As the playoff hopes gradually continue to fade for even the most optimistic of fans, the focal point of the Maple Leafs over the last few weeks has been on the stellar play of several key young players. Bozak, Kulemin and Kessel have been dynamic and dangerous in spurts as the team’s first line, building chemistry together and showing real signs of promise. Caputi, Hanson and Stalberg are giving indications that they could be part of a solid supporting cast someday, with strong board play, good size and tenacity in chasing down loose pucks. On the back end, Gunnarsson has been nothing short of a tremendous surprise, coming in mid-year as a 23 year old rookie, but playing with the poise of a 10-year veteran in over 21 minutes a night. But today, the focus will be on the more subtle progression of a another young blueliner who is reminding Toronto fans why the team took him with its highest draft selection in 20 years.
Let’s begin by taking a trip back in time about 21 months to the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa. Sitting pretty with the 7th overall selection, the general consensus amongst hockey executives was that Toronto would find itself choosing from a trio of talented forward prospects: Kitchener winger Mikkel Boedker, American product Colin Wilson, or Brampton centre Cody Hodgson. They had unfortunately just placed out of the top 5-6 picks where it was believed that a class of 4 defensemen (Doughty, Bogosian, Pietrangelo, Schenn) had distinguished itself from the rest of the crop. When the 5th pick rolled around and it was announced that Cliff Fletcher had swung a trade to move up, Leaf fans found themselves with an interesting dilemma: do you go with the steady Canadian defenseman or the flashy Russian forward? Choosing to pass on Filatov in favour of Schenn, the Maple Leafs opted for what many deemed to be the safest choice in the draft. They were going to get a bruising, hard-nosed defender who could clear the front of the net, play a reliable defensive game, and be a solid NHL regular for years to come. The downside was that his offensive game was virtually non-existent, thus preventing him from taking that next step in becoming a true star calibre blueliner.
Now let’s come back to present day, 2010. Of all the positives I’ve seen from Leaf youngsters this season, the quiet progression in all aspects of Luke’s game certainly ranks up there with the best of them. Coverage in the defensive end of the ice was always supposed to be his bread and butter, but it’s still quite astounding to watch just how much he’s improved even from last season. Far too often during his rookie year would we see Schenn get lured into the corner boards or behind the net while chasing an opposing forward one-on-one. In junior, that was a passable mistake because he had the quickness and the size to handle just about anybody in the league. At the NHL level, bigger and stronger forwards were just a split second faster in getting that centering pass off where miscommunication between the two Leaf defenders would often yield a wide open tap-in in front of the net. This year, we’re seeing a whole lot less of that chasing over overcommitment on forwards from Schenn, as he begins to understands the subtleties of NHL defensive zone spacing and the importance of positioning as well as an active stick in the pass lanes. Kudos to Wilson and his coaching staff for that one. Another area of marked improvement I’ve noticed in Luke’s game is just how calmly he handles odd man rush situations, doing an excellent job of knowing when to sprawl and the angle at which to take out those passing lanes. Beauchemin has drawn a ton of criticism, most of it justified, during his time here in Toronto, but I maintain that he’s one of the league’s best when it comes to defending two or three on one’s and it seems Schenn has picked up a lot of that same ability.
From a statistical standpoint, Schenn dished out 2.94 hits/game and blocked 1.70 shots/game last season in 21:32 minutes of playing time a night. This season, he’s going at 2.02 hits/game and is blocking 1.35 shots/game in 16:15 of ice-time. So if you wanted to equilibrate the playing time, then we’re looking at a slightly lower hit rate and a slightly higher blocked shot rate, which isn’t surprising because of his progression towards a more positional style of game rather than the aggressive one-on-one type coverage.
Now offensively is where the kid has been really impressing me this season. The changes to this part of his game have been predominantly fairly subtle. He’s starting to carry the puck out of the zone a little bit more. He’s now gaining that confidence with the puck that’s allowing him to wait just an extra second or two longer to open up passing lanes, rather than dumping or chipping it like a grenade at every opportunity. You can see he’s starting to get a little more creative with the outlet passes, picking his spots here and there to try those long, diagonal stretch passes. Despite spending more time with the puck on his stick, Schenn has managed to slash his giveaway rate by well over 50% from 1.05/game last season to 0.45/game this season. In the opposing zone, he’s beginning to pinch with increasing regularity but once again, making excellent decisions regarding timing and picking the appropriate moments when to do so. He’s also taking better shots, making use of a good, hard slapper from the point as opposed to a safe, floating wrister, which has already translated into double the amount of goals and a higher scoring rate than last season.
2008-2009: 2 goals, 12 assists, 14 points in 70 games played = 16.4 points in full 82 game season
Equilibrating the playing time:
2009-2010: 5.3 goals, 14.6 assists, 19.9 points in 66 games played = 24.7 points in full 82 game season
Not too shabby, especially if you want to consider trend: 10 of Schenn’s 15 points this season have come in the last 25 games played.
So to sum up, the future is bright for Toronto, with plenty of positives to look for both down the stretch of this season and into the years to come. Luke Schenn is going to be a huge piece of this team moving forward, and rightfully so. He has impressed me a ton with his mature demeanor off the ice, his work ethic, and his steady improvement in all facets of his game on the ice this season. The kid just plays the game the right way and it’s often quite easy to overlook his contributions because they’re not as sexy as the moves that a Kadri or a Kessel can put on display, but Luke is every bit as important. Can you imagine what kind of player he could be 5-6 years down the road? How crazy is it that he’s only 20 years old?