Although the positives have been few and far between for the struggling Leafs so far this season, the continued progression of blueliner Ian White bodes well for the team both in the short and long term. With the likes of stay at home defenders such as Beachemin, Schenn, and Komisarek locked into the club’s core for the foreseeable future, the complementary puckmoving and point producing skills of White make him that much more valuable to Burke‘s plan of building from the net out.
With White finally beginning to cement himself as a very good NHL defenseman with considerable upside, it’s important to remember that Ian is an impending restricted free agent at the end of the season. With 5 young roster players set to become RFA’s at year’s end (Gustavsson, Tlusty, White, Mitchell and Kulemin), Burke needs to quickly figure out which of them figure into his championship blueprint and how widely he’s willing to open up the wallet for each of them. Let’s start with Ian White.
Although White’s calling card throughout his junior and NHL career has always been his passing ability and point shot, we’ve witnessed tremendous development in all other facets of his game over the past couple seasons. Offensively, he makes a good stretch pass out of the zone, but like most other puckmovers, is prone to giveaways and at times lacks the poise to slow down the play rather than force it (see Kaberle’s calmness and willingness to circle back when nothing’s available). White’s got a low, hard point shot that he can get through to the net with astounding regularity, easily the best on the club.
Defensively, he’s been a work in progress but has made good strides in this regard. Although he doesn’t possess great size, White uses his excellent upper body strength to his advantage by being perhaps the team’s best stick checker, particularly along the boards. Even when making a mistake, he hustles to get back in the play, often being the one to break up odd man rushes or sprawling out in front of the net during desparation plays.
Overall, at just 25 years of age, I’ve always liked Ian’s game and believe he’s got the ability to develop into a 45-50 point top three defenseman for the next decade.
Over the past few seasons, we’ve seen a couple promising young defenders ink long-term contracts with their respective clubs, and these will likely be used as a benchmark to determine White’s market value. Here are White’s projected totals for this season:
82 GP, 14 G, 32 A, 46 PTS, +5 Rating, 64 Hits, 118 Blocked Shots, 68 Giveaways, 36 Takeaways
Seems pretty reasonable, especially when considering age improvement and his pace-adjusted line from last season:
82 GP, 12 G, 18 A, 30 PTS, +6 Rating, 110 Hits, 114 Blocked Shots, 54 Giveaways, 32 Takeaways
The blocked shot totals really jump out at you don’t they? Roughly the same totals as Schenn, and very impressive for such a little guy. And how many of those were goal line stands with the goaltender out of the play?
Here are some comparable pace-adjusted numbers and contracts from similar defenders during their contract years:
Ryan Suter: 82 GP, 8 G, 26 A, 34 PTS, +3 Rating, 62 Hits, 81 Blocked Shots, 41 Giveaways, 36 Takeaways
Suter plays a similar but safer game than White, taking less risks with the puck. Comparable numbers across the board except that White is on pace to score significantly more points while giving up more giveaways. Suter received a 4 year contract at $3.50 million/season in 2008.
Cam Barker: 82 GP, 7 G, 41 A, 48 PTS, -6 Rating, 100 Hits, 51 Blocked Shots, 21 Giveaways, 11 Takeaways
Barker’s pace-adjusted totals should really be starred because he’s been marred by injuries for much of his career. He’s got a much bigger frame and plays a physical game, but has lower defensive totals than White across the board. Barker received a 3 year contract at $3.08 milion/season in 2009.
Christian Ehrhoff: 82 GP, 1 G, 22 A, 23 PTS, +9 Rating, 98 Hits, 115 Blocked Shots, 46 Giveaways, 23 Takeaways
Ehrhoff’s got a nearly identical stat line to White’s ’07-’08 season, and Ian’s on pace to double those point totals this season. Ehrhoff received a 3 year contract at $3.10 million/season in 2008.
Tom Gilbert: 82 GP, 13 G, 20 A, 33 PTS, -6 Rating, 27 Hits, 159 Blocked Shots, 74 Giveawaways, 33 Takeaways
Again, another fairly comparable player on the stats sheet. Gilbert produced less points, but impressed with a large workload of ice-time and high blocked shot totals. Gilbert received a 6 year contract at $4.00 million/season in 2008.
The Bottom Line:
Based on production, you could certainly make the case that White is a better defenseman than both Ehrhoff and Barker. Suter and Gilbert on the other hand make for much more interesting comparisons. Both present excellent size and untapped defensive upside at the time of their extensions, while White offers considerably more in the point producing department. I think White’s market value lies somewhere between what these two received. If on a shorter deal stretching to just before White’s prime (age 25 – age 28), then something in the range of Suter’s $3.5 million for 3 seasons is reasonable. On the other hand, if Toronto wants to lock Ian up through his prime (age 25 – age 31) like Ferguson did with Tomas Kaberle (age 27 – age 32), then he could reasonably command up to Gilbert’s $4.0 million for 4 seasons.
Regardless of how you look at it, White is due for a dramatic pay raise at the end of this season, but he has been arguably Toronto’s second best defenseman for the past two seasons and is on the verge of realizing his tremendous potential.Â On the flip side, Toronto already boasts the league’s most expensive blueline and adding another $3.5 – $4.0 million may not be as cost effective as hoping that Carl Gunnarsson can develop into an effective 2nd pairing powerplay quarterback. A tough decision indeed.