Photo: Toronto Sun

“We shoot for a top four group that has a high skill level, [and] bottom two guys who look to do the plumbers work. Which are really important jobs on my teams.”
– Brian Burke

At the risk of over analyzing a few sentences said nearly four years ago, this is a good starting point to quote when it comes to looking at the Leafs defense.

It’s really a very basic structure that doesn’t require much of a break down.

The interesting thing is that, when Brian Burke was with Anaheim, he actually had three elite defencemen at the time, a middling fourth player and then two roster “plug-ins.”

See for yourself, this was their ice-time per game:

Scott Neidermayer 27:30 5:50 3:58
Chris Pronger 27:05 5:47 3:46
Francois Beauchemin 25:28 2:59 3:58
Sean O’Donnell 19:55 0:08 3:39
Kent Huskins 14:04 0:24 1:05
Richard Jackman 13:41 1:59 0:05
Joe Dipenta 12:09 0:01 1:15

So really, was this a “top four of skill” and “bottom two plumbers doing important work?” Or was it one of the best defenceman of all-time doing a ton of heavy lifting, alongside a first ballot hall of famer to-be doing just as much, and then another guy in his prime playing like a top pairing defencemen in the three hole, followed by three others?

I’m not saying Burke didn’t know what he had in Anaheim or how his team was deployed, but a lot of the time people get into “Phaneuf can be Pronger, Gardiner can be Niedermayer” and so on just because they have similar traits.

That stuff needs to stop.

This is also the time that I remind everyone the Ducks also had this guy named JS Giguere – in his prime – playing behind these guys.

So where does that leave the Leafs and their current stable of defencemen?

The first thing to note is that in Anaheim, Carlyle had three huge minute munchers. To put it into perspective, Dion Phaneuf averaged 25:17 a game this year, which would have ranked him fourth (!?) on Anaheim in 2006-07.

Beyond that, Phaneuf appeared to wear down as the season went on this year. He clearly was not the same player in the second half as he was in the first half of the season. As a rough gauge, he had 26 points in his first 40 games, and then 18 in the next 42. He also had things like this happening in the second half and in general appeared lethargic for long stretches.

What makes it even more curious is that Phaneuf averaged more ice time than he played this year, three years in a row when he was with Calgary between 2006 and 2009. He didn’t, however, play against the other teams’ best players the way he is now.

Does better goaltending and possibly a better defense partner (not that Gunnarsson is bad) make Phaneuf better and able to handle playing more minutes? Or does he need to be scaled back regardless?

If Burke and Carlyle don’t have the huge minute munching defencemen they previously had, that significantly changes the landscape of the entire six-man unit.

The good news is that the third pairing defencemen in Toronto, the plumbers, are superior to Joe Dipenta, Kent Huskins and Richard Jackman.

The Leafs bottom three defencemen last year, according to ice time, were Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson and Luke Schenn. That said, Komisarek and Schenn make too much money for that role, and Cody Franson doesn’t play the game that you associate with that role according to what Burke likes there.

To complicate matters even more there, Korbinian Holzer is a player who definitely is suited to that third pairing role but he plays the right side, which is the same side as the three defencemen just listed.

When it comes to the left side, you have Matt Lashoff and Mark Fraser (who both need new contracts) as potential candidates for this role. There’s also the possibility of the Leafs drafting someone at #5 who can step right into the third pairing to start the year, or Burke bringing in a UFA of course (someone along the lines of an Aaron Rome). To push matters further, with Liles being locked in to be a top four defenceman, that could end up pushing Jake Gardiner to the third pairing.

That brings us to the second pairing. There’s a lump of potential candidates for these two spots based on not only ability, but unfortunately contract status too. This group includes Luke Schenn, John Michael Liles, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson (the Leafs went out of their way to get him and took on a lot of money in Lombardi to do so). If Burke brings in a top pairing defenceman, Carl Gunnarsson is another plausible candidate.

Essentially the defensive breakdown, according to pairing and defensive status, looks something like this (keep in mind the minutes per game are a ROUGH estimate and not to be taken as law):

Possible 3rd pairing: 14-17 minutes a night

Jake Gardiner Korbinian Holzer
Matt Lashoff Cody Franson
Mark Fraser Luke Schenn
Mike Komisarek

Possible 2nd pairing: 18-23 minutes a night

JM Liles Luke Schenn
Jake Gardiner Cody Franson
Carl Gunnarsson

Possible top pairing: 23-26 minutes a night

Carl Gunnarsson Dion Phaneuf

A few things to note:

– As you probably caught on when looking at the rough depth chart, there are a lot more questions than answers when it comes to this defense. The only “established” guys that play at least adequate hockey are Liles, Gunnarsson and Phaneuf. After that, it’s all up in the air. How will Gardiner play in year two? How’s Schenn going to play? Is Franson going to become a healthy scratch again? What about the generally speaking unproven guys altogether in Holzer, Lashoff and Fraser?

– Also, on Fraser: I thought he’d be in tough to crack the Leafs, but when I broke it down like this according to left defense and right defense, it all of a sudden seemed a lot more plausible that he could actually make noise on the NHL roster. Thus, I’m willing to say I could very well be wrong on Fraser.

– Unlike the forwards where we were able to break it down and say “scoring line, shutdown line, energy line and top line,” the defense does not really work that way. Ideally the top four is a skilled group that logs heavy minutes in all situations, but in the Leafs case they have guys like Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson either in the top four or paid like they should be in the top four. That effects the bottom pair significantly because neither are really great power play options. That makes a guy like Cody Franson maybe a little more valuable in that third pairing role than the “plumbers” that Burke usually looks for.

– We can say this, though: the top pairing plays against the other teams best players. That really goes without saying. So that means they’ll play alongside the shutdown line for the most part meaning whoever the second pairing is, chances are they see a lot of ice time with the Leafs top forward line.

– If you want to include Gardiner in the talk as a potential top pairing defenceman, go right ahead. He did eat a lot of minutes last year so he has that going for him. I just don’t think he can play against the other teams best players night in and night out yet so I didn’t include him. He wasn’t even doing it with the Marlies in the playoffs. That said, he’s the only player below Gunnarsson and Phaneuf that could reasonably be seen catapulting up to the top pair.

– There are probably three legitimate NHL D prospects in the system in Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy and Petter Granberg. After that it’s a bunch of long shots. I look at that, and then this depth chart, and I question why anyone wouldn’t want a defenceman at the fifth overall pick. If the Leafs’ scouts tell them the best possible player they can draft when it’s Toronto’s turn to pick is a defenceman, I’d take that defenceman in a heartbeat (Well I’d actually trade down, but if they’re keeping the pick, defenceman).

– The defense is obviously a lot harder to prognosticate, so it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds. Like I already said: lots of questions here with very few answers. There’s also a few square pegs for round holes and some big contracts not playing to expectation. How it all unfolds will be interesting.

With the draft and free agency quickly approaching, there will obviously be player movement from Burke. I will try to revert back to this article on the defense and the one already written about the forwards as often as possible. For me at least, it will keep everything consistent and hopefully allow us to see what roles Burke is going to slot his players into moving forward.