There is magic in addition through subtraction.
Take the Maple Leafs defence shaken to the foundations first by the trade of Francois Beauchemin and then the deal that sent Tomas Kaberle to the Boston Bruins.
The day after Kaberle packed his bags, Carl Gunnarsson
’s ice time jumped by 10 minutes to just over 24 a game.
Playing with Luke Schenn
, Gunnarsson has averaged that same 24 minutes a game and finished plus one. Schenn, meanwhile, stands at minus-2.
But look even past the plus minus figures and try to remember the last time either one took a foolish penalty to hand the opposition a power play.
It might take a while. Schenn has taken only 30 minutes in penalty time even while standing atop league defencemen for hits. Gunnarsson has only 12 minutes in penalties over 54 games. That’s one minor every six games or so.
So how, in the era of the towering stud defenceman, can two dependable players be caught so rarely holding the stick or taking out opposing forwards with a well-placed elbow?
Credit the not-so-new rules that came out of the lockout and a corresponding evolution of the game. While justifiable concern has been devoted to the bane of concussions, defencemen have quietly retooled their games. The crosscheck from behind that cost the Leafs the use of Mike Komisarek
, a play that cost the Leafs mightily in their 3-2 loss to Philly, has become an event known mostly for its rarity.
“If you look at some of the high impact guys, Shea Webber (52 PIMs) and Robyn Regehr (42 PIMs), those are guys who don’t get penalty minutes from being in scraps,” Schenn said. “You don’t get big minute totals if you get caught taking the penalties that unfortunately you sometimes have to take, the hooking and the holding penalties.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson said Komisarek’s innocuous crosscheck on Dan Carcillo was indefensible even with Carcillo, one of the game’s great thespians, near the boards. The position has come down to less carbon delivered into the small of a forward’s back and a more discerning approach.
So where does that leave defencemen of average stature?
“I was never a really big guy,” said Gunnarsson “so it made no sense for me to try to run over a guy. But I learned how to hit areas, the sticks and the hands that stop players carrying the puck.”
At six-foot-two, 200 pounds, the position has more or less evolved into Gunnarsson’s body type. Quick enough to adequately defend and outlet the puck, Gunnarsson can fold himself into the offence. “Gunnar is very dependable because he can do everything well,” Schenn said.
Schenn, meanwhile, has worked to improve his puckhandling and offensive skills.
The two have met in the middle and so far at least, that has benefitted the Leafs.James Reimer
will make his 11th straight appearance as the Leafs play the Sabres. Reimer surrendered nine goals in the first five games of the streak. In the last five games he has given up 16. Expect Ryan Miller in goal for the Sabres tonight. The Leafs have been able to gain only one of the last six available points and sit six points outside the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. They are 29-29-10 and sit 21st in the NHL standings. The Sabres have lost only once in the last nine and own a share of seventh place in the conference. With the Montreal Canadiens largely out of reach, five teams, Atlanta the Leafs, Carolina, Rangers and Buffalo are vying for two playoff spots.