Leafs Defense: A Season In Review


Lots of reading today: Gus chips in an  analogical look at the NHL playoff series; Alex has your links with a look at potential Leaf Jussi Rynnas.

In what was Brian Burke’s first summer on the job with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was clear from the get go that he put an onus on improving specialty teams, and also team defense.  The brash Toronto GM made a lot of moves as it related to improving these areas, and on paper they looked like a sure recipe for change and improvement.

And as we found out once again, like we’ve been told so many times before, even the best laid plans never seem to go off as smoothly as one would have wished or hoped.

It was a season in which the Maple Leafs struggled again on the defensive side of things, sitting second last in goals against in the league, while also struggling to right the wrongs that plagued their specialty teams.

The Leafs finished last in penalty kill this season, though one can make the argument that the numbers were improving as the season wound down.  The powerplay, was especially dismal though, notching just 14% efficiency.

As a rule, your specialty teams should add up to 100.  With the Leafs PK  at 74.6, and the aforementioned inept powerplay of 14, the Leafs come in at a disappointing 88.6 combined score.

A big reason for those numbers was the play from the back end, as well as early letdowns from the goaltending.  However, while some defenseman may have struggled, others proved to be a potential diamond in the rough for a rebuilding franchise.

Tomas Kaberle: 7g, 42a, 49pts -16

Another year, another batch of rumours regarding the future of Kaberle with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.  And really, for the first time since the rumours started, it seems highly likely that Kaberle, at least for his sake, is finally starting to openly acknowledge the idea that he may be playing in a different colour uniform next season.

For his part, Kaberle had another good year from the back end.  Logging over twenty-two minutes a game, Kaberle finished second in team scoring, and was flirting with the idea of leading the team in overall scoring as a defenseman, until Phil Kessel turned up his game a notch toward the end of the season.

Kaberle was, at most times, steady for the Leafs this season, and his plus/minus is more indicative of the amount of ice time he saw against other teams top lines.  A near 50 point season has become the norm from the smooth, puck moving defenseman, and while he tailed off a bit towards the end of the year, Kaberle showed a stronger willingness to shoot the puck and manufacture the play.

His time in Toronto may be up, and if it, he may be hard to replace.

Overall Grade: B+

Francois Beauchemin: 5g, 21a, 26pts, -13

If there was anyone who needed to be told the simple rules of K.I.S.S. this season, it would be Francois Beauchemin, and no, I am not talking about the makeup clad rock band.

Keep It Simple Stupid.

It’s an old adage, but simply put, one that never goes out of style.

When the Leafs signed Francois Beauchemin in the offseason, I don’t think there was a Leafs fan who wasn’t happy with the acquisition.  At a cap hit of $3.8 million, the Maple Leafs thought they had paid a reasonable amount of money for a player who rose to the occasion in order to shut down the oppositions top lines, all the while adding a steady physical presence, a veteran voice, and an above average slap shot from the point.

What they got, instead, was a guy who pressed too hard, and tried to do too much.

Beauchemin’s first month and a half as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs was dismal, as he routinely pinched when he should have backed off, zigged when he should have zagged, and was frequently torched by opposition’s top snipers en route to his minus 13, second only to Tomas Kaberle.

Beauchemin did rope it in defensively  a bit towards the end of the season however, and his points totals were on par with those he put up in Anaheim, at the time in his career where he really established himself as a solid shutdown defenseman with a little bit of offense to his game.

In no way is the following grade any indication of the type of player I know Beauchemin can be.  It’s more a reflection of the type of player he was, in his first season in blue and white.

Overall Grade: C

Luke Schenn: 5g, 12a, 17pts, +2

It was a tale of two players when it came to the season that second year d-man Luke Schenn had.

In the first half of the season, he looked very much like a sophomore enduring a slump.  He looked lost in his own end, lacking confidence with and without the puck, and was even benched early in the year, as a way of Ron Wilson trying to give his young defenseman a break.

In the second half of the season, Schenn did get better, although it wasn’t exactly the type of season Leafs fans perhaps envisioned.

Schenn had three more points in his second season in the league, and upped his goal total from two to five.  It’s no secret, however, that his game started turning around when the Leafs acquired Dion Phaneuf.

The addition of Phaneuf seemed to make Schenn more confident, and more willing to use his size to his advantage.  While he still needs to work on his timing, and use his body more in front of the net and crease battles, Schenn fought off a terrible start to the year to turn things around for the better.  Still, the early season blunders will drag his mark down a bit.

Overall grade: C+

Carl Gunnarsson: 3g, 12a, 15pts, +8

Far and away the surprise of the Leafs season on defense, and perhaps as a whole, Gunnarsson seemingly came out of nowhere to grab a spot on the team, and once he did, never looked back.

A John Ferguson Jr. draft choice, Gunnarsson made the team out of camp with his smooth skating, confident puck moving, and his overall hockey smarts.  It’s interesting to note that the stats totals above were all posted in 43 games, as Gunnarsson missed time due to an elbow injury.

A 7th round pick, 194th overall, Gunnarsson is taking a path eerily similar to current defenseman Tomas Kaberle, which is interesting, because it may be the emergence of the young Swedish defenseman that makes Brian Burke and Co. feel comfortable enough to deal Kaberle this summer.

Gunnarsson’s plus 8 led the team, and he was one of only two players who finished the season in Toronto that were a plus defenseman (the aforementioned Schenn was the other, while Ian White was also a plus player in Toronto, before being traded to Calgary.)

Along with Stalberg up front, and Gustavsson in between the pipes, the Maple Leafs have a young, Swedish born player at every position who is making a difference, and looks to be a key core of the team.  Through all the bad headlines that the Leafs defense produced this year, Gunnarsson made it all worth it with his stellar play.

Overall Grade: A

Jeff Finger:  2g, 8a, 10pts, -11

A couple of things jump out when you look at the stats of Jeff Finger.

First and foremost, that is a pretty decent amount of points, particularly when you consider he only played 39 games.  However, the -11 is glaring, particularly for a guy who was brought in here at $3.5 million (as right or wrong as that may be) to shutdown players, and prevent goals.

It’s quite tough to grade Finger to be honest.  How do you assign a grade to someone who was so seldom used?

The bottom line is, for the remainder of his tenure with Toronto, however long that may be, Jeff Finger will be shadowed every move by his hefty price tag, an unfortunate anomaly in today’s salary cap world.  While he may actually be a steady defenseman if given the proper playing time and used in the proper situations, the Leafs aren’t getting the most bang for their buck for Finger.

Overall grade: D

Dion Phaneuf: 2g, 8a, 10 pts, -2 (numbers in Toronto only)

Paint me as a kool-aid drinker if you wish, but the Toronto Maple Leafs changed drastically for the better on that fateful last day in January.

Brian Burke had just completed his first blockbuster trade of the day, jettisoning role players who had been with the team for some time, perhaps too long, and changed the culture by moving them in exchanged for Dion Phaneuf, the once highly touted defenseman who fell out of favour with the Calgary Flames organization.

And while some Leafs fans were unimpressed with Phaneuf’s offensive contributions, it’s the things that don’t necessarily show up on score sheets that make Phaneuf an integral role to the team, and the probable next captain of this storied franchise.

He came to the team and instantly became a vocal leader, transforming the swagger of the team in the process.  His on ice presence was felt as well, as Leafs players began to play more physical, following the example of the bruising defenseman.

His ten points in 28 games weren’t too shabby either, but his minus 2 may be cause for concern, although one could argue that he was getting used to a new system, and playing a ton of minutes for the club down the stretch.

Overall Grade: A-

Garnet Exelby:  1g, 3a, 4pts, -8

Like Jeff Finger, I found myself struggling to assign a grade for Exelby based on his performance with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Like some in Leafs Nation, I was rather excited to hear they had gotten Exelby in a deal with Atlanta on July 1st.  While I always considered myself one of the few fans Pavel Kubina had during his time here, I thought Exelby would be a great addition to the club in it’s shutdown, physical 3rd pairing on the back end.  Exelby’s bone jarring hits made him a fan favourite in Atlanta, and I was looking forward to seeing that in Toronto.

And I’m still waiting.

With all seriousness, and all due respect to Exelby, he never did find his way in Toronto, and that could be for a number of reasons really.  First and foremost, he may not have meshed with the system of Ron Wilson and his staff.  In my opinion, however, the real issue was with the amount of games he played.

While I am not saying Exelby deserved to play more games, I felt personally that the short leash he had with Ron Wilson really made him tepid and timid as it related to taking the chances and risks that it takes to deliver a devastating hit like he became famous for.  I don’t think he had the confidence to try it, because he was afraid to make a mistake.

Overall grade: D-

Mike Komisarek:  0g, 4a, 4pts, -9

If anyone is disappointed with the inaugural season for Mike Komisarek in Toronto, count the hulking Michigan born defenseman among them.

A true gamer at heart, Komisarek didn’t come close to making the type of impression he wanted with fans, largely due to his lack of chance because of injury.

Komisarek battled shoulder issues in his final year with Montreal, and while he did get it corrected in the summer through surgery, he found himself back under the knife mid-season, shut down for the year once again.  During his brief time with the Leafs, he looked slightly lost, trying to do too much to make an impression, not unlike Beauchemin.

He did show flashes of the strong, physical, and intimidating play that Brian Burke expected when he signed him, but he wasn’t healthy nearly enough, and some question whether he was even physically ready to start the season in the first place.

Call me a players writer, but I am going to protect Komisarek a bit, and give him an incomplete.

Overall grade: Incomplete