OK, sorry for the bad joke – couldn’t resist. Due to a couple of requests, we’re going to jump from the Leafs’ forward units to the blueline. Obviously, the Leafs’ top defenseman is captain Dion Phaneuf. The key to establishing who gets the job alongside him on the Leafs’ top pairing will not only be a contest of talent, but more of a question of who lets Phaneuf perform at the top of his game – the way we saw him finish the season – decking people in the neutral zone, rushing the puck and hitting the net with that bomb of his. That said, there’s more than a few willing candidates for the job.
Candidates: John-Michael Liles, Carl Gunnarsson, Keith Aulie, Mike Komisarek (don’t count out Jake Gardiner – but even if he’s as good as we all hope he is, I highly doubt he jumps to the top pairing right away)
Since most of you are probably shaking your heads at my inclusion of Mike Komisarek on this list, we’ll tackle the big dummy first. Yes, Komisarek has been one of the biggest busts of Brian Burke’s time in Toronto. Brought on to be a mainstay on the Leafs’ blueline, he’s been a turnover machine, a defensive liability in his own end, and a general all-around knucklehead with a penchant for bad penalties. The problem is, as many analysts have noted, is that Komi is the kind of player that needs to play big minutes in order to play the type of game that made him successful. Unfortunately, he hasn’t shown the kind of reliability necessary to earn those minutes in his time in Toronto. Much like Aulie provided the defensive stay-at-home presence that Phaneuf thrived playing next to after his call-up last year, a healthy, confident Komisarek would provide the exact same thing. Now, I’m not saying Komisarek will show up to camp a changed man, but if he does, and he can somehow re-find the player we all thought we were getting, I’d have a tough time picking someone else over him.
However, since I refuse to set expectations that are unlikely to be reached, the top pairing will likely be filled out by someone else. While Gunnarsson could be a decent fit, he already has a good chemistry with Luke Schenn, and his offensive game doesn’t complement Phaneuf’s very well. The acquisition of John-Michael Liles, a bona-fide top four defenseman for most of his career, makes this a difficult question to answer, since it would seem to make sense that a puck-mover like Liles would be a good fit for Phaneuf. However, Liles’ strong point has never been his defensive play, and it’s a solid possibility he ends up playing next to Schenn.
As crazy it sounds, the lanky sophomore from Rouleau, Saskatchewan may be the best fit for Phaneuf. He was the dose of good medicine that set Dion off last season, and barring the dreaded sophomore slump, he showed signs last season of becoming one of the key cogs in the future of this blueline. My guess is that Keith Aulie will get every opportunity to keep the job he was thrown into with Francois Beauchemin’s departure last season, and I’m hoping he can hold it. The best part about the depth Burke has built on this blueline is the fact that there’s plenty of guys who would love to take advantage of any opportunity provided by any slip-ups on Aulie’s part.
So what do you think? Am I outta my mind thinking that Komisarek could be a good fit with Dion? Do you think Liles would make a legit top-pairing defenseman, or is Aulie the answer?