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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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