Siegel: Young D pose constant challenge for Wilson, Leafs

Jonas Siegel

12/29/2011 2:16:30 AM

RALEIGH, N.C. – For minutes on end at centre ice of the RBC Center, Luke Schenn and Ron Wilson conversed, no doubt replaying and reworking the events of the night prior.

Errors like the one Schenn made on Tuesday night – a bold and unnecessary trip into the offensive zone which sprung the Florida Panthers fifth goal in a 5-3 loss – are not written off as youthful indiscretions in Toronto, but considered glaring examples for learning on an inexperienced defence.

Without 31-year-old veteran John-Michael Liles in the lineup – he's currently sidelined with concussion-like symptoms – the Leafs have what can only be described as a youthful blueline. The average age of the seven active defencemen is 23 with Dion Phaneuf topping out as the greybeard of the group at only 26; Carl Gunnarsson is next in line at 25, Cody Franson is 24, Korbinian Holzer is 23, Schenn and Keith Aulie are both 22 and Jake Gardiner is a mere 21.

For Wilson, a certain balance exists between evaluating errors chalked up to youth and inexperience and those repeated time and time again by blueliners who should know better.

"You want guys to not make the same mistakes over and over, over a period of time," Wilson said. "What you want is [to] put people in and they gather experience, so they don't make the same mistakes over and over. That's kind of the definition of insanity isn't it, that you keep doing the same things, that you keep making the same mistakes; that's what we're trying to correct here."

"The coaches definitely made me well-aware that I made a mistake to say the least," Schenn told the Leaf Report, "but that's part of it. That's totally expected and they're doing their job no matter how it is of getting the message or the point across, they're going to let you know. In saying that we're all smart enough these days, we've played enough games, we've got [to the NHL] for a reason; we know what's accepted and what's not."

Now in his fourth NHL season, Schenn declined to even consider age as a factor for any mistake, let alone the one that stood out on Tuesday. "I think if Gards makes a mistake it's a little different if I make a mistake," he said. "I should know better for the most part; I'm older. Obviously mistakes are going to happen, it's just part of the game, but I think [the coaches are] a little more forgiving if you're a young guy and you can learn from it."

Gardiner – only eight months younger than Schenn, but 233 NHL games short on experience – did make a mistake of similar proportion in Florida, inexplicably diving into the offensive zone – with the score having just been tied at one – on an error that led directly to the go-ahead goal from Bill Thomas.

"You can understand someone in their first year [making] a mistake and then you put them back out," Wilson said. "Sometimes you don't even say [anything], you hope the guy understands he just made a mistake. Most players are cognizant of that."

After some thought, Wilson agreed that the current blueline construction was the youngest he'd had in his coaching career, no doubt a product of the cap system. Age, however, provides only some leeway when it comes to poor decision-making.

"They know what they're supposed to do," he said. "It's just a matter of executing it, that's all."

"For me I don't really think about my age at all anymore," Schenn concluded. "I've been around just as long as anyone, especially on this team."

Five Points

1. Remaining a source of much distress the Leaf penalty kill allowed another two goals to the Panthers on Tuesday, now at 38 yielded this season for the worst mark in the NHL. Wilson has tinkered with the personnel – more Tyler Bozak for one – but has seen only hints of improvement. "What we've got to do here is take a deep breath and not talk about it all the time and not over-analyze it," he said. "When you watch us practice the PK we're really good, [but] the game starts and there seems to be this dread that we're going to give up a goal and inevitably we do. We've got to get back to being aggressive like we were a month ago."

2. Especially critical, according to Wilson, is a better team concept killing penalties. "We've got to get the four guys on the ice being aggressive as one," he said, "not four times one; it's got to be one times four ... One wheel falls off and then you're on the rims a little bit and you never know what's going to happen at that point."

3. James Reimer will make his fifth consecutive start in goal on Thursday following a shaky performance in Florida two nights earlier. Reimer got the hook after he allowed three goals on eight shots, the first time he's been pulled this season. "Just trying to get James his reps so he can catch up," Wilson said, referring to the six weeks Reimer missed earlier this season. "He should be a big part of our success in the second half." The 23-year-old is 3-0-0 career vs. Carolina with a 0.66 goals against average and .976 save percentage, but just 1-3-0 on the road this season with a 4.26 goals against average and .852 save percentage.

4. Liles took in a brief part of Wednesday's practice from behind the glass and is hopeful to begin skating later this week, assuming of course that his concussion-like symptoms diminish. He'll miss his third consecutive game on Thursday. In addition to Liles, the Leafs have also been without another veteran in Mike Komisarek (broken arm), although he could be in line for a return in early January.

5. Matthew Lombardi continues to inch toward a return as well – now a regular fixture at practice – but when he re-enters the lineup is unclear at this point. "I haven't even really talked to the trainers or doctors about it, but he's getting pretty close," Wilson said. "I haven't asked if he's even going to eligible on this trip." The Leafs would need to clear a roster spot for Lombardi upon his return (currently at the max of 23 players), thus creating an interesting decision for the club at some point in the near future. Nazem Kadri has played well since being recalled (two goals), Matt Frattin is growing alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin and Darryl Boyce has added some energy to the fourth line.