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Breaking Down A Crowded Blueline

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Let’s do the math.

The Leafs will dress six defencemen when they open their season, October 6 against Montreal.

At training camp, 10 players with NHL experience will compete for those six spots. In alphabetical order they are Keith Aulie, Jeff Finger, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, Korbinian Holzer, Mike Komisarek, Matt Lashoff, John-Michael Liles, Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn.

Liles 523
Komisarek 470
Phaneuf 470
Finger 31
Liles 30
Komisarek 29
Schenn 21
Aulie 22
Holzer 23
Phaneuf 85
Liles 68
Finger 17
Liles 275
Phaneuf 183
Komisarek 72
BEST +/-
Franson +25
Gunnarsson +6
Finger +4
Schenn -17
Liles -16
Lashoff -15
Phaneuf 5.5
Liles 7.6
Franson 10
Aulie 20
Komisarek 6.5
Lashoff 4.6
Liles 2.5
Phaneuf 2.5
Franson 2.8
Aulie 20
Komisarek 6.5
Lashoff 4.6
Gunnarsson 9.2
Franson 6
Schenn/Finger 4.8
Aulie 2.5
Komisarek 1.5
Schenn 3
Aulie, Gunnarsson, Lashoff, Liles, Phaneuf
Finger, Franson, Holzer, Komisarek, Schenn
Komisarek 243
Schenn 229
Aulie 217
Liles 185
Gunnarsson 199
Lashoff 204
Of course, neither God nor Ron Wilson operate in alphabetical order.

Terrific work in the second half of the season make Phaneuf and Aulie the team’s go-to pair.
That might only last 10 years or so.

Schenn is one of the game’s bright young defencemen and is going into his fourth year in the league. Liles is the new Tomas Kaberle, the man advantage set-up artist the power play craves.

The Leafs did not take on Matt Lombardi’s contract so they could introduce Franson to the press-box. That’s five.

That leaves Gunnarsson, a notoriously slow starter and Komisarek who has plenty of NHL experience but has had an uneven ride since signing with the Leafs.  Finger spent last season with the Marlies and Lashoff was a late callup so you could conclude those two are headed Ricoh-way but training camp could bring long-term shifts in the pecking order.

Holzer, a defence first and only guy, has played only two games for the Leafs but he has improved dramatically and is near ready.

Never mind 21-year-old Jake Gardiner and his big-league skating and power play skills or  that Jesse Blacker has steadily boosted his stock and might even do in a pinch.

Don’t forget the Leafs invested a first rounder this summer in Stuart Percy.

Right now, the blueline looks to be the biggest logjam. And the most volatile. Barring a trade, a training camp for the ages or a buyout, three players who played in the NHL last season seem destined to join Finger, Gardiner and Blacker to form one mighty defence corps for the Marlies.

“The exciting thing is we have a bunch of guys fighting for spots who are really young,” noted Schenn.

“Everyone has a great compete level right now. No one wants to be that guy who is in the last spot on the blueline.“

Gunnarsson staggered from the gate last season and was scratched 13 times. He ended up earning 20 plus minutes of ice time through the final quarter of the season. With the heightened level of competition, leaving the press box for top four minutes won’t be as easy.

“It’s like in the morning,“ Gunnarsson joked. “It took me a while to wake up. I have to change that and be ready from the start.”

In his third season, Gunnarsson knows what was forgiven in his first and second year won’t be overlooked in his third.

“Last year there was some good and some bad parts. If I can play as I want and as they want, we’ll see the kind of player I am.”

At six-foot-four, Franson skates well for a big man and and his overpowering shot will likely be exploited  from the point on the second power play unit.

Acquired from the Nashville Predators, Franson is accustomed to a defensive corps capped with premier talent.

“Playing with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in Nashville, you learn a lot about how to prepare yourself and take pride in what you do. I take a lot of pride in what I do. I want to have a bigger role.  I am going to push the pace as well as I can.”
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