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The Defence Can't Rest Against Oilers...

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
As they prepare to play the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be burdened with figuring out what went wrong in their 4-3 to Calgary.

Their defence played lousy.

It was no more complicated than that.

Yes, there were reasons why the defence struggled so mightily. Jarome Iginla is a monster. The Flames had lost two straight and were especially ornery. Throngs of pro-Leaf fans ignited the Pengrowth Saddledome.

But the first night playing without Mike Van Ryn, injured by a terrible hit from behind delivered by the Habs’ Tom Kostopoulos, produced flat, uninspiring results.

It turns out that if you eliminate an equation that had been producing one sixth of the blue line minutes out of the equation, things get a little gamey.

Consider Van Ryn’s replacement, Jonas Frogren, who played just 5:38. Ian White, drafted back from forward, played 15 minutes, much of it on defence.

Prized rookie Luke Schenn was minus two and missed a bouncing puck that ended up his net.

The Saskatoon native saved his worst game of his young NHL career for 30 or so friends and family members.

All season long, Leafs coach Ron Wilson has preached a hockey version of the old axiom: lead, follow or get out of the way. In doing so, Wilson has insisted upon shot blocking. But if a player is going to block a shot, he must commit to doing so. Screening his goalie and having the puck go in off his equipment, as Tomas Kaberle did on Dion Phaneuf’s goal, does not qualify.

Predictably, Wilson could find little fault with goalie Vesa Toskala.

“It’s awfully hard when your defencemen are backing into you or screening you, not blocking the shot or controlling the shot,” he said.

Aside from an encouraging start, the Leafs’ rearguards were unable to cope with Calgary’s heavy forecheck. As a result, most of the game was played in the Leafs’ end.

The obvious change for Wilson in Edmonton will be to insert Anton Stralman into the lineup for Frogren. Stralman is a good passer and a superb skater but he is far from a shutdown defender.

Frogren has been just that in Europe but he is still acclimatizing himself to the North American game. White’s competence after being scratched for the first 11 games of the season has been a saving grace but it does not answer the problem.

Defence is the only position in which they boast any meaningful depth.  The blue line will play better against Edmonton, that’s just the way Wilson, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler do business.

But with Van Ryn, the coaches break the two Swedes into the lineup at their own leisure. Now, they have a month, maybe more, in which they need two diametrically opposite but willing players to be capable NHL blueliners. To do so they will have to use the regular alchemy to hide weaknesses and bolster strengths.

How they do will be one of the delicious little stories inside the season.

Nobody has asked, but I would take Colaiacovo out for no fault of his own, install Frogren and Stralman as my third pair behind Jeff Finger and Luke Schenn and Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle and live with whatever came. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So do somewhat urgent times.

If this season is really about development, let’s see what develops.
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