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Reworked Defence Leading Resurgence

Thursday, 03.03.2011 / 1:01 PM / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
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Reworked Defence Leading Resurgence

 
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When the season began the Maple Leafs pretty well had one pole on which to raise their flag.

It was the blue line.

In interviews, GM Brian Burke championed his blueprint of building from the goal and the blue line out. An experienced core was the foundation upon which future success was to be built.

It didn’t work.

There are sexier stories this season: the breakout seasons for the entire second line, the ascension of James Reimer and the return to prominence of Phil Kessel to name three.

But one of the best stories has been the reconfiguring of what was supposed to be one of the league’s better defences into one of the league’s better defences.

Goaltending, as Burke and most fifth graders know, is critical.

But the Leafs have captured nine of their last dozen available points because Reimer has improved the defence and the defence has protected Reimer.

Nearly two years ago, the Leafs defence was to be built on free agent acquisitions Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek. The two combined for $8.3 million in annual salary.

Komisarek figured to bring some muscle and a developing poise.  Beauchemin a former sidekick for Chris Pronger and a player competent in all zones was a fire-tested Stanley Cup winner who could be allotted monster minutes.

It didn’t work. The Leafs were never able to find a nice fit with Beauchemin. Komisarek missed half a season with shoulder surgery and has provided only glimpses of the player Brian Burke wanted to acquire. Bringing Dion Phaneuf to Toronto cleared up an obvious leadership void but the defence didn’t click.

So Burke started over. He shipped Beauchemin back to Anaheim, promoted Keith Aulie to take his place and sent Tomas Kaberle to Boston. Coach Ron Wilson increased Carl Gunnarsson’s minutes by seven or eight minutes a night and the Swede has righted an up and down season. Komisarek’s minutes were cut and Brett Lebda was left where he was.

Here’s a look at the ice time and plus minus for the Leafs top six. The first column contains the player’s average ice time for the season, the second the same stats in the six games since the Leafs traded Tomas Kaberle. For the sake of simplicity, the ice time numbers have been rounded off.

Player Ice Time Plus/Minus Ice Time Last 6 Games Plus/Minus
Phaneuf 24:00 -7 27:00 +1
Schenn 22:00 -1 23:00 -4
Gunnarsson 16:00 0 24:00 +2
Komisarek 14:00 -5 12:00 +5
Aulie 17:00 -8 21:00 -3
Lebda 14:00 -12 14:00 +5


The results restore the notion of a deep blueline. Clearly Komisarek and Lebda are playing exactly as much as they should. In the post-Kaberle era the Leafs goals against average has been a tidy 2.33. Aulie has worked as the world’s tallest eraser for the transgressions that come with Phaneuf’s game. The Leaf captain’s confidence was never so evident as when he carried the puck for 200-feet to initiate the winning goal against Pittsburgh, Wednesday.

The understated Gunnarsson has admirably provided the puckhandling and mobility needed to capitalize on Luke Schenn’s rugged defence-first game. Lebda has seen power play time and freed from the burden of being a top four defenceman, Komisarek has picked his spots and, as the graph shows, thrived.

The top four average 22 years and eight months. Jake Gardiner, a coveted collegiate defenceman is expected to play soon. He is 21.

Burke had it right. Then he got it wrong. Now he seems to have it right.
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