So far this season, there’s little to complain about with regards to the Leafs’ offense, currently ranked 7th in the league with 93 goals scored. It would appear that their defense has left something to be desired, as they have allowed 95 goals already, good for 6th worst in the league, ahead only of teams that are currently considered bottom-feeders (Anaheim, Carolina, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Columbus). A large portion of that has to do with an unfortunate injury to James Reimer, as well as the fact that they’ve been thoroughly outscored by the defending Cup champs during their four meetings with the Bruins (take out the 23 GA in 4 games and the Leafs’ goals-against per game drops below 3.00). Thankfully, Reimer’s back and Jonas Gustavsson has seemingly found a new source of confidence, giving the Leafs, for now at least, a pretty capable and competent 1-2 punch in net. That said, the Leafs will need to get more of the solid defensive play they’ve gotten from the blueline in the past few weeks if they hope to hold on for a playoff berth.
With that in mind, I’m going to grade the Leafs’ defensemen, based on the results we’ve seen over the season’s first 30 games.
Dion Phaneuf – There’s no question Phaneuf is the leader of this blueline, and he’s truly played up to those expectations this season. His 3 goals and 18 points lead the club’s blueliners, and the benefit of playing healthy and confident has translated into his re-birth as perhaps the most dominant physical force in the league, as I can’t think of another player who’s laid more huge hits through the first 30 games of the year. Grade: A
Luke Schenn – The big guy got off to a slow start after spending most of the summer without a new contract. He even saw himself a healthy scratch early in the year, but has responded admirably, and now leads the club’s defensemen with a +4 rating. His early season struggles pull him down a bit here, but if he keeps playing the way he has been lately, especially providing a solid physical presence opposite Jake Gardiner, we’ll all forget those struggles very quickly. Grade: B
Jake Gardiner – Speaking of Gardiner, if there’s any specific player that’s far and away exceeded all preseason expectations, it’s Gardiner. Aside from his great puck skills, vision and vertical speed, his best asset is his confidence. He never seems flustered with the puck, especially in his own end, and at times, that’s gotten him in trouble, as he’s a little over-confident on occasion, but getting play like this from a rookie fresh out of the NCAA is going to come with a few hiccups. Watching this kid continue to get better is going to be a treat. Grade: B+
John-Michael Liles – The veteran that was supposed to fill in while Gardiner spent this season in the AHL hasn’t been supplanted by any means. Liles is on pace for a 49-point season, and is far less of a defensive liability than Tomas Kaberle was in his later years. Considering we snagged him for a 2nd round draft pick that was basically a throw-in from the Kaberle deal, there’s nothing to be upset about with Liles’ game. He’s got good speed, makes good decisions with the puck and is rarely caught out of position. Grade: A
Cody Franson – We’re getting a good look at another of Burke’s offseason acquisitions now, as Franson was scratched for most of the early part of the season. Injuries opened a hole for him in the lineup, and he hasn’t looked back. He’s got a heavy shot, and has as many goals as Phaneuf and Liles in half the games. He’s another huge body on a blueline full of them, but he moves well and doesn’t often get caught out of position. It will be interesting to see how the lineup shakes out once everyone is healthy again, but I doubt he ends up back in the pressbox for extended periods of time like he was at the start of the year. Grade: B+
Mike Komisarek – If there’s a guy who got injured at the worst possible time, it was Komi, who was finally having a good season before he broke his arm. Through 18 games, he had 4 points and a +3 rating, and had kept the giveaways and poor defensive positioning we all hated him for so much over the past two years to a pretty bare minimum. He’s still prone to take a lot of penalties, tied for the team lead among defensemen with 26 PIMs, but if he can come back from this injury and keep the form he found early in the year, it will give Ron Wilson some tough decisions to make on the blueline. Grade: B
Carl Gunnarsson – I’m confused by Gunnarsson’s stat line, as he has just 7 points and a team-worst (among defensemen) -3 rating. Yet, he logs heavy minutes pretty much every night, and helps make Phaneuf able to be the player he wants to be. He seems to get caught out of position on the PK quite a bit, but I rarely come away from a game looking at him as having a brutal game. Grade: C
Keith Aulie – As much as Gardiner has exceeded expectations this season, Aulie has failed to meet those leveled on him after an impressive showing last year. He hasn’t even played all that well in the AHL, and is currently stuck in the press box as the team’s 7th d-man right now. There’s no way to justify him playing top pairing minutes with the glut of talented defensemen currently with the big club, and the sooner he gets back to Dallas Eakins and the Marlies, the better. He needs to keep developing and get back to the solid game he exhibited last year. Thankfully, there’s no need to rush him right now. Grade: D-
Check back this week for my take on the Leafs’ forwards, goalies and coach after the season’s first 30 games.