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Leafs Have Plenty of Blueline Depth

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Every day it becomes clearer: the Maple Leafs plan on taking the word ‘defenseman’ more literally.

Good thing too. The Leafs were 27th in the NHL in goals against last season. Their 78 per cent penalty kill rate was the league’s worst.

The man brought in to right things, new coach Ron Wilson, views defence as no more urgent than oxygen. A renewed emphasis on goals against has shaped this off-season.

First, interim GM Cliff Fletcher added Jeff Finger, a defensively-oriented rearguard from Colorado.

The Leafs are also reportedly going to bring in Jonas Frogren out of the Swedish Elite League. Like Finger, Frogren is a stop-first, shoot-second type of player. He should pair with sophomore defenceman Anton Stralman to give the team a potent Swedish tandem. It seems like a pairing that would benefit Stralman. The two played together at the World Championship to general acclaim. Stralman is an entrancing skater and playmaker but he was minus -10 last year and green in the ways of goal avoidance.

There is plenty to be said about pairing Ian White, a strong skater with Finger, described as a solid positional player who relishes the chance to separate opposing players from their senses. White has developed into a solid player with enough offence and range to cover for Finger’s lack of footspeed.

Should the Leafs choose to hang on to Pavel Kubina, they will retain the perfect compliment for Tomas Kaberle and their number one unit. Kubina gave ample evidence that he could be an effective defender while Kaberle remains an offensive-style player. Both can play the first power play unit.

That’s three experienced pairs.

Fletcher is negotiating with Bryan McCabe in an effort to convince him to waive his no-trade contract.  McCabe wanted a lucrative buyout. The Leafs say no dice and want him to move along voluntarily. It seems inconceivable that he would be here for training camp but Fletcher has said that if necessary, he will bring McCabe to camp.

All of this brings us in an indirect way to Luke Schenn, the club’s first round draft pick in the entry draft and fifth-overall.

Schenn, in town for a player orientation camp, is a defense-first rearguard, but his presense on the roster would leave the Leafs with four defencemen 25-years-old  or younger.

The Leafs have left the door open for Schenn to make the team. There appears to be room. Carlo Colaiacovo’s torn groin muscle ended his season with eight games to play. Over the last three years, Colaiacovo has averaged just 33 games a year because of injuries. Colaiacovo is a question market.

Colaiacovo’s health as well as the play of any minor leaguers or Marlies will impact Schenn. Give him credit, he knows what is ahead of him.

“Going from junior to the NHL, you’re playing against men. Obviously, I have to get stronger. The Leafs staff has been helping with that. Getting quicker as well. You can work on everything to get better and quicker at this level.”

Tomas Kaberle was the last defenceman to advance through rookie camp and onto the Leafs roster. That was nearly 10 years ago.

Kaberle’s ascension was doubly impressive because he learned a new language while playing a game that emphasized offence and a controlled style.

The 18-year-old Schenn doesn’t have to worry about that. As long as nobody from the other side is skating around with his arms up at the end of Schenn’s shift, things are fine.

“I just try to keep things simple. I don’t try to put up huge numbers,” Schenn said. “I try to be responsible in the defensive zone. That’s when I’m being the most effective.”

Schenn was paired with the offensively-inclined Thomas Hickey as Canada ran through the world juniors last year.

“Tom moved the puck well but whichever partner you get, you’ve got to be responsible in the defensive zone and help each other out.”

If Wilson or Fletcher had been present, they would have been smiling from ear-to-ear.

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