Fizzle or Sizzle, The Leafs Defense is the Key.
The 2010-2011 Season. What went wrong?
Over the course of this past season, many Leafs fans were left scratching their head when Brett Lebda or Mike Komisarek were on the ice for a goal against. Their “brain farts” and complete lack of defensive awareness led to these two seeing limited ice time.
Dion Phaneuf began what looked like another season to forget. Dion was guilty of trying to do too much and trying to force things to work instead of simplifying his game. Things quickly went from bad to worse as Phaneuf suffered a major injury midway through the season; a “nicked” MCL as well as a deep tissue laceration on the inner part of his leg. The injury kept Phaneuf out of the line-up for roughly a month. When Phaneuf finally returned, he was forced to wear a brace while the injury continued to heal, making his return all that much more uncomfortable.
Carl Gunnarsson was another player who began the season in a way he’d surely like to forget. Sitting on the sidelines was nothing unusual for Carl. His offense was nowhere to be found and his defensive play was nothing more than average, if even that. His play slowly improved but the defensemen he was paired with didn’t allow him to experience success. While Carl was never the source of a defensive problem he certainly could not make up for the shortcomings of the rest of the team.
The 2010-2011 Season. What went right?
To be clear, when the season began, almost nothing went right for the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, from the beginning of the season, one player who stood above the rest was François Beauchemin. He clearly worked through any issues he experienced in the 2009-2010 season and was looking for a fresh start. While François’ offensive game was nothing special, his defensive game flourished while playing on the top pairing with captain Dion Phaneuf. Fearless when it came to blocking shots, François made sure he got whatever he could in front of a puck to prevent a scoring chance. While they didn’t occur as often as they did for a Luke Schenn or Phaneuf, big timely hits were also a staple of his 2010-2011 season, striking fear into the eyes of opposing forwards.
Speaking of Luke Schenn, he was another player who recovered from a less than spectacular 2009-2010 season with the Leafs. Thundering hits and a great stick were trademarks of young Schenn’s game. While still prone to a few too many turnovers, Schenn reminded the NHL why he was selected 5th overall in his draft year. Leading all NHL defensemen in hits (251), Luke was rarely shy to step up on a forward when it was available. His season began great and continued to improve after the All Star break.
Trade Deadline: the defense receives a shake-up.
On February 2nd, Brian Burke began making his moves before the trade deadline, as he always does. On this day, François Beauchemin was traded to Anaheim. Toronto received Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, and a 2013 conditional 4th round pick in return.
February 18th, Burke finally received what he believed to be a good deal for long time Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle. On this day, Kaberle was traded to Boston in exchange for prospect Joe Colborne, as well as a 2011 1st round pick, and a conditional 2012 2nd round pick.
The Post Deadline Leafs never looked back.
After the deadline, a seemingly new team took on a life that fans hadn’t seen in the Leafs the entire season. With a 24-13-7 record in the New Year, a new identity was born for the young team. The Leafs became a team unwilling to give up or roll over. The hard working buds caught fire, playing their best hockey of the season. With James Reimer between the pipes, the Leafs defense had new life. A defense corps that should have been weakened with the loss of Beauchemin and Kaberle surprised the league.
Captain Dion Phaneuf played his best and most complete hockey in a Leafs jersey. In the 24 games Dion played after the departure of Kaberle and Beauchemin, he began to display why he was once considered a threat to win the Norris trophy. Accumulating 6 goals and 15 points, Phaneuf not only returned to his notoriously physical game but also began scoring on what would be a 20 goal pace.
Many fans seem to think that Phaneuf’s “return to glory” was due to him receiving more responsibility on the ice. While this may be true, it’s also possible that the departure of veterans Kaberle and Beauchemin finally made Phaneuf feel as though the team was “his”. With the Kaberle trade in the rear-view mirror, Phaneuf became the team's only power play quarter back. Similarly with Beauchemin’s departure, Phaneuf became a main cog in the Leafs penalty killing, both of which improved towards the end of the season.
Perhaps one of most evident stamps left by Phaneuf on the Leafs blue line is in the maturing and development of Keith Aulie. The 6’ 5” towering defenseman appeared in 40 games this past season. He was called up earlier in the season, but didn’t seem ready to play in the NHL. Brian Burke speculated the giant might be more ready by Christmas time. Boy was he right. Mohammed Aulie became his nickname, and the tree-like defenseman, partnered with the already scary Dion Phaneuf, was a force to be reckoned with, slowly making a name for himself as a great shutdown defenseman. Aulie did make the occasional rookie mistake, but he’ll likely be a top 4 defenseman in this league.
What does this mean?
In short, the Leafs defense will be a determining factor in their ability to qualify for the playoffs. While Leafs fans shouldn’t forget the largest factor will be the play of James Reimer, if the defense doesn’t tighten up, it won’t matter who is playing in net.
I will boldly predict that the defense this season will be much better as they’ve had the time to develop chemistry. With the acquisition of Franson and Liles, the team has even more more options should anyone falter right out of the gate.
My second prediction is that Keith Aulie will experience a sophomore slump, not an awful one albeit, but it will happen.
My final and perhaps most saddening prediction is that the Leafs will NOT make the playoffs this coming season, but will finish 9th in the East. I don’t think they’re quite good enough yet, but they are very close. I could be (and hope I am) wrong, but that’s just my gut feeling.