Leafs Liles still looking for his groove

Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles participates in a tip drill at practice Friday in Mimico. (MIKE...

Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles participates in a tip drill at practice Friday in Mimico. (MIKE PEAKE/QMI Agency)

Terry Koshan, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:30 PM ET

TORONTO - John-Michael Liles says he is his toughest critic.

Ron Wilson would probably tell him to lighten up.

Not long after Liles, the Maple Leafs’ prize catch on the blue line during the off-season, said he has not yet settled into a groove through nine games with Toronto, Wilson, the head coach, scoffed.

“I think he has been fine,” Wilson said after the Leafs practised at the MasterCard Centre. “For a guy who is not in a groove, he has seven assists in nine games. If he keeps that pace up, he is going to have a hell of a year.”

Wilson is right about that. Liles’ assist rate translates into 64 in an 82-game schedule. His career-best is 40, done in his final season with the Colorado Avalanche.

Yet the 30-year-old Liles could be on to something. He does not think he has really come close to playing his best hockey in a Leafs sweater.

Five of his assists have come on a power play that collectively is not scaring a lot of teams. At even-strength, Liles has but two assists and is even in the plus-minus department. He has not scored less than six goals in any of his seven NHL years, and knows he will get his first sooner or later, so that doesn’t bug him. But he has not had any ‘Wow’ moments with the Leafs.

“I’m trying to put the puzzle pieces together on exactly what my role is,” Liles said. “The majority of the guys are new to me and I’m new to them, and we’re still figuring each other out.

“The bottom line is I’m working hard every night, and overall, the team has been pretty successful.”

That success will get a stiff challenge on Saturday night when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Air Canada Centre. Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby’s long path back from a concussion remains in a holding pattern as he tries to get some contact in practice, but this is a Pittsburgh club has been accomplishing a lot without him.

There’s a group of forwards led by star Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and the emerging James Neal that has the potential to give Liles and his pals on defence a hard time.

“(Crosby) is one of the best players in the world, but they have plenty of guys who can do some offensive damage,” Mike Komisarek said. “They play a disciplined team game. It’s going to be a good test for us.”

In the midst of it, Liles will keep trying to settle into a rhythm with his relatively new mates. Though the initial thought might be that training camp was the time to work out the kinks, that process often doesn’t take hold until the regular season begins to unfold. Everyday players now are playing every day, where in camp Liles saw time with others who didn’t become his usual partner.

“Right now I’m playing with Komisarek, and I played with Luke (Schenn) a little bit, but in camp, I did not really play with either of them,” Liles said. “It takes a while. As teams figure out more of their identity, sometimes there is loose play, but the more familiar you are, things tighten up.”

Striving for comfort on the power play also is taking time. As Dion Phaneuf’s set-up man, Liles is discovering the intricacies of playing with the captain.

“It took me a little while to figure out where Dion likes those one-timers, and he is starting to figure out where I am,” Liles said. “A lot of times I am wandering around trying to find open areas, which is good. If I can get people looking at me, it leaves him open.”

On the whole, Liles isn’t disappointed or anything close to it. He knew that in becoming part of a new team, there would be a learning curve.

“I don’t think I am in a groove,” Liles said, “but I am working my way toward being comfortable.”

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

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