With teams still circling the free agency landing strip while the fiery crash that is the Kovalchuk negotiations gets cleaned up, Tomas Kaberle has been given a few extra weeks to enjoy the lovely Toronto scenery before he’s traded for what Brian Burke and Leaf fans are hoping will be a very offensively gifted piece of the puzzle. Burkie can say what he wants about not shopping the Czech blueliner, but with the acquisition of Brett Lebda last week, it’s pretty much guaranteed that Kabby will be in different colors next fall. Possible trade destinations aside, what I’m more interested in is how the Leafs’ blueline will look without the smooth-skating puck mover.
Captain Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin will almost certainly be the Leafs’ top D-pairing heading into the season, but Beauchemin will have to get off to a much better start than he did last year. After that, it gets a little less clear in terms of pairings, but the Leafs should be very solid with Luke Schenn, a healthy Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson and Lebda rounding out their blueline corps.
Clearly, Phaneuf is the new cornerstone of a defense that should be out for blood after being torched for a conference-worst 267 goals last year. His swagger and attitude alone have already proven to be a shot in the arm for the club as a whole, and while there’s no shortage of critics for the big man (all of them safely behind a laptop and far from the ice, where I doubt any of them would have much to say at all), don’t forget that this is a 25 year old who’s already been in the running for the Norris Trophy. He hasn’t even really reached his prime yet, and with a chance to shine in a big market, I’m expecting big things from him this season.
Luke Schenn will also have some naysayers to silence this year, but with a solid finish to the season, it looked as if he’d finally put his sophomore slump to an end. Along with Gunnarsson, Schenn stands to benefit immensely from Toronto’s current depth on D, as he’ll be allowed to continue his development at his own pace. A couple of rumors have popped up that involved Schenn being moved instead of Kabby, but I’m confident Burke is smarter than that and won’t let what appears to be a stellar defenseman in-the-making get away. With his entry-level contract about to expire, this is Schenn’s big chance to prove that all the hype has not been for naught.
Unlike Schenn, Gunnarsson’s had the luxury of succeeding without any expectations. The former 7th round pick is starting to look like a steal, and if he can stay healthier than he did last year, it should be very exciting what he can do with a full NHL season. In just 43 games, he tallied 15 points and a +8 rating, no small feat considering he played for the worst defensive team in the East. Hopefully he doesn’t take a step back in his sophomore year, but again, without the pressure to play on the top 2 pairings, he’ll be allowed to come along at his own pace.
Beauchemin and Komisarek were Burke’s “big” acquisitions last summer, but so far, the only big things we’ve seen out of either are their contracts. Komi was a -9 with only 4 points in the 34 games he played, and he’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than that to justify his $4.5 million contract. At -13, Beauchemin didn’t exactly live up to his full billing last season, but as the oldest member of the Leafs’ D, he’ll be expected to help lead this young group in the right direction. No better way to do that than by improving his own play, especially in his own end, where he was the culprit of at least a few choice giveaways. Then again, considering how last season went, good luck finding someone on the Leafs that didn’t turn the puck over in their own end at least a few times.
Finally, the little-known Brett Lebda. At 28 years old, Lebda already has 62 playoff games under his belt, valuable experience that isn’t very common on the young Leafs. He’s already won a Cup with Detroit, and will hopefully bring some of that winning attitude with him. He was also overshadowed in Detroit by the likes of Lidstrom, Rafalski and Kronwall, so it will be interesting to see how he takes advantage of the opportunity to earn more playing time in TO.
The biggest keys here, in my opinion, are Boosh and Komi. If the two vets can get their collective s*** together this season, even without Kabby, the Leafs should have one of the deepest bluelines around. The youngsters Schenn and Gunnarsson will most likely be given plenty of opportunity to prove their merit, and there’s no reason to think that the Leafs should be much better defensively next year. Of course, this is Toronto, so there’s always the possibility that what looks like it works on paper is a total disaster on the ice, so only time will tell.