As with any training camp, the prominent story on the Leafs’ blue line this September has been one of the fringes. That is, who can hold on to a spot in time for next Thursday’s opener and who finds themselves suiting up down the street at Ricoh Coliseum. The problem with that focus is that it ignores the bigger picture: Toronto is chockfull of young, inexpensive blue line depth.
Regardless of who among Carl Gunnarsson, Keith Aulie, Mike Komisarek, Jake Gardiner and Matt Lashoff gets the fifth / sixth / seventh defensive spots, nearly all should see at least some duty with the big club this year. More importantly, all are NHL-ready and, with the exception of expensive bust Komisarek, are 24 and younger.
Gunnarsson, who looks to have an inside track on one of the available jobs, already has 111 games of NHL experience under his belt and won’t turn 25 until November 9. Aulie, who may be a surprise cut due to still-existent options on his contract and significantly less-expensive AHL contract, might be a top four defender on pure talent on this club and just turned 22 this summer. Komisarek still belongs on an NHL blue line, but doesn’t fit the model of what the team is trying to do an still wields an unsightly three years and $12.5 million on his albatross of a contract. Gardiner, the Leafs’ annual ‘turning heads in training camp’ guy, remains a reach to make the club but is just 21 and will make it to Toronto sooner or later. Lashoff, meanwhile, remains the most interesting case as a 24-year old without a ton of upside but who could be called upon to serve as a smooth-skating depth defenceman.
However makes it among the fringe guys, they will be joining an already young core of newly-signed 21-year old Luke Schenn, 24-year old newcomer Cody Franson and the resident “greybeards”, 30-year old John-Michael Liles and 26-year old captain Dion Phaneuf.
Let’s not overrate this unit – they will make their mistakes. Gone from the 2010-11 team are Francois Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle and Brett Lebda, not to mention a more minimal role for Komisarek (if he even makes the team). That’s an awful lot of veteran experience to lose out on, some of which will be filled by Liles, but much of which will fall to a more prominent Schenn and the thrown-to-the-fire Franson. What’s more, head coach Ron Wilson seems to be toying with the idea of pairing the youngsters together, with Phaneuf and Liles manning the top slot on the depth chart.
While Phaneuf and Liles could comprise a two-way tandem looking to join the rush, the Schenn-Franson pairing could transform into a formidable shutdown pairing. The two men are both physical and know each other well after crossing paths in the Western Hockey League. As such, they could see plenty of time this season against elite opposing forwards, putting plenty of pressure on two youngsters with a fat, new contract (Schenn) and getting accustomed to a far different atmosphere than his previous home in Nashville (Franson).
The third pairing (of course, none of these defensive sets are set in stone) still seems fairly wide open. While Aulie and Gardiner have excelled, this may come down to the harsh reality of asset protection and cap awareness. The Leafs don’t want to risk losing an asset like Gunnarsson for nothing, so he will be tabbed with one of the remaining spots. Meanwhile, the team is unlikely to find any takers for Komisarek and would be loath to burn this year’s $5.5 million in the AHL or the press box (they’re already tossing around enough wasted money through Darcy Tucker’s still-existing $1 million per year buyout and the final year of Jeff Finger’s four-year/$14 million deal), so expect him to hold a spot. Lashoff could possibly squeeze into a seventh spot / fill-in role in order to offer up an extended audition and to give Aulie and Gardiner bigger minutes with the Marlies before getting the call down the road.
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Written by Ben Fisher