I wasn’t sure what questions I would receive, but you guys stepped up to the plate here big time. I got a lot of quality, thought-provoking questions with far from “gimme” answers. There were a lot of similar questions (i.e., What do you think of the goalies, should we trade a goalie, etc) so in that case I picked one of the actual questions and fit in numerous answers in my reply. So if you don’t see your specific question but you do see your topic, I probably tried to say something about your question too. Please don’t take it personally if I did not pick your question.

Anyways, without further ado:

1) Anthony, Fan choice and contracts aside could you rate our defenders in order of 1) quality (league depth chart) 2) importance to our team.

-Rick Pearce

This is a really interesting question, and one I like a lot. The fascinating thing about the Leafs defense is that, other than Dion Phaneuf, nobody else on the unit is really well-rounded. If we’re just summing up everyone’s game: Gunnarsson is good at everything but not great at anything, Schenn, Komisarek and Aulie are supposed to be great at hitting and defense, while Liles, Gardiner and Franson are supposed to be great at moving the puck and generating scoring chances with their skill and/or skating. So really, it’s not as black and white as it is for other teams and that’s probably the most important thing to keep in mind as we rank these guys in terms of importance to the team.

The Leafs possess eight NHL defensemen right now, too. As mentioned, with Phaneuf being the only guy who can do everything at a high level, he’s the only player who I’d venture to say they can’t absolutely live without. If Phaneuf’s healthy and someone else gets hurt, the Leafs could reasonably survive without them and we’ve seen that, whether it be Aulie or Gardiner not playing, Liles or Komisarek hurt, or Schenn struggling. The only guy missing from that list is Carl Gunnarsson and there’s a reason for that, he’s their second most important defenseman at the moment – and I stress at the moment. Phaneuf is obviously the first.

Gunnarsson also averages the second most ice time of any Leaf defender while only missing one game so far this season. Now that he has recovered from being hurt against Dallas, we’re seeing the difference he makes.

After these two you could probably mix and match anyone from 3-8 but to make this quick I’ll number it down:

1 – Dion Phaneuf – Already covered him.

2 – Carl Gunnarsson – Also written about above.

3 – JM Liles – Averaging the third highest ice-time of any Leaf, Liles has been a welcome addition to this unit. He’s been a good veteran for players to learn from and he runs the powerplay better than anyone else on the team right now. Liles brings the best dynamic of point production, puck movement and veteran savvy to the defense and he has the minutes to back it up. He can’t possibly be rated lower than this even though the Leafs have done well in his absence lately. It also goes to show that like I said, other than Phaneuf, I think this defense can survive without anybody.

4 – Mike Komisarek – Probably not the guy you thought would be next, but this is when it gets sticky, so everyone is going to argue about this. For my money, Komisarek is consistently nasty, he gets under guys skin every game, and he’s dirty. The Leafs need a couple players like that and he’s one of them. The Leafs penalty kill has also been substantially better with him in the lineup and we all know how important that is.

5 – Cody Franson- He’s had well documented troubles to start the year here, but I think everyone is beginning to see just how talented he really is. Without getting into too much detail about Franson’s specific plays, his ability to pass and shoot are incredible and now he’s adding a physical element to his game. He’s running the second powerplay unit regardless of whose been pairing with him and he brings size to the lineup. Franson isn’t a vital player to the team right now, but he’s quickly becoming very valuable. His ability to make a strong outlet pass consistently is particularly important for the Leafs to use their speed and breakout cleanly.

6 – Luke Schenn – A lot of people will think Gardiner should AT LEAST be here, and that’s understandable, but with the season getting into the nitty-gritty, and the games about to get tighter, it’s going to be more important right now – and by right now I mean this season – for the Leafs to have a more experienced bone-crusher playing over a rookie puck moving defenseman. Schenn hasn’t had the greatest of years, but he was big for the Leafs down the stretch last year when games actually mattered. I think he can do it again.

7 – Jake Gardiner – If I was asked this question in early December, he might have been ranked fourth, but he’s slowly getting squeezed out of the lineup. In terms of importance to the team right now, that’s the main factor to this rating. Gardiner’s had a good showing this year and there’s so much to like about his game. There’s really nothing he’s done that suggests he isn’t going to be a stud in the future. That said, at the moment, Phaneuf and Liles have had good offensive years thus far, Cody Franson is getting a point every two games or so, while Schenn and Gunnarsson are, at the very least, 20 point players. His skating is a great asset but the Leafs are one of the fastest teams in the league regardless of whether or not plays, and as shown, they have offense from the defense in spades.

8 – Keith Aulie – If you asked me this at the end of the season, he could go way up this list. At the moment though he’s played 12 games this season and the Leafs have done well without him. He’s a good player and he has looked solid lately, but I’m not going to rank a guy with that small of a sample size higher than anybody here when the next closest guy – Cody Franson – has played 15 more games than him which is more than double what Aulie has.

In terms of rating the Leafs defender through a league depth chart, I’ll keep this short and sweet. On basically any team in this league, Phanuef is a top pairing defender (there will be more on Phaneuf being a top pairing defender in Leafs Notebook next week). After that, Gunnarsson and Liles are top four defensemen, but are probably closer to being #4s instead of #3s on pretty well any good team. Liles is closer to a true #3 than Gunnarsson. Komisarek could be a #4 on some teams, but unless he continues to see 20 plus minutes a night, he’s a #5 right now and so are Franson, Schenn, Gardiner and Aulie. You could make the case that a young guy like Aulie would be considered a #6, but he’s never been played that way this year, so I wouldn’t consider him that. That’s based on their overall play this year though. If Schenn is throwing ten hits a game like he did against LA and logging well over 20 minutes, he’s obviously not a #5. But how often is he doing that?

This really just highlights the issue with the overall unit: They have all the talent to be a great defense, they just need to find consistency as individuals.

2) @Phillinbig Do u see Grabo getting traded this season? There’s a whole lot of depth down the middle (Boz, Colborne, etc). Is he expendable?

No. Grabovski’s name has been in the rumour-mill lately but this might be the worst time to trade him. Yes, he’s turning his game around, but his numbers are still down from last year and he’s a UFA this summer.

If you were to put a price on Grabovski, what would it be? Would it be a B+ or A- prospect? How does that help the Leafs make the playoffs this year? I, for one, would rather the Leafs keep Grabovski to try and make the playoffs then see them sell him off for another young asset. So the natural response would be to trade him for another player, maybe a player of another position like on the wing or on defense. Well, what team would trade a player under contract for a player whose a UFA this summer of equal value? That means you’re selling low on the dollar there, which is again not helping them get any closer to the playoffs.

A perfect example is the Chicago Blackhawks, who I think would be a perfect fit for Grabovski (just for a second think about Sharp-Grabovski-Hossa as the Hawks SECOND line). Now if Chicago makes that move, they are obviously doing so to gear up for another Cup run. Why on earth would they trade anything of value off their NHL roster for him? That just doesn’t make sense for either side. They can’t “sell Grabovski.” That means the Leafs would get back picks or prospects which isn’t worth their while.

Next people will say is, “well, why don’t they package him in a deal to go to Anaheim, Carolina or Columbus to get one of their big players.” Does anyone think Grabovski would seriously sign there before at least testing the free market this summer, where he’s sure to cash in as one of the best players available? What GM in his right mind would take that risk in trading away a legitimate superstar with Grabovski coming back in the deal as one of the key pieces – which he would be – and risk losing him after mere months of an already lost season?

So overall, there just doesn’t seem to be a good situation in which the Leafs would trade Grabovski and get back the type of return that makes it worth Burke’s while. Say what you will about Nik Antropov but he had 21 goals and 46 points in 63 games when the Leafs traded him at the deadline in 2009 and they got a 2nd round pick for him. Grabovski’s on pace for 50 points on the entire year and he’s a valuable player to this team on more than just the ice. If there’s a situation where they can trade him and upgrade, then yeah they obviously have to do it. I just don’t see that happening though.

If you’re looking for a center whose expendable and would bring in a solid return, it’s Tyler Bozak. He’s having a good year, he’s young, every team wanted him a couple of years ago – which isn’t forgotten by anybody – and he’s on a cheap contract through next season.

3) @BurtonBoy12 Anthony give me your take on the teams Goalie debate. Rynnas and Owuya have been lights out and the Monster seems to be on track.

At the moment, this is a pretty easy situation if you’re the Leafs. Gustavsson has played fantastic for an extended period of time and it’s his net until someone takes it from him. The nice thing is that Reimer is itching to get back in the net so you know a battle is going to take place once Gustavsson loses a game or two and Reimer gets back in there. It’s a healthy competition and both goalies have shown that they can carry this team for stretches at a time now – albeit in different seasons.

We need to take into account Burke’s comments in which he stated Gustavsson has saved the season for the Leafs on the Fan 590. He also tweeted he thinks Reimer is going to be a top goalie in this league in five years, so for this season the Leafs aren’t going to give up on either. As far as Gustavsson’s contract is concerned, the Leafs aren’t concerned right now. They are going to sit and wait out the season and evaluate him at the end of this whole run to make the playoffs. With a contingency plan in place already to prepare for Gustavsson’s exit, they have no reason to prematurely start contract negotiations. And they won’t.

The only issue is if both of them begin to struggle at the same time. All cards on deck, if that happens for a stretch of games, the Leafs are fish out of water. But you have to weigh out the fact that chances are they can support each other, play well down the stretch here, and get the job done. It would be pretty surprising to see both of them tank at the same time.
With Reimer’s three year contract, he’s going nowhere. And much like Grabovski, the Leafs wont get much – if any – value for Gustavsson (not many teams looking for a goalie, he’d probably be brought in as a backup, etc.) right now and if you’re management you definitely don’t want to give up assets elsewhere to bring in another goalie when Burke has brought in four already.

As far as Rynnas and Owuya are concerned, they have played well, and even Scrivens has for the most part, but that has very little bearing with the big club. As previously mentioned, unless the goalies really struggle for at least 10 straight games without either of them getting hurt, there’s no chance any of these guys are called up to play big games for the Leafs down the stretch here (other than injury of course).

4) @Leafsjunkie21 In your opinion can the leafs afford to give up what they’d have to to land a player like Getzlaf/Parise? I know we have depth on our blue line and our prospect pool is deep, but is it really that deep? Basically would it help or hurt, long/short term?

I was also asked if the Leafs have the ammunition to make this kind of deal so I’ll start with that: They do. When you look at the Leafs prospect depth: at center they have Colborne and McKegg, on the left wing you have Kadri and Mueller, then on the right side you have Frattin and Biggs, among others of course, but we’re keeping this short.  On defense you have Gardiner, Blacker and Percy and in net you have Owuya, Scrivens and Rynnas. Those are really attractive prospects at every position and there are numerous other players with trade value I didn’t even mention. Then the Leafs have their first and second round picks, which Burke said he is willing to deal (note: he drafted twice in the first round last year), and we haven’t even talked about whose on the NHL roster. So simply put, the Leafs have the players to pull off a massive deal for a premium asset.

The issue is that, while some of these prospects will be coveted by other teams, they are going to want NHL players right now, too. But the Leafs are deep enough to make a big move and survive losing three or four assets on paper for one, hypothetically.
If that piece is young enough to grow with this current group then it could potentially help the long term and short term. Should they get a guy who makes them a better team today and is still young, then three years from now the Leafs should be even better, right? But then you have to factor in who the Leafs are losing from their NHL roster and how the chemistry is affected, we know that this is a tight-knit group.

But yes, to answer your question, the Leafs do have the pieces to make the move and survive the long-term ramifications of it. The real question is, what pieces do the Leafs have to move to make such a deal? If they are trading five solid to significant assets for one, I’m not in favour of that. But that’s a different question altogether.

For the record, Parise will not be available this year. Much like Bouwmeester before he left Florida, the Devils are in the race, they consider themselves a playoff team and there is zero chance they trade their captain during the year. The earliest he would become available is in a “rights” deal during the NHL draft. Considering Burke tried to acquire Richards’ rights, it’s something I’m sure he would explore if possible.

5) @TroyNadeau Fans always want to trade lead for gold. I say BB should stand pat and let experience and chemistry build. What’s your opinion?

As rumours swirl around this team and who could possibly be available, I found it interesting that after a four game win streak Dion Phaneuf felt it necessary to say “We’re a tight group, we’re a close-knit team that supports each other.” There might be a little message in there.

It’s tough to say from the outside, but when you watch this group and here them talk, it’s pretty clear they care about each other. Apparently they’ve already had five or six total team dinners – which is pretty crazy – when word is they didn’t have one all of last season. There’s a core building here and I for one am not in favour of blowing a hole in it to add one player.
Reports are that the Ducks want two good players, a top prospect and a first round pick for Ryan Getzlaf and considering Mike Richards cost a top prospect, third liner (at the time) and a second round draft pick, I’m not sure Burke wants to pay that price. Now are Richards and Getzlaf on the same level? No, I’d say Ryan is better, though not by a ton. Certainly not the difference between a third liner with upside and two core players plus a first round pick instead of a second.

Regardless of who the Leafs potentially trade for, this group is growing in front of our very eyes. It just doesn’t seem prudent to pick off numerous players from it to only insert one in the lineup. Beyond that, we’re finding out that the new NHL is about depth. Nobody feels sorry for the Buffalo Sabres or Pittsburgh Penguins now that they are facing injury issues. The Leafs too have had injuries and their depth has helped them fight through that. With concussions being diagnosed more often and clutch and grab gone, injuries seem to be happening at a higher rate and you need that depth in your organization each and every year. It’s necessary to be a winner. The Rangers were missing their best defenseman until four games ago and they are in first right now.

So bottom line, do I want to see the Leafs trade a bunch of good NHL players, prospects, depth and picks? No. I’d be more than happy to see this group continue to get healthy this year, grow together and let them continue to build. There would be nothing wrong with letting this group finish what they started this year and reassessing who stays and goes in the summer while adding a free agent or two.

They are the youngest team in the league and they are on track to make the playoffs. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

6) @gbowie22 As great as Kessel has been this year, has he become predictable with his new habit of stopping at the blue and waiting to pass?

He might have become a little predictable but there isn’t much else most NHL defensemen can do about it. If you’re defending Kessel, you can either respect his speed and back off of him when he comes flying down the wing, in which case Kessel stops and surveys the ice to make a play. Or, you play him a little closer to the vest, Kessel chips it by you and gets a quality scoring chance. How many guys are going to catch him in open ice?

Frankly, I’m glad Kessel does it because he creates a little more separation between him and the defender, and Kessel in open space is deadly. Phil will also walk into the other teams zone a couple of times a game and fire shots on net from the top of the circle with his snap shot, so that keeps guys honest in how they play him.

7) @kellyjd79 Can you break down Luke Schenn’s development in relation to similar players based on age, draft position, position played, etc?

This is a lot of work to do, so I only picked two players to compare to Schenn. Glean from it what you will.

First, we’ll profile Luke Schenn’s journey. In his last season of junior, Schenn had seven goals and 28 points in 57 games, which bettered his totals of two goals and 29 points in 72 games during his previous season. He also played for Canada and won gold. The following year he made the Leafs as an 18 year old. He averaged 21:32 that first year and generally held his own well on a weak Leafs team. The next season he statistically improved from 12 points to 17 and from -12 to +2 but he regressed in his overall play and only averaged 16:52 on the year. Last season Schenn took a big leap forward, playing 22:22, improving his point totals once again, posting a career low in PIMs, and leading NHL defensemen in hits. He signed a big contract this summer, and while he’s on pace to match his career high point totals of last year and to even get slightly more hits, he’s only playing 16:35 a night, which would be a career low.

So keep that in mind as we look at the two guys I have picked.

The first is Marc Staal. Luke Schenn was drafted fifth overall, Staal 12th, so there is some discrepancy there. However, coming out of junior their profiles were similar: big, physical, shutdown defensemen who can skate and make a breakout pass. Staal had 26 points in 65 games in his draft year, then he got drafted during the lockout so he went back to junior. That season he had 49 points in 57 games and he also played for Hartford in the AHL playoffs for 12 games and had two assists. He went back to the OHL again and regressed statistically with 34 points in 53 games, but he then went on to have 20 points in 21 playoff games. He won gold twice for Canada in junior. The next year he finally played for the Rangers, dressing for 80 games, notching 10 points and playing a solid 18:48 a night. The next season Staal played in all 82 games and put up 15 points while seeing his ice time increase to 21:07 a night. At this point, it’s the 2009-2010 season and Marc Staal put up 27 points and a +11 -he was a -7 the year before – and he played 23:07 per game. Then last season, Staal went a little higher to 29 points and was +8. Most importantly, he logged a hearty 25:44 a night. This year he’s had a concussion for the majority of the season and has only played four games, so I’m not going to discuss that. It’s safe to say that Marc Staal has had a steady progression and got to play at every level before making it in the NHL. Since he’s been in the show, his minutes and totals have steadily increased as the seasons have gone on.

I wanted to also compare Schenn’s path to that of Jared Cowen’s, but the sample size wasn’t big enough.

So instead, I went with Karl Alzner. Like Schenn, he was drafted fifth overall, but in the 2007 draft. He was thought of as a shutdown guy, one with far higher offensive upside and skill and much less physicality than Luke. However, the same defensive mindset is in place and the draft status is the same so I think it’s a worthwhile comparison. Alzner went back to junior after getting drafted and actually dropped from notching 47 points in 63 games in his draft year to 36 in 60 after being drafted. He played for Canada both of those seasons (much like Schenn played for Canada before being drafted) but Alzner returned the following season and was captain. Alzner started the following year in the AHL and played 48 games putting up 20 points and going +23. He was then called up to the NHL, where he played 30 games, notching five points in 19:25 ice time per game. He started the next season in the AHL again, this time playing 56 games with 21 points and a +34 rating. He was called back up for the final 21 games of the year playing only 16:24 per night this time. He went back to the AHL for the playoffs and had 10 points in 20 games. The next season – the 2010-11 campaign – he made the Capitals full time. That was last season and he played all 82 games, had 12 points, and was a a +14 in 20 minutes a night. So far this season he has 10 points in 41 games and he’s playing 20:30 a night.

Like I said, glean from that what you will. But as defensive defensemen, both of those guys had far more conventional paths to the NHL than Luke Schenn.

I was also asked if the Leafs could afford to trade and if he’s expendable. I’ll start by saying I’d really like the Leafs to keep Schenn if possible, but I wouldn’t consider him an untouchable at this point. An untouchable defenseman, to me, is someone who can play any situation and dominate. Schenn’s going to be a solid NHL defenseman for the next 15 years, but he’s going to dominate one facet of the game, if any. That said, I find it hard to believe a guy whose averaged over 20 minutes a season twice already won’t eventually mature and find consistency from year-to-year, so in the grand scheme of things I’m not worried about this year-on, year-off thing he has going on right now. But, when you have a group of defensemen in your system who are 25 and under and have the talent and diversity of Keith Aulie, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer and Stuart Percy, then you add in a turning 26 year old Carl Gunnarsson and turning 27 Dion Phaneuf, I don’t think losing Schenn would be the be all and end all for this organization. That said, five years from now we’d be watching Schenn physically dominate in another jersey. Can he be expendable? Yeah, most likely. But should the Leafs be shopping him and try to cash in on his status and value? Not unless they are forced to.

8.) @Jassi2Classi With the team playing so well with the current roster, what do you expect will happen when bozie, army and JML are healthy again?

I’ll answer this in order of health.

Tyler Bozak is expected back first and Tim Connolly just got hurt so that’s easy. But we’ll assume Connolly returns and in that case I expect Connolly to stay with Kessel and Lupul as long as they don’t struggle – it’s a better two-way line with Connolly. Ron Wilson has tried numerous times to reunite the MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line in hopes that they rekindle some magic, and if he has a healthy group of forwards except for Colby Armstrong, I expect him to try it out again. He has everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying once this team is fully healthy. That would leave a third line of Lombardi-Bozak-Kadri which has some nice potential. I’d give Bozak the nod over Lombardi at center any day of the week as Bozak is the team’s second best faceoff man. I’d expect Darryl Boyce to get scratched, because even though the Leafs like Boyce’s penalty killing, Crabb has been here longer this year and has been playing quality minutes for the Leafs for awhile. But honestly, Boyce has been out to close games lately so I could just as easily see them sticking with their current fourth line and sitting Crabb. It’s a toss up between those two right now.

At this point I also don’t see Kadri getting sent down again. He’s a gamer and he’s looked good since being up here. His defensive mistakes have been few and far between, generally speaking.

When Liles returns I expect Wilson to run with his veterans for the rest of the season unless someone else gets hurt. That means Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Liles, Komisarek, Schenn, Franson. The young guys have played well, but they haven’t done anything that will force out a veteran for the stretch run of a playoff drive in the NHL. You always take the experience when you can and Wilson has always shown he will when he can too.

Armstrong is an entirely different matter altogether. Frankly, I don’t think the Leafs are planning or preparing for Armstrong’s return so it’s one of those “if he joins us, great; if not, we’re not counting on it anyways.” But if everyone was healthy and he returned, I’d expect to see him on the fourth line with Steckel and Brown and for the other three lines to be as mentioned. He’s only averaged 11:16 in his nine games this year and the fourth line has been exceeding 12 minutes each the last couple of games so he’ll still be getting enough ice time to play his game.

9) @Jordan_Bold Should the Leafs trade Liles and or Franson? With their game based around speed and a quick transition game, it seems their back end would really suffer because of it. Thoughts?

The Leafs definitely shouldn’t trade either of them, unless they receive a lights out offer they can’t refuse or one of them is requested in a package deal for something great. When you’re in a playoff spot and think you can get home ice advantage, it simply makes zero sense to trade veterans away and Burke knows that, even if both need new contracts this summer (Liles is a UFA, Franson an RFA). Liles and Franson are also their two best passing defensemen at the moment. Franson in particular is the best puck moving defenseman on the Leafs.

Both provide strong outlets and really allow the forwards to cheat and leave the zone a little early because these guys can hit them way up ice. Schenn, Aulie, Komisarek and even Gunnarsson all bring a lot of things to the table, but a quick transition game is not one of them. That would only leave Gardiner and Phaneuf to handle those duties. The Leafs definitely don’t want that. I doubt the Leafs trade one, let alone both before this season is over.

10) @FolignosLeap Question: Is Lombardi’s general ineffectiveness due to the fact that he’s not necessarily the fastest on the Leafs? Expanding: Lombardi can’t gain separation because his teammates can keep up and defenses account for it.

I should preface this by saying that I’ve actually been okay with his play since Lombardi has returned. No, he doesn’t fit here long-term, and he is way overpaid, but he’s a good veteran right now for this group and he brings a ton of speed. He’s skating as good as he ever has since he got here. I also think Lombardi will have a Lupul like turnaround next season if afforded the opportunity (although obviously not to the extent of Lupul’s breakout year).

There are three particular reasons I don’t think he’s that effective right now – speed is not one of them.

The first is that he’s centering Clarke MacArthur and Nazem Kadri. That alone is forcing him to hang back and allow those two guys to work their magic while he offers the defensive conscience out there. The good news is that this situation doesn’t put pressure on him to score right now – he just needs to play solid two-way hockey.

Secondly, he hasn’t played in a year. Unless you’ve sat out a sport for an entire year and then tried again to play it again at the highest level you could possibly play it, it’s tough to explain just how hard that is. Lombardi predictably struggled early on, but lately he’s been playing solid hockey and he hasn’t been turning the puck over like he was in October, so he isn’t costing the Leafs anything.

Thirdly, he lacks any sort of offensive confidence right now. Lombardi is still arguably the fastest skater on this team – Wilson said so in training camp – so he’s still “the” speed guy. Beyond that, if he’s flying down the wing, he actually has options now because guys can keep up with him; that works to Lombardi’s benefit because he’s gained possibilities. The problem is that he doesn’t have the confidence right now to cash in on his speed, and he’s hanging back to protect his line. There was one play against Buffalo where he had a step on the Sabres defender and chose to shoot it from just inside the top of the circle instead of using his speed to his advantage and taking it to the net. Scoring is still a feeling more than anything else and Lombardi simply doesn’t have it right now. But he’s skating well and he’s starting to make better decisions so he could easily score one, get hot and get rolling. Do I think that’s going to happen? Probably not. But he has the ability and his game is starting to improve from where it was in October.


The first Q and A is over. I appreciate all the questions once again. Seeing as this is the first time I’m doing this, I’d love to hear feedback on the number of questions, the length of the total piece, the structure, your general thoughts, and so on. If you guys like this, it’s something I’d probably want to do once every two weeks, just to keep it fresh. I look forward to hearing your own responses in the comments section and any feedback you have.