There’s been a consistent theme during Ron Wilson’s tenure when it comes to player performance: offensive players tend to prosper in his system. 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 capable top six forwards.
Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, Dion Phaneuf, John Michael Liles; four blueliners with an offensive capacity to their game who have become significant pieces on the back end.
On the other end of things, 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.
It’s benefited Schenn in one sense, too, due to the free reign Wilson gives to his defencemen to jump into the attack. We’ve seen him do more of that and he will likely put up a career high in points, but that’s not really his game and it’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.
It’s possible Schenn could 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.
In large part this is also where the modern game is trending, which favours the more mobile puck-moving defenceman who can help execute a strong transition game, and diffuse forechecks with their feet and puck movement.
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 gotten 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 mild success, it seems, at least 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 a strong 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 theoretically 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 second-pair defensive defenceman in his prime, although not #7 overall good. 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 the next 10 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 and Liles, with his new contract, is now here to stay.
In short, if he’s between the Leafs and the young top 6 forward with size they covet, I think it’s a deal Burke has 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.