Leafs' blue-line blanks

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:21 AM ET

Dion Phaneuf sat in his locker in full equipment at the MasterCard Centre early on Friday afternoon, contemplating the questions of a reporter before heading off for another photo shoot.

Such is life for the Maple Leafs captain, whose every on-ice move is scrutinized in a city that is not so much hockey-mad as it is Leafs-crazy.

Phaneuf missed 16 games this season after his leg was sliced by a skate, an injury that required surgery. And though he has been back in the lineup since the first week of December, he just recently has been playing up to his standards on the blue line.

There’s one area of his game that he would like to improve, however, and he’s not the only Leafs defenceman who is thinking that way.

“I want to produce,” Phaneuf said. “It’s part of my job. I’ve said that all along. But I was hurt this year, so how am I going to put up the same numbers by missing that many games?”

Phaneuf has one goal in 30 games. Tomas Kaberle, for whom scoring has been a forte, has one goal in 46 games. Ditto for Francois Beauchemin. Mike Komisarek has scored once in 42 games, while Luke Schenn, the most defensive of them all, has two goals in 46 games.

Carl Gunnarsson, who was being called “the Swedish Bobby Orr” by his teammates on Friday during practice, in 35 games has a team-high three goals among defencemen, his third coming on Thursday night in a win against the visiting Anaheim Ducks.

The combined total of nine was among the lowest for any group of top six defencemen in the National Hockey League.

Defencemen, and the issue of scoring goals, is a bit of a paradox in hockey. Putting the puck in the other team’s net is not the integral reason they are on the ice, but for a team to have the most success, production from the back end usually helps.

Coach Ron Wilson’s club will be in a fight to make the playoffs, and there are many reasons for that, not the least of which that the Leafs simply are fairly thin throughout the roster.

But Wilson is not overly worried about whether his defencemen score on a consistent basis.

“I’m not going to be the Dutch boy here running around putting my fingers in different holes,” Wilson said. “It’s always something. So, yes, I would like to see our defence more involved, but it hasn’t been, and I am not going to fret about it, as long as we are winning and playing as well as we did (on Thursday night).

“You would hope that our defence could produce more in terms of goal-scoring, but it is not happening. The only concern is did we win the last game, and we did.”

But would the Leafs have more than 19 victories and be closer than 11 points out of a playoff spot had the defence corps generated more goals? Probably. The Leafs have 10 one-goal losses this season, and you have to figure that balanced scoring would have given way to a couple more wins.

Phaneuf scored 20 as a rookie with the Calgary Flames in 2005-06 and Kaberle twice has scored 11 in one season. So the potential is there, somewhere.

Perhaps coincidentally, the Leafs defencemen spent much of the second half of practice on Friday, as they prepared for Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, on the offensive blue line, blasting pucks at the net, their paths blocked by only the plastic and wooden shape of goaltender.

“We work on it every day,” Komisarek said. “We are always getting on our forwards to get in front of the net and make it difficult for the goalie to find the puck. And the coaches are putting an emphasis on the defencemen to be joining the rush and getting up on the play. We’re always trying to find guys to compliment each other’s skills.”

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

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