack of physical play—the question is will Burke’s team be willing to pay the price?
Until next time,