The Leafsâ€™ 2011-12 defence core boasts nine NHL-ready defencemen, not counting any of the three or four prospects who are on the verge of being ready and are hoping to challenge for a job with the big club at training camp. With a maximum of seven spots available, the competition at D will be the fiercest of the camp, and easily the most interesting.
The top of the depth chart features the only two defencemen guaranteed a top-four position next season: Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn. After that, however, management has set the stage for a tooth-and-claw training camp battle, with a paper-thin margin between the top four and a trip to the AHL Marlies. Keith Aulie, J.M. Liles, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek, Matt Lashoff and Jeff Finger round out the NHL-experienced players on the defensive depth chart, while Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker and Korbinian Holzer are all legitimate NHL-calibre prospects looking to make a lasting impression on coaching staff and management.
The battles at the start of camp line up easily enough, but will be much harder to sort out once a few clear winners emerge and the number of available spots starts to dwindle. Watch for Liles and Franson vs. Aulie and Gunnarsson for the two top-four posts next to Phaneuf and Schenn. Meanwhile, Komisarek will have to fight off Lashoff and Finger, plus those who get beaten for the jobs in the top-four and the kids from the farm, just to stay in the line-up.
Liles vs. Aulie should be a barn burner. While Liles is almost a shoe-in for the first power play unit, partnering with Phaneuf for that time, his role 5-on-5 is a little less clear cut. It makes a bit of sense to pair the captain full time with a guy who can feed him the puck cleanly and set up plays in the offensive zone. However, Phaneufâ€™s improved play at the end of last season clearly coincided with his partnership with Aulie; whose dedicated stay-at-home style seemed to give Dion the confidence to be more creative and aggressive with the puck. I think Aulieâ€™s defensive reliability, and its positive impact on Captain Dion, should earn him the nod and force Liles to compete for a partnership with Schenn. However, fans should expect to see a Phaneuf/Liles pairing experiment in pre-season so management can determine if thereâ€™s any chemistry there. It is a pairing that would seem to lack enough defensive discipline, however.
Gunnarsson vs. Franson is hard to predict, due to both Gunnarssonâ€™s tendency towards slow starts and the fact that one of Aulie or Liles will also be forced into the mix; having failed to land with Phaneuf. If Aulie falls, he likely falls to the third pairing, where he would represent the solid defensive counterpart for either Gunnarsson or Franson. Gunnar has the advantage of having played big minutes alongside Schenn for nearly a full season, while Franson has been sheltered and has only averaged around 11:00 minutes a night. Fransonâ€™s offensive upside could propel him above the competition, if he can prove he can be counted on defensively while taking on a top-four workload, but Gunnarssonâ€™s seemingly superior two-way ability could make him hard to beat if he has a strong camp.
It should be noted that if Aulie is able to hold onto his post as Phaneufâ€™s wingman, Liles will almost certainly join Schenn on pairing #2 and push Gunnarson and Franson down to compete for the third pairing. Since both are less physical, puck moving style D-men, this scenario presents an opportunity for either Komisarek or Holzer to push for a top-six spot next to the winner of the Gunnar/Franson battle.
If the final pairing winds up featuring Aulie and either Franson or Gunnarsson, the Leafs will have about as good of a bottom tandem as youâ€™ll find in the NHL, and either pairing should push the two above for minutes. In this case, it becomes doubtful that Komisarek will break the top six unless he delivers a monster performance from the campsâ€™ opening whistle. His contract ensures heâ€™ll stay with the big club, but he will have to fight for even the limited playing time he saw at the beginning of last season; before the field was thinned due to trades. A $4.5 million price tag for a seventh defenceman is obviously too much to pay and makes him a great candidate for a salary dump. As the trade deadline approaches, and the defensive situation in Toronto becomes clearer, look for Burke to try to do something involving Komi in order to clear the cap space.