Since the arrival of Brian Burke as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a few things have been made very clear. Â One, he likes to build teams from the net out. Â Two, he likes big, truculent players. Â Three, he has no problem sinking money into the blueline. Â Four, he hates the shootout.
Taking a closer look at number three, the arrival of Burke in Toronto only continued, if not accentuated, the Leafs penchant as a franchise for spending a large percentage of their cap into the back end of the team.
And so far, I think it’s fair to say the results have been mixed.
While there have been bone crunching hits and timely shot blocks, there have also been defensive lapses and breakdowns that have seen the Maple Leafs goals against totals inflate on occasion.
Under Brian Burke, the blue and white blueline has been in a constant state of transformation, and this past season was no exception.
Among the biggest news of course was his long rumoured dealing of Tomas Kaberle. Â The defender, who had been playing with Toronto since the 1998 season, was finally dealt after three years of rumours. Â Shipped to Boston in return for Joe Colborne and draft picks, Kaberle was the longest serving player of on the team, and was also a defenseman who was most comfortable manufacturing plays with the puck.
While the likes of Phaneuf, Schenn, Gunnarsson, and Aulie aren’t exactly inept with the puck, it went without saying that Kaberle was the only one who could be consistently counted on to carry the puck through the zone, set up shop, and distribute.
So with Kaberle sent packing to Boston, the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Maple Leafs had a hole in their defense. Â A hole that Brian Burke would fill with a man he had wanted a few months earlier. Â At the 2011 trade deadline, several outlets reported that Burke was closing in on American born defenseman John-Michael Liles, who was playing with the Colorado Avalanche.
Burke was unable to close the deal for Liles during deadline day, but in typical Burke fashion, he got his man.
On the day of the 2011 NHL draft, Burke pulled the trigger on the deal for Liles, acquiring him from the Avs for a second round pick in 2012. Â In making the trade for Liles, Burke not only continued to solidify his D, but also showed prudence in obtaining a top four defenseman without overpaying in the July 1 free agent frenzy.
For Leafs fans, having John-Michael Liles in the lineup is expected to play immediate dividends.
The smooth skating, puck moving defenseman had 46 points last year, his second highest total of his NHL career. Â A more telling sign in that stat is the fact that of those 46 points, 40 of them were assists. Â While Liles has a good, accurate shot that typically finds its way on net, it is the assist column that may be the most tantalizing for Leafs fans.
The mere thought of having Liles paired opposite Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, and it’s hard for the mind not to wander. Â Two defenseman with contrasting styles but top four talent, the two could make a very potent duo for the Maple Leafs.
Having the speedy Liles on the ice may allow Phaneuf to step up into the play a little more, and deliver a few more of his signature bone jarring hits. Â Having the bruising Phaneuf on the ice may allow Liles more room to skate and carry the puck.
And certainly the prospect of Liles, an assist machine of sorts, feeding Phaneuf one timers from the blueline would certainly go a long way in improving our power play. Â He had 18 points with the man advantage just one year ago, compared to 28 at even strength.
Liles hasn’t had a plus season in the past three years, although one would have to weigh how much the quality of the Avalanche may have impacted that.
Burke and his men handpicked Liles, an American born defender, and have had him high on their want list for seemingly some time. Â It is the latest improvement the management group has made to the Maple Leafs defense corps.
A defense that should feature some veterans mixed in with some promising youth, many are hoping the Leafs have a top six that can finally play to their potential, and cap value percentage.
And John-Michael Liles figures to be an integral cog in the machine.