There’s been a consistent theme during Ron Wilson’s tenure when it comes to player development: offensive players tend to prosper in his system and under his guidance. This applies both up front and on the blue line.
Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul; two unknowns and a cap write off who came to Toronto and almost instantly (not so much in Grabo’s case, but certainly the other two) began producing like able top six forwards.
Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, Dion Phaneuf, John Michael Liles; four blueliners with an offensive capacity to their game who have become core pieces on the back end.
The opposite is true, as well. Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek, and Francois Beauchemin are three defencemen whose games are more based around taking care of their own end as hard nosed, less mobile rearguards. One is gone, another the majority of Leafs Nation has wished would go away for the majority of his time in Toronto, and the other’s name has been a staple of the rumour mill for the last month.
Wilson’s run and gun system benefits the first group. In addition to being a high chance system, Wilson also has a knack for finding good combinations and building chemistry on his units. Criticize his in-game line blending act all you want, but goal scoring has never been a problem. This season, Lupul, Bozak and Kessel have been one of the best scoring lines in hockey. Last season, the same was said of Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin.
Hell, it’s benefited Schenn in a sense too, particularly from the free reign Wilson gives to his defencemen to jump into the attack. He may well put up a career high in points, but that’s not what everyone is talking about. It’s the giveaways, the number of times his man has been the one to put the puck in the net, how easily he was beaten to the outside, or how slow he looks.
This is the way Ron Wilson coaches the game, and this seems to the way Brian Burke wants it to be played. Burke knows the game of hockey is first and foremost entertainment, and his focus is on selling the fans both a winning and entertaining product. In the end, it’s about putting butts in the seats, at the rink and in front of the television, and satisfying the customer base. He’s not just competing with the other 29 clubs in the league, he’s competing with the other professional sports leagues, the movie theatres, and prime time TV shows. This isn’t the way every GM thinks, of course, but Burke as President of the hockey club is particularly concerned with selling the game as well as leaving the best fan base in the sport feeling satisfied and thoroughly entertained by his product.
If the system isn’t going to change, maybe Luke Schenn will never play his best hockey in Toronto. If moved, he’ll likely go to a traditional defensive system with better forward support and suddenly look like a defensive force (see Beauchemin’s resurgence in Anaheim). Just think about it; the Leafs entered the season with Franson, Liles, Phaneuf and to a lesser extent Gunnarsson on their blueline. Luke Schenn’s skill set seemed like a necessity. Instead, he’s had his minutes reduced as Franson and an emerging rookie in Jake Gardiner have arguably surpassed him on the depth chart (both more mobile, offensive defencemen).
That’s not to say that a defensive defenceman could never prosper in Toronto under Burke and Wilson, and Schenn has also struggled in areas that aren’t necessarily the fault of the system – e.g., failing to use his defence partner at the right times, his tendency to lose track of the attacker at the back door. He hasn’t seemed to gain a strong handle on how the fronting system is effectively executed, and has struggled when opponents are behind him. He’d be far better suited if the Leafs’ strategy around the goal mouth was to clear out opponents by force. But the Leafs’ system demands a lot of its defencemen when it comes to mobility and reliance on the blueliner to make the key defensive play.
We’ve seen an adapt or die realization from Burke on the degree to which speed and skill is required up and down his lineup. Burke’s in a sense rebuilt his rebuild on the fly; remember, in the summer of 2009, Burke brought in Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and Colton Orr thinking they would, alongside Schenn, be staples of the “new Leafs” in their respective roles. Again, that’s not to say Schenn can’t be successful in Toronto – and he has been better in prior seasons under Wilson – but the Leafs are now, as of this season, one of the if not the fastest teams in the league, with pretty wide open systems play. Komisarek shaved pounds over the off season to moderate success, it seems, in terms of his foot speed. Schenn appears to be going in the opposite direction, and has looked slower and less fluid than ever this season. Maybe that’s correctable, then again he’s never been the strongest skater, and maybe now we’re seeing the full limitations of that weakness.
There’s an important point I’ve somehow yet to mention, and it’s that Luke Schenn is 22 years of age. I grouped him in with Beauchemin and Komisarek in some of my analysis above, but neither of those two are young and improving. The big question is; how much room for development remains on a defenceman who is only 22 but is going on his fourth full season in the league. The debate of where exactly Schenn’s ceiling sits is a highly opinionated conversation; one myself and @GoddTill had yesterday which led to us wondering, where we hoped for an Adam Foote, Schenn might end up being a Luke Richardson. Richardson was also top-10 draft choice of the Leafs, and was a solid top four defensive defenceman in his prime, though not quite #7 overall good (name was also Luke). He stepped into the league immediately after getting drafted because he was physically ready, and it was that beyond-his-years physical ability that made him such a standout in junior, vaulting him to top 10 draft pedigree. Ultimately, it’s a player type with an element of “what you see is what you get,” a defenceman who is a safe bet to battle in the trenches for you for the next 15+ years, but not necessarily one whose sky is the limit.
To get back on track, a number of factors seem to make Luke Schenn not as immovable as he once was. Combine all of what I’ve discussed above with the Leafs’ excess in both cap commitment and depth on defence, and suddenly he’s looking like not only an expendable piece, but perhaps the Leafs’ most valuable expendable piece. Gardiner’s role is only going to continue to expand into next season, Liles is now here to stay, and there’s more than a few in the scouting profession who expect Jesse Blacker to make a serious push for a big league role next season. This is a little more down the road, but the Leafs’ also drafted a defenceman out of the first round last draft in Stuart Percy.
In short, if he’s between the Leafs and the top line forward with size they so covet, I think it’s a deal Burke will have to make. I have no doubt Schenn will improve if he stays, but I also wonder if his ceiling is as high as once thought, and if his best chance to thrive is in Toronto. It goes without saying, if Burke does pull the trigger, it better be for something well worth the price, and it better send Schenn far, far away from Toronto.