Jake Gardiner really threw a wrench in things. The plan coming into this year was undoubtedly to send Gardiner to the AHL where he played only 10 games last season. Conventional thinking is that young defensemen need professional seasoning before they make the jump to the NHL.
And yet, after 5 NHL games, Gardiner has a pair of assists and is even in the +/- column. He's looked poised with the puck and his defensive lapses have been manageable and declining of late. In short, he looks ready.
Dion Phaneuf is lighting it up to start the year and looks like the number one defenseman we hoped we were getting. He's got 9 point in 7 games, he's +6, and he has clearly improved his defensive game under Ron Wilson.
Over at PPP, Steve Burtch put together a piece on Korbinian Holzer and Juraj Mikus where he looks at the development of a couple of our more unsung prospects. Holzer in particular looks like he'll be a solid depth defenseman in fairly short order.
Add to this Jesse Blacker's strong play last season in the CHL and good start with the Marlies and Keith Aulie's potential as an NHL defenseman and you've got a crowded house. Following up on yesterday's look at the center position, I've put together a look at some defensemen who will be pushing for roster spots over the next couple of seasons.
Defensemen (signed through)
Dion Phaneuf (2013-14)
Luke Schenn (2015-16)
Carl Gunnarsson (2012-13)
John-Michael Liles (2011-12)
Cody Franson (2011-12, RFA)
Jake Gardiner (2013-14)
Mike Komisarek (2013-14)
Keith Aulie (2011-12, RFA)
Korbinian Holzer (2011-12, RFA)
Juraj Mikus (2011-12, RFA)
Jesse Blacker (2013-14)
There are a lot of players who will be fighting over 6 starting spots for the next year.
I have a hard time imagining that Liles is anything more than a stop-gap for this Leafs team. He's a good player but the Leafs' cap situation, coupled with the emergence of Gardiner mean that Liles will likely move on at year's end.
The number of RFAs at year's end is what's really interesting here. Aulie and Franson are the most noteworthy and potentially troublesome. With Franson being a little surly at starting the year in the pressbox and Aulie having been demoted to the AHL to start the year, is it possible that either might be targets for offer sheets? They're both young, big bodied defensemen and those guys aren't exactly a dime-a-dozen.
Mikus and Holzer look like they'll be stuck as injury call-ups and will have to try and take advantage of whatever time they end up getting in the NHL.
The potential exists for a trade to shakeup this group with Gunnarsson's, and more recently Franson's, names being bandied about. I think moving Gunnarsson would be a big hit in the short-term as he's been one of the team's best defensemen to start the year. The question is whether or not Gunnarsson's ceiling is greater than Franson's or Aulie's. If the answer is 'yes', you can't trade him but if not, it may be worth moving him to create some space. I'm not sure there's a deal out there where Gunnarsson or Franson brings you good value, but if there is, you would have to consider it given the organizational depth on defense.
The next year will be an interesting one from a managerial perspective. The Leafs' pro-scouting, and in particular their views on our own talent, will have a significant role on the team's outlook over the next two years. It will be interesting to see who they put their bets on.