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Leafs Preseason Synopsis Part 1  – Defense and Goaltending

By: Michael Cuttell

With free agency cooling off and countless free-agent and team roster questions floating around, it’s time for Leafs fans to look at what they have, what they can afford to lose , what they need, and what they can realistically get to fill those needs. This is a step by step speculative analysis of those questions.

Since Burke is so fond of explaining his building model as one that starts from the net out, we should begin with an examination of Leafs goal-tending situation. A year and a half ago, Burke inherited a team with one shaky starting goalie (Vesa Toskala), an over-touted underperforming goalie prospect (Justin Pogge), and a prospect who was simply too far away – years wise – to get a solid read on (James Reimer). By the 2010 trade deadline, Reimer was all that remained. In to fill the void came a Stanley cup winning veteran – who is only a few months older than Toskala (JS Giguere), a young Swedish free-agent phenomenon who was able to post a winning record in a backup role last year – despite incredible obstacles (Jonas Gustavsson – a.k.a. The Monster), and three quality young goalie prospects in Finnish League sensation Jussi Rynnas, Hobey Baker finalist Ben Scrivens, and the still valuable James Reimer. While Reimer has played admirably in a limited number of professional contests, Rynnas is the closest to being ready and could find himself playing in the NHL, in a backup role, as early as the trade deadline.

What we have is solid, deep base of goaltending. We have it for at least the rest of this season and, by the looks of it, we could have it for the better part of a decade. While some analysts have suggested that we are deep enough in the position to draw on it for trade fodder, I would suggest that this will not happen. For one, Reimer is the only drafted member of the squad and it sends the wrong message to other potential free agents when you sign new people and then trade them away the same year. Besides, depth in goal is one of the clearest signs of a healthy organization; something the Leafs haven’t enjoyed in near a decade.

Expect Gustavsson and Giguere to platoon for at least the first half, or until Gustavsson proves he’s the man. If that happens, and Rynnas is able to adjust quickly enough to the North American game, look for Giguere to be quietly shopped at the trade deadline for a young roster player. At that point, Giggy’s cap hit won’t look so scary and teams who didn’t sure-up their goaltending this off-season will be thinking about a playoff run and feeling a bit more desperate. A fairly young Stanley Cup winning net-minder, with a history of turning it on when it really counts, could fetch a very good return for a GM with a history of block-buster trades.

The Blueline:

The Maple Leafs defense core may be the area in which most Leafs fans have the greatest confidence and enthusiasm; and for good reason. Even a cursory examination of the D-core reveals a group that has the potential to be among the most dominant forces in the league. Defensive minded punishers the likes of Phaneuf, Komisarek, and the developing Schenn, are enough to intimidate bigger teams, let alone diminutive division rivals – such as the Habs – that Toronto faces the most. Beauchemin and Gunnarsson both had an excellent second half of last year and both are strong puck-movers, (though it’s true that neither is as capable a setup guy as Kaberle – who did not finish the season well).

What is most impressive is the depth that Toronto has developed at the defensive position. Lebda, one of Burke less heralded free agent signings, is reputed to be a smart puck-mover with good defensive sensibilities. Meanwhile, Holzer and Aulie, who are arguably the most ready among the Leafs defensive prospects, are only two of the five future NHL defensemen waiting in the AHL for their chance to prove they belong. Of those five, only one is less than 6’3 and all are near-sure bets to break into the league over the next couple of years. There’s even the recently signed Danny Richmond, an experienced journeyman on a two-way contract, who could be brought in as a stop-gap should the injury bug hit or the younger kids prove to be a bit too young.

Many who thought the defence was sewed up last year are likely to be more reserved in their enthusiasm this coming year. Many are those that have asked the question, “If this is primarily the same defence core as last year, why weren’t they so dominant then? “ The answer is multi-faceted. The injury to Komisarek prevented him from ever regaining his feet after both he and Beauchemin struggled early to find their roles on the club, not to mention any synergy within a broken Leaf dressing room. As well, Luke Schenn hit the sophomore jinx like a brick wall; though he recovered his form nicely later in the season, and neither Carl Gunnarsson nor Dion Phaneuf had found their way to full-time action with the team until the damage had already been done.

It should also be mentioned that this d-core played in front of a goalie that was steadily imploding and on a leaderless team that lost all its confidence in the first 8 games (all consecutive loses). Genuine leadership might have pulled them out of the early slide sooner, and given them a better chance to compete for a play-off spot, but that issue too has been rectified by this new and stronger d-core.

This is the Leafs defensive depth chart as of today:

Dion Phaneuf (C)

François Beauchemin

Luke Schenn

Brett Lebda

Holtzer (Danny Richmond)

Tomas Kaberle

Mike Komisarek

Carl Gunnarsson

Jeff Finger

Keith Aulie (Danny Richmond)

One thing is certain: Burke has stalked the defensive cupboard so much so that something has got to give. To further emphasize the point, Burke has publicly said that he’d like to go into camp with at least one open spot in each category (top 6, bottom 6, defence) for the younger players to fight for, and potentially earn. That isn’t even approaching realistic unless at least a couple of bodies are moved from the D-core.

So What’s Next?

The obvious first move is to send Jeff Finger to the minors and bury his 3.5 million dollar contract. Don’t misunderstand me, I actually like Finger’s play as a 5-6 hardhat d-man, but you don’t pay 3.5 million to that guy and Finger hasn’t played well enough to be trusted with a greater responsibility. At this point he’s untradeable and will remain so until at least the trade deadline, when what’s left of this year’s salary might not look quite so big to teams desperate for defensive depth going into the playoffs. Even then, with one more year remaining on his inflated contract, it’s unlikely that Brian Burke will be able to translate Finger into even a late round pick.

Next we look at Kaberle, who has been the target of every major trade rumour, involving Toronto, for the last two+ years. Before we start talking about what we can get for Kabby, however, let’s look at what he gives us if we keep him. Kabby is a power-play quarterback of the first order; able to feather unlikely passes down low and perfectly timed one-timer feeds to his defensive power-play partners (Phaneuf). He routinely makes spectacular defensive zone outlet passes to streaking forwards (Phil Kessel). He is considered one of the most reasonably priced d-men in his skill-set, not to mention that he genuinely loves playing in Toronto and has repeatedly expressed his desire to finish his career here.

On the flip side, Kabby is not defensively reliable. His advanced stats clearly show that Wilson has no confidence in Kaberle in his own zone; literally never tapping him for defensive zone draws. Leafs fans have watched his defensive numbers plummet since the departure of McCabe and, though playing with Phaneuf might rekindle the old synergy, he lacks the physical pugnacity that Burke has built the theme of this team around.

Should Kaberle be traded? Absolutely, yes! For those of us who were watching closely, the reason is clear: Last year Kabby appeared to be playing on a different team than the rest of the squad. At the beginning of the season, when the rest of the team was tanking, Kaberle was spectacular, particularly on the power-play. Conversely, when the rest of the team was playing their best hockey and riding high on the winning wave, Kaberle was nowhere to be found. Both Kabby and the Leafs need a fresh start. Neither will find it together.

I would like to mention that I’m not at all ruling out the idea that Burke could trade a second defenseman if it meant getting the kind of first-line forward talent he’s looking for. Beauchemin or Schenn – particularly Schenn – are the most likely candidates to be targeted by other teams, but I doubt this will happen. Burke has built his defence to run smoothly for the next 5+ years and he knows that if he just waits patiently his prospects will mature in plenty of time to make his veteran d-men risk-free tradable assets just a little farther down the road.

Since none of my trade speculation introduces a new defenseman to the fold, the revised defensive depth chart should look a little like this:

Dion Phaneuf

Luke Schenn

Brett Lebda

Holtzer (Danny Richmond)

François Beauchemin

Mike Komisarek

Carl Gunnarsson

Keith Aulie (Danny Richmond)

The great news here is that Schenn and Gunnarsson, both of whom looked great down the stretch last year, will be pushing the veterans hard for ice-time. Meanwhile, Holzer, Aulie and the other members of the AHL big 5 d-men will be pushing hard behind them and nipping at the heals of the whole Leafs d-core.  That kind of internal pressure is exactly how dynasties are built.

Kaberle and the Leafs’ Powerplay

Written by: Byron Nelson (aka: “DefenseWinsChampionships” on MLHS)

“If he remains a Leaf past this off-season, should Tomas Kaberle remain on the team’s 1st PP unit?”

The short answer, in my opinion, is no. I know you’re all thinking I’m an idiot, as he is the most talented offensive-defenseman on the team, but hear me out.

The reason for my answer is that I think he was a big factor in why the Leafs had such a bad powerplay this season. He has just become too easy to read for opposing PK units. He has a hell of a slap shot that he hardly ever uses, and probably has one of the most accurate wrist shots in the league, (as proven by winning the accuracy competition at the all-star skills competition a couple years back), which he also uses sparingly. I was looking at the league leaders in shots-blocked against from this past season, and 6 players that played on the Leafs at some point made the top 21. That is pure insanity.

2nd: Dion Phaneuf

6th: Ian White

7th: Phil Kessel

15th: Luke Schenn

16th: Lee Stempniak

21st: Francois Beauchemin

Now, what makes this more unsettling is when you look at Kaberle’s relationship to each of these players. Kaberle’s ice-time with different partners on the point on the powerplay breaks down like this:

1st: Francois Beauchemin (21st in SBA)

2nd: Dion Phaneuf (2nd in SBA)

3rd: Lee Stempniak (16th in SBA)

4th: Ian White (6th in SBA)

5th and on becomes insignificant.

Notice that the top 4 players in terms of time spent on the point on the PP with Kaberle are ALL in the league’s top 21 players for shots-blocked against. To be fair, Phaneuf spent most of the season with Calgary, and is probably always near the top of the list because teams know how lethal his shot is, but he still ended up being 2nd place this year in time spent on the point on the PP with Tomas Kaberle.

The only two Leafs’ players on the list who did not see any/significant time on the point on the PP with Kaberle are Phil Kessel and Luke Schenn. Kessel, however, is the go-to offensive player on the team, and probably received more passes from Kaberle on the PP than anyone. Schenn was 2nd amongst Leaf defensemen in even-strength ice-time spent with Kaberle, behind only Mike Komisarek. It’s safe to say that Komisarek would have also cracked the top 25 in the league in SBA, but he plays a pure-defensive style and doesn’t shoot very often. If he did, he definitely would have had huge shots-blocked against numbers, as over 50% of shots he took last season were blocked, (A disturbing stat to say the least).

I know some people will say that these stats mean nothing, and/or that they are purely coincidental, but when it all adds up, it really doesn’t look very impressive. 6 out of the 7 players that probably received the most offensive-zone passes from Tomas Kaberle made the top 21 in the entire NHL in terms of shots-blocked against, and the 7th player most-likely would have joined them, had he not been such a completely defensive player. (He also only played 34 games, mind you).

It just seems to me, that putting Dion Phaneuf and Tomas Kaberle together on the 1st PP unit, is asking for disaster. Kaberle is, (very-predictably), pass-first, and seems to increase his teammates’ SBA numbers, whereas Phaneuf is shoot-first, and already among the league-leaders in the very same SBA stat, due to having one of the most dangerous shots in the league. I believe it would be more productive to put Phaneuf with someone like Beauchemin, (who also has a good slap-shot, and uses it more frequently than Kaberle), and to put Kaberle with someone like Gunnarsson or Lebda on the 2nd unit.

I may be looking too much into statistics, but there is definitely some pretty compelling evidence that works in my favour. At least it’s something to think about.

Thoughts?

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