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What might the Leafs’ defense look like on opening night?

There will be tons of ramped-up speculation and discussion regarding the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defense heading into training camp. The group had a disastrous year in terms of limiting shots against. No team in the league gave up more shots or shot attempts at even-strength last season. But even if the Leafs needed the stellar play of James Reimer to bail them out seemingly every game last year, there is reason to be optimistic about their chances of improving. I mean, there’s nowhere to go but up, right? Right???

Ryan O’Byrne, a trade deadline pickup by general manager Dave Nonis last season, is gone. Michael Kostka, a career minor-leaguer who finally got his shot with 35 games in the big league last year, is also gone. Kostka signed a one-year, $550-thousand contract with the Chicago Blackhawks on July 19, and O’Byrne is still searching for a new team in free agency. At best, both of these guys are veterans who can step in if any player in your top-nine gets injured, but shouldn’t be relied on to play a key role. To put it mildly, neither of these losses will hurt the team.

As for the additions to the blueline, Nonis was fairly quiet on that front as well. Paul Ranger, who spent last year with the Marlies after taking a three-year sabbatical, was signed to an NHL contract and will fight for a job with the Leafs at training camp. The other addition is 24-year-old T.J. Brennan, an offensive force in the AHL who played 29 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers last year. If Ranger can come close to the level he played at while getting top-line minutes with the Tampa Bay Lightning four years ago, and his strong season with the Marlies suggests that’s very possible, he should get a spot on the Leafs. Brennan will more than likely spend the year on the Marlies but will probably see some time with the big club as an injury call-up.

The wild card is 19-year-old and 2012 fifth-overall pick Morgan Rielly. Rielly scored nearly a point-per-game with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL last year (54 in 60) and even saw 22 regular season and playoff games with the Marlies, scoring two goals and two assists. Because of stupid NHL rules, Rielly is too young to play full-time with the Marlies this year, and will either have to be sent back to junior or, if he’s ready, given a spot on the Leafs’ roster.

The main issue is Rielly’s contract would hold a not-insignificant $1.744-million cap hit if he played on the Leafs, and as you probably know, Nonis is having a tough enough time getting key players signed before training camp as it is. Rielly might come in and impress the Leafs’ brass to the point where they have no choice but to make room on the roster for him, but the more likely scenario is we’ll see Rielly back in the far inferior Canadian junior leagues, but would at least get another chance to win gold with Canada’s junior team. Thanks, stupid NHL rule!

But probably the biggest upgrade to the Leafs’ blueline will come from Jake Gardiner, who played only 12 regular season games last year, mostly because of a concussion but partly because of weird lineup decisions by Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle. Gardiner was finally given top-line minutes in the playoffs and flourished in that role. His exceptional skating and puck-moving abilities were a big reason why the Leafs nearly completed the upset over the Boston Bruins in the playoffs. Did I mention he’s only 23? If he’s able to stay healthy and given top-four minutes from Carlyle, his presence alone could improve the Leafs’ poor shot-differential exponentially.

With all that being said, here’s what the Leafs’ defensive depth chart might look like right now:

Dion Phaneuf

Carl Gunnarsson

Jake Gardiner

Cody Franson

Paul Ranger

Mark Fraser

John-Michael Liles

T.J. Brennan

Kevin Marshall

Morgan Rielly

A weird little fact about this group is only Franson is right-handed. I don’t think players playing on their wrong side are something to stress about, but it may influence how Carlyle deploys his players. The way I see it is Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner and Franson are by far the four best defensemen the Leafs have, and therefore should be given the most minutes. Ranger has a shot at moving up the depth chart, but if not, he fits in well on the bottom pairing with Fraser.

This unit may be thin on traditional “shut-down” defensemen, but most of these guys are adept at skating and moving the puck quickly out of the zone. The elephant in the room is Franson, who is still without a contract for this season. If Nonis is forced to trade him to create salary cap space, his loss would be a huge blow. But as it stands, the Leafs should feel comfortable going to war against almost any team in the league with this group.


Which "wild card" defenseman is most likely to make the Leafs out of training camp?

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Tags: Toronto Maple Leafs

6 Comments on What might the Leafs’ defense look like on opening night?

  1. Marleafs_87 says:

    I say Ranger. I think JML is going to get buried. Also, you forgot Granberg. He is a right shot and is looking very promising. Could be getting a few games in with Leafs. Holzer is most likely going to be traded this year. His showing with the Leafs last year was poor. On top of that he only ‘looked’ NHL ready when he played with Fraser on the Marlies. When Fraser stayed with the big boys, Holzer looked lost on the ice. Seeing his game change over the last two seasons has been hard to watch. Hopefully he will raise his value on the Marlies this year (good opportunity to shine on a young team) so we can get something in return.

    • Tennis Newz says:

      The thing is you can’t bury a contract in the minors anymore without it counting against the cap and JML has another 3 years on his contract. They’ve already used their compliance buyouts to get out of other terrible contracts so unless they do a standard buyout, his full salary will count against the cap for the next few seasons even if they put him down in the minors. They either need to play him or trade him but I don’t see another team picking up that contract either and it’s even less likely for anyone to want to take him if he’s playing in the minors. The most likely I think i that they play him and hope that he looks good enough that another team will be willing to take on his contract. Or they retain some of his salary in a trade, which also isn’t a great situation. He also has some type of NTC so I don’t know what the trade restrictions are. Amazing the amount of brutal contracts the Leafs have signed. Even in this offseason they haven’t signed Kadri or Franson and they bring in Bolland as a rental 3rd liner at over $3M. I think he’s a good player but is it more important for them to bring in a pending UFA to play on the 3rd line or to make sure you retain your good young players?

      • Tim Bayer says:

        I agree with you on Liles. I’m not sure why Nonis didn’t buy him out during that standard buyout period from August 2-4. It may have cost the Leafs down the road when his cap-hit balloons to over $2-million, but at least it would have opened up enough space to get Kadri and Franson signed. Now their only options are to bury him (which would only save the Leafs about $900,000 in cap space) or play him and hope he plays well enough to draw trade interest. Like you said, I think Option #2 is the more likely scenario. But the problem is, now we’re left with having to wait and see if any team wants to bite, and Kadri and Franson will likely remain unsigned. I don’t see this ending without Franson being traded, and that would really suck. Bad cap management on the Leafs’ part for sure.

  2. Stan Smith says:

    I think the leafs will get both Kadri and Franson signed. They might hold out to start the season like Subban did but I think Nonis will do something to make enough cap room to sign them.

    Unless Rielly amazes at camp I agree at who you have as a starting six. I don’t think Gardiner and Franson are a good pairing with both of them being offensive minded though. I wonder if a Franson/Fraser and Gardiner/Ranger would be better pairings more as a 2a and 2b instead of a 2nd and 3rd pairing. I think with those pairs both of them could take a little ice time away from Phaneuf/Gunnarson, which would be a good thing.

    • Tim Bayer says:

      The lack of a “defense-first” guy on that second unit might be a concern, although I thought Gardiner and Franson played very well together in the playoffs. Franson did play almost exclusively with Fraser during the regular season, so Carlyle may opt to keep things as they were. In that case, I wouldn’t mind a Gardiner-Ranger pairing at all.

      • Stan Smith says:

        I agree that they did play well together in the playoffs, and even if they don’t play together on a regular basis, Carlyle has the option of throwing them out there late in the game if they are down a goal and need more offence.

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