TSN Radio 1050 Maple Leafs reporter Jonas Siegel addresses five questions as training camp unfolds this week in Toronto. First up, the defence.
Perhaps the greatest unknown on the roster – as to its assembly or construct – the Toronto defence remained more or less intact from 2013, save for added depth in the form of Paul Ranger and T.J. Brennan. Stability with this group will therefore hinge (in all likelihood) on the revival of Jake Gardiner and to a lesser degree, the continued ascension of Cody Franson (as yet unsigned).
Gardiner is the variable who could in some ways make or break the Leafs blueline. The 23-year-old rode the waves of turbulence a year ago, battling the lingering undercurrent of a concussion and its after-effects. He re-emerged as a bright spot in the playoffs, busting out with five points in six games against the Bruins. That player, the one who made noise with his legs, aggressiveness and unpredictability, is the one the Leafs need to return this season. It's that Gardiner who can dictate the action and alter a shift in an instant with an icy swagger, elements that are unseen elsewhere on this roster (Morgan Rielly not withstanding). His efforts will still require and certainly receive much prodding from Carlyle, primarily as it relates to his assertiveness and positioning in the defensive zone, but that ability to make something out of nothing with the puck is what the Leafs desire and missed last season.
Franson saw his role grow and grow last season, from under 14 minutes in January to upwards of 22 in April, and the now 26-year-old delivered, finishing amongst the leaders at his position in scoring. In addition to his increased responsibility, which included first duty power-play, Franson also showed more assertiveness defensively, with prodding from Carlyle paying dividends. A breakthrough 2013 continued in the postseason, with the B.C. native and unsigned restricted free agent adding three goals and six points in nearly 23 minutes against the Bruins. He and Gardiner teamed together in the final three games of the first round against Boston – with Fraser sidelined – and proved Toronto's most effective pair, a preview perhaps of what Carlyle may opt for this season.
If the Leafs can achieve stability beyond their predicted top pair of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson from a second pair of Gardiner and Franson then the assembled group may just be deep enough with NHL experience to get by.
Beyond the aforementioned, the final three spots figure to be assumed initially by some combination of Mark Fraser, John-Michael Liles, Paul Ranger, Korbinian Holzer, T.J. Brennan and perhaps, though it would seem unlikely – considering the risks and cap crunch – Morgan Rielly. While by no means a certainty Fraser would seem to have locked up a spot considering the rarity of his skill-set in this group – an edgy stay-at-home defender – and performance in such a role last season. Ranger too, would be inclined to hold a spot. The former Lightning defender impressed Toronto brass in his stint with the Marlies last season, his gifts of old – easy mobility, NHL-caliber first pass, sturdiness defensively – rediscovered in relatively short order following a lengthy absence from the game.
That would leave one spot to Liles, Holzer, Brennan or Rielly.
The Leafs would be thrilled if the Liles from two years ago flourishes once more – though his fit under Carlyle will always be in question. Holzer struggled in his NHL duties last season though he was miscast for a role on the top pairing with Phaneuf and may perform more effectively on a bottom pair. Brennan meanwhile, joins the organization from Florida and projects as more of a depth defenceman at this point.
Rielly is the wild card in many respects. The organization can opt to keep him with the NHL club – with a nine-game trial period – or send him back to junior in Moose Jaw. Regardless of his apparent readiness in training camp, the decision is complicated both by the cap considerations (Rielly is due significant change with the Leafs tight under the cap) and the inherent risks of holding onto a teenager and thus burning a year of his entry-level eligibility. Carlyle kept Cam Fowler as a teenager in Anaheim so he's evidently not against the prospect if he deems Rielly ready for the challenge, especially in the defensive zone.
With a Gardiner revival, Franson progression and the likelihood of an improved third pairing with greater NHL depth, the Leaf defence may prove steady. Gardiner is ultimately the key; his return to previous performance allows the likes of Fraser, Ranger, Liles etc. to fall into suitable positions within the lineup.