September 27, 2011
Which Leafs will be left standing?Nine defencemen competing for six jobs
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - He can count to six and to nine just as quickly as the other defenceman still in Leafs training camp.
So there’s no need to beat Keith Aulie over the head with an Easton to remind him he’s in for a battle to retain his starting job on the Leafs blueline.
With nine defenceman still in camp, as few as four or five of the starting six jobs are anywhere near settled. Who gets a spot opening night is one of the big stories to be played out over the next 10 days.
“So far I just feel I’ve been okay,” Aulie said after a two-hour practice Monday at the Mastercard Centre. “I’ve felt really good, I’m just a half second late sometimes and haven’t defended the way I want to.
“You can’t hide the fact that we have a lot of good D-men here and a lot of good D-men ready to play. Lots of guys are playing well and it’s going to make (management’s) decision pretty hard.
“If you are in my shoes, I have to show them everything I got these last two or three games.”
He’s not alone.
From general manager Brian Burke to coach Ron Wilson, it’s been recognized as a good problem to have.
If there’s anywhere in the organization that depth of NHL talent exists, this is it. Many general managers believe a team needs eight NHL-ready defencemen anyway to be prepared for injuries.
The other obvious benefit of depth is the currency it provides on the trade market.
Theories abound on what management should do though performance over the final three pre-season games could help sort it out.
“We might have the easy job just going out there and playing,” said newcomer John-Michael Liles.
“For sure it pushes you. There are a lot of guys who deserve to be here.”
Here’s a look at the nine D-men still around with some thoughts on their prospects to remain when the season opens on Oct. 6:
The captain isn’t going anywhere, obviously, but that doesn’t mean big things won’t be expected from him.
So far in training camp, Phaneuf has been playing with that edge that signals he’s at his feisty best.
This will be his third season in Toronto and fans are still waiting to see that big, booming shot translate in some offence. If he’s paired with Liles on the power play, we may see a good deal of it.
There’s also a sense that he’s nicely settling into his role of captain which could be key in the young Leafs dressing room.
If there has been a regular blue liner that has even come close to struggling in training camp, it has been the big second-year man.
But a couple giveaways against Buffalo in a pre-season contest won’t be enough to sour the coaching staff, especially if he picks up his play in the next week.
That said, Wilson acknowledged Monday that Aulie may need to step it up.
“He’s in a fight,” the coach said. “He’s got to keep himself grounded and not take anything for granted.
“Now we have to see if he can play well when there’s a little bit of a competition and pressure from other people.
“It’s very competitive right now. Last year at the end (when Aulie was piling up big minutes), we weren’t very deep and he was able to get in there and play well.”
That sounds like a challenge from Wilson and may well be. With a two-way contract, the process of demoting Aulie is simple. That said, he was a 19-minute a night guy and with that big reach and physical side, acquitted himself well.
Could he play his way off the team? Sure. But if he has a strong end to the pre-season, he should stick.
Armed with his big, multi-year contract, Schenn will be looked upon as a rock for the forseeable future.
He’s as solid as they come and should hold down the three or four spot for the duration of his five-year deal.
The intrigue here is who he will be partnered with. At times in camp he has been alongside Liles making for a nice mix of stay-at-home size and puck-moving speed.
Acquired on NHL draft day in June, Liles was brought to town essentially to replace the role of Tomas Kaberle and if you’ve seen him in practice, you can see the potential and he will be a big part of the team’s power play.
“I think it’s not a bad problem to have because it makes the team better and makes the player work that much harder,” Liles said of the bustling blueline. “Very rarely do you go through a season where there aren’t injuries and you are losing guys.
“One year in Colorado, we had so many injuries that four of our starters one night had a combined 11 games NHL experience.”
On Monday, Franson said he wants to be Wilson’s go-to guy in every situation and he’s got the tools for most of them.
A strong skater armed with a heavy shot, he may be an option on the power play as well but can also play with an edge.
Franson acknowledged that the final week of camp will be crucial not only to see who plays, but for what pairings work best.
“We’ve definitely got some kinks to work out,” Franson said. “Most of us have only played two or three games and it takes a little bit of time to work those kinks out.
“It’s still an audition for everyone.”
There seems to be a not so silent majority that believes Komisarek should be run out of town before he even gets a chance to start his third season with the Leafs.
A little hasty, we should think.
Has Komisarek struggled since he’s been here? Sure he has, as his 10-12 minutes ice time much of last season will confirm.
But if he simplifies his game and commits himself to being the physical, stay-at-home defenceman Burke brought him here to be, he can be a solid No. 5 or No. 6 guy.
He has looked quietly confident and efficient so far in camp. That said, a strong start is imperative, especially with the young depth behind him.
An obvious choice to be on the bubble, a less obvious choice to immediately be sent to the Marlies.
Gunnarsson played his way into the lineup most nights last season and continued to develop into an NHL-calibre defenceman.
“Competition is always good, but if you are not playing well, you have to push yourself,” Gunnarsson said. “All nine D have played well so far. We’ve got three more to show the coaches you want the job.”
The darling of this year’s camp, he has already developed a loyal following that will surely be outraged if he is sent to coach Dallas Eakins with the Marlies.
Of course, that might be the best thing for him.
Not to diminish what he’s done, but Gardiner’s impressive work thus far has come against watered-down pre-season opponents. If he continues to stand out this week, he’ll really give his bosses something to think about.
Bottom line though is that even if he’s determined to be NHL ready, more seasoning in the minors can’t hurt — with one caveat as articulated by Wilson on Monday.
“Sometimes it’s easier to play in the NHL on defence than it is in the minors,” the coach said. “Sometimes it can be really chaotic (in the AHL) if you are a defenceman.
“Playing with an NHL defenceman, if he’s a good solid veteran, can really calm a young guy down.”
He is still here in camp, but he would be the longest shot to stick, even for press box duty.
It doesn’t hurt having nine, bodies and if he lands with the Marlies, Lashoff has a chance to work his way back up to the big club.