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Looking At The Blueline Minutes

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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It doesn’t take a hockey genius to figure out the acquisition of Dion Phaneuf drastically reconfigured the Leafs defence.

When you bring in a player who averaged more than 25 minutes a night someone is going to lose playing time.

But did you know that in the four games played since the trade, the lightly-used Garnet Exelby is the only defenceman who has enjoyed less ice time than Tomas Kaberle?

The graph below tells an interesting story. Phaneuf’s ice time with the Leafs is about two minutes over his season average. Exelby is down a bit, Carl Gunnarsson is pretty well on pace as is Francois Beauchemin.

But Kaberle is not. His average of 18:18 in the Phaneuf era is four minutes poorer than his season average which was mostly accrued over the 56 games prior to the trade.

And take a look at the ages of the players getting more ice time. In the last four games, 20-year-old Luke Schenn has logged about 21 minutes a night. That’s a difference of somewhere around seven to 10 shifts a game more than Kaberle.

Twenty-three-year old Carl Gunnarsson has made a terrific impression on the Leafs coaching staff and is sitting at plus-4.  Only Alexei Ponikarovsky, at plus 5 has a better aggregate and Gunnarsson’s inconspicuous effectiveness has earned him more ice time. He is 23.

Phaneuf is 24, Beauchemin is 29 and injured defenceman Mike Komisarek is 28.

That leaves only one defenceman over 30, the 31-year-old Kaberle who has six goals and 46 points, but is minus nine.

So what does this mean?

Well, there are plenty of possibilities.

Let’s start with injuries. It’s impossible to know whether a player is hurt but certainly Kaberle’s effortless skating and passing skills remain intact.

Maybe the Leafs are trying to persuade Kaberle to wave his no-trade clause. I don’t think so. For one thing, GM Brian Burke adheres to an old school set of ethics. He repeatedly said the team will not ask Kaberle to ditch the no-trade clause.

If you’re looking for complicity between Burke and coach Ron Wilson, you might be doing it for a long time. Both men insist they act independently. Wilson coaches, Burke manages. Besides if the Leafs were up to anything, they would be giving Kaberle more ice time, not less, the better to entice suitors.

No, what is happening here is the most natural thing in sport. The Leafs want to be younger and the arrival of Gunnarsson, an occasional member of the power play unit and a strong defender makes that possible. After a funk that went on for most of the season, Schenn has found his game again.  Wilson loves Beauchemin’s dependability and versatility and Phaneuf is the stud defenceman the Leafs haven’t had for decades. Things get even tighter when Komisarek returns next season.

But the Leafs will not move Kaberle without risk. They would likely turn to Gunnarsson as a setup man for Phaneuf. If Gunnarsson suffers the usual sophomore blues, the team will be pining for Kaberle’s offence. Kaberle is easily the best passer among the defenceman so the Leafs fast break, particularly as it involves Phil Kessel, might be hurt. The blueline may be a little heavy on palookas.

But with the team two number one draft choices in arrears over the next two years and the farm system still achingly thin, the Leafs need to continue to retool all elements of the organization. Tomas Kaberle, it need not be said, can help that along.

Game Phaneuf Beauchemin Gunnarsson Schenn Kaberle Exelby
Mar. 2 New Jersey 24:21 24:49 22:43 21:21 20:35 6:11
Mar. 5
New Jersey
28:08 27:42 22:12 22:05 15:20 4:48
Mar. 6
23:25 25:34 24:06 21:40 17:48 7:35
Mar. 8
San Jose
26:03 24:23 20:48 18:49 20:53 9:16
4 Game Avg. 27:10 25:36 22:27 21:30 18:18 6:58
Season Avg. 25:29 25:24 21:16 15:49 22:40 10:47
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