Yesterday, I looked at the Leaf forward corps and tried to read the tea leaves to find out who would be playing where at the beginning and nearer to the end of the season. My guesses met with some harsh criticism at times (where's John Mitchell!!!!1) which is exactly the kind of debate I'd love to encourage in the comments section. I love to see 'em so please, keep me honest!
Today, I'd like to do the same exercise with the defense. Probably not as exciting as there's a bit more certainty back there but let's at least look at what we've got.
Pairing 1: Phaneuf - Komisarek
Oh boy, oh boy. If nothing else, these two are going to be awesome to watch. Both are punishing hitters that will at times go a little too far out of their way to finish a check. Suffice to say, there wont be many easy shifts against these guys. Phaneuf's big shot from the point will be most welcome and was something our powerplay sorely missed until his arrival. If these two can keep dumb penalties to a minimum then I'm very happy with what we've got.
Pairing 2: Schenn - Beauchemin
It just gets better! Schenn had his second-season slump and looks to bounce back this year. Beauchemin was prone to highs and lows at various points in the season but with improved confidence in the goaltender and a little more familiarity with Ron Wilson's system I expect both of these guys to be much better than last year. Schenn showed a little more offensive prowess than we expected from him and Beauchemin has consistently been a solid though unspectacular performer in that regard. Nothing flashy from these two but they'll do the job admirably.
Pairing 3: Gunnarsson - Lebda
Let me start this by saying that I think Jeff Finger is a decent defenseman that has been the victim of an inflated contract. For that reason, I think his status in the lineup is too tenuous for me to put him here. He may end up in the minors, bought out or in Europe -- I really don't know. Lebda is quick and more affordable and while small, can be physical. Gunnarsson is just awesome. He's got a great first pass and skates well and I'd love to see him get some powerplay time with Phaneuf on the first unit. The fact that Gunnarsson is a third pairing guy on most nights speaks volumes about the backend talent the Leafs have.
Unlike the forward corps, I don't see much changing here barring injury. Holzer, Mikus and Aulie are all waiting for an opportunity and all have pretty decent potential. While I think Aulie has the highest ceiling of any of these guys, I also think the injuries he's sustained have slowed his development and I'd like to see him get a full year of AHL seasoning before he sees time with the Leafs.
Given the propensity of Leafs defenders to get injured, I expect that both Holzer and Mikus will spend some time in the NHL this year. This will likely mean that Schenn is paired with Gunnarsson, leaving the more experienced Beauchemin to spend time with whichever kid is in the lineup.
If there's one reason for optimism around this year's edition of the Leafs, it has to be the defense. We still have Kaberle for the time being but can afford to lose him and still have a very respectable group. Can't wait to see what the crafty old Czech brings us.