Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Seven Defenceman Seven Games

One of the things I was looking forward to most during the summer was seeing the Leafs best six defenceman healthy and suiting up together for the first time. As the Leafs jumped out to a four-and-oh start, there was no disappointment, only promise. True, small problems were identified (Komisarek in the first game, Gunnarsson in the 4th), but overall the defence looked terrific through those first four wins.

Then, in game five, a line-up change was made - 7th defenceman Lebda in place of the sophomore Gunnarsson. Personally, I thought it was too early to break up a defensive unit that I'd waited 17 years to see. Especially one with a perfect record. And lo and behold, the wheels came off. An overtime loss to the Islanders, and then a one-goal loss to the Rangers, and so Gunnarsson was re-inserted for Lebda the martyr. The defence then responded with their worst showing of the year, a 5-2 mistake-filled drubbing to the Flyers.

I'm not here to point out individual errors or bad decisions - that's somebody else's gig and I'd rather not get too specific. By now, all the defenders have made a blunder or two, with the exception of Luke Schenn who's having an outstanding start. Instead, here's a simple overview of the seven Leafs defenceman and their performances thus far.

Kaberle. A good start but not great. His attention to detail seems improved and his skating and stickhandling are as smooth as ever. I'm noticing a trend now, when Kaberle gets the puck between the blue lines, opposition players just completely backing off and giving him an uncontested lane up to their zone. Effectively, Kabby can just waltz his way into the other teams territory but the side-effect is that they're taking away his first pass by guarding everyone else but him. I think he should start driving the net and seeing how far he can go.

Kabby has 4 assists to lead the defenders, all on the powerplay, no goals, and no points at even strength. He is a moderately surprising and pleasing +2 and has yet to take a penalty. The statistic that troubles me the most is the 10 shots-on-goal. Kaberle needs to shoot more, as it seems to me, the powerplay was most effective and dangerous when Kabby was firing the puck most often - the first two games of the season and the last 2 games of the pre-season. Right now Kaberle is averaging less then two shots per game - I'd like to see him somewhere between 3 and 4.

Kaberle leads the team in ice-time per game (23:42) after 7 games.

To summarize: Kabby playing well, needs to shoot more.

Luke Schenn is kinda awesome. In his 3rd year, he appears to blossoming into a complete defencman ahead of schedule. Three assists, all at even-strength, and a +2, Schenn is also tied for 2nd among hits with Freddie Sjostrom, just one below team leader Phaneuf. Schenn's defensive play has been rock-solid and his puck-movement on the transition has been eye-opening. In the midst of the most talented blue line the Leafs have seen in years, Luke Schenn is the one playing nearest his full-potential, and impressing the most.

The only knock against him, and I'm not sure it counts, Luke leads the defenders thus far in minor penalties taken.

To summarize: Luke Schenn is kinda awesome.

The Captain usually logs more ice-time then any other Leaf, and has in 4 out of 7 games, though he saw his ice-time drastically reduced in the last game against the Flyers. Of all the defenders, Dion seems to be struggling the most, though much of the weight of that comes from his last performance. Offensively, Phaneuf isn't lighting it up yet, just 3 assists, 1 at even-strength, and yet to hit the back of the net. He has hit the net 24 times, most among defenders and 2nd among all skaters only to Kessel's 26. I have no stats for missing the net, but judging by how many times he's hit the net, I'd guess that he's taken about 72 shots from the blue-line thus far.

His 12 penalty minutes is the most among the defenceman, but that's largely due to the 10-minute misconduct he received at the end of the Ottawa game. His 24 hits is the most on the team.

Most troubling is his team worst minus 5, though again that's heavily weighted by the minus 3 he earned in Philadelphia. That last game was a complete dud for Dion who looked terrible on more then one goal against and was held without a shot on goal for the first time this season.

Personally, my biggest complaint with Dion is how ill-prepared he seems for passes. I'm not refering to Briere's goal, on which Kaberle shares equal blame, but often this season I've noticed Phaneuf seem startled by a puck coming his way and reacting way to slow to deliver a one-timer or continue a dangerous looking play.

To summarize: The Leafs most important defenceman has thus far underwhelmed, but the season is young and there's a C on his sweater for a reason.

I can't say I really notice Francois Beauchemin a whole lot, despite his high ice-time totals, which is an indication that he's doing his job. I've caught him looking clumsy a couple times now, but as I've said, everyone but Schenn seems to have made a brutal mistake or two by now. Overall, I think Beauchemin has been moving the puck well and plays hard against the oppositions best players. Beauchemin's best attribute is consistency.

Beauchemin scored an important goal in Pittsburgh and picked up his first assist in the last game in Philadelphia. The game against Pittsburgh was Beauchemin's strongest of the year as he led the team in ice-time that night and helped preserve a 1-goal lead through the final 20 minutes against the dangerous Penguin offence.

Beauchemin is now a minus 1 on the season, after starting out +2 through 4 games, but then going minus 1 for three consecutive games.

To summarize: Reliable defender, but I'd love to see more games like the one in Pittsburgh.

Komisarek has fallen into the 5th spot, mostly due to Schenn's elevated play and Komi's inability to click with Kaberle. Despite the reduced ice-time and a few shaky moments with the puck, I think Komisarek is doing fine in the 5-spot and is starting to find his game. His aggressiveness seems well-controlled as he's picked up just one minor penalty in the first 7 games. He's also contributed 4 points, a goal and 3 assists, all at even-strength.

Komisarek is a +3, best among the defenders.

Komisarek's average time-on-ice is 14:07, lowest among the defenders.

To summarize: Komisarek should have more ice-time.

Carl Gunnarsson is having a rough start. The Sophomore Jinx seems to be upon him, but maybe he's just getting it out of the way early. Gunnarsson hasn't excelled through the pre-season and the first 3 games of this season, and then saw his ice-time dramatically reduced in the Leafs 4th game, their last win of the season. After sitting two games, Gunnarsson's return was less then spectacular as the Leafs were humbled by the Flyers. For certain, the start to this season has been a humbling experience for Gunnarrson.

Confidence is something that doesn't come that easy,” said Gunnarsson. “Once you lose it, it's tough to get it back.”

Um. Uh-oh.

The positive side is that Gunnarsson's stats don't look awful other then he hasn't contributed yet to the offence with a point. He hasn't looked horrific, just not as good as the Gunnarsson we're used to, but again, perhaps that could be said of any of our defenders except Schenn, though it's probably truest for Gunnar. The Sophomore Slump, or whatever you want to call it, if such a thing exists, might end tomorrow (or tonight, depending on when you're reading this, maybe even yesterday), and we know that Gunnarsson's potential is to be an equal contributor on a dynamic and highly talented blue line.

To summarize: Give him time.
Brett Lebda must die!!!6

No, just kidding. But he's not off to a great start and hasn't won many fans in his first two appearances in a Leafs uniform. In fact, he unwittingly walked into the scape-goat's shoes when Wilson made the fatal line-up change that jinxed our perfect record.

"If I go in there and we lose, I don’t know what’s going to happen."

Well, we'll all blame you, that's all. No, just kidding. If we lose because of a ridiculous goaltender-interference penalty in overtime to give the Islanders a 4-on-3 powerplay and they score on that powerplay to end our perfect run, and you were the bozo that was sitting in the box, then uh-huh, we might go out to the shed and find our old rusty pitchfork and stare at it in the moonlight for a while, until, in the silence of the cool night air, the word "Lebda" emerges with a bitter whisper from cracked and weathered lips. That could happen or did.

All kidding aside, despite Lebda's unspectacular debut, in two games he is yet to be on the ice for a goal against, but has picked up a minor in each game. He hasn't contributed anything to the offence and his time-on-ice has been equal to Gunnarsson's, only slightly more then Komi's average.

Imagine if Lebda had tipped that shot into the goal instead of falling awkwardly into Roloson? One can wonder. That's what you get for taking Todd Gill's number, I guess.

My feeling is, as long as the defenders are healthy and none of them is seriously struggling and the Leafs are winning, then the best six defenders should be in the line-up as much as possible. And that means No Lebda. It's a rare occasion to have six defenceman this good (or expensive) and the players should be able to have a bad game or two individually and work things out on the ice. Especially during winning streaks, it's a lot to ask of Lebda to step in and replace one of these guys if they're only struggling and not injured, and it raises the temperature in the room unnecessarily.

To summarize: Lebda-rage takes glancing blow at Wilson.

And on we go. It's only 7 games. Lots more in store with 75 games to go.

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