"If the experts look at our team, the first strong point they'll see [is] our blue-line."
Those are the words of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke just prior to the season opener, as detailed here by ESPN's Pierre LeBrun.
And that actually seemed to be the general feeling around the hockey world.
If nothing else, we were told, the Leafs had depth on D, so much so that a trade could be in the works to move someone out for help up front.
Now, it's only six games into the season, and Toronto's 4-1-1 heading into Saturday's matchup with the Montreal Canadiens. But if you had to list the positives and negatives of this young season for the Leafs, right at the top of the minuses would be the play of this blueline.
And that's with Dion Phaneuf having an excellent start to the season.
The list of who's struggling, however, is much longer, with Cody Franson, Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek all handily being out played by 21-year-old rookie Jake Gardiner, who was somehow plus-2 in Thursday's ugly 6-2 loss in Boston.
The Leafs have allowed an average of 32 shots against a game and have been out shot by an average of nearly six shots a game, putting them near the league basement in both categories.
Even in the win over the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday, coach Ron Wilson made clear he wasn't happy with how his blueliners have been moving the puck out of the zone, a problem that's persisted in almost every game.
"If you don't move the puck out of your end and crisply, cleanly, get back to pucks, move pucks, we're not a very good team," Wilson said of what he saw after 40 minutes in that game.
That's how they looked against the Bruins, too.
Obviously the Leafs aren't going to win every game and a back-to-back with your backup in goal against the defending champs is a tough one. But there's simply no way anyone, anywhere can sell this blueline as a "strong point" of this club right now.
It's not, and I'm not sure it ever was.
Part of the problem is that Toronto just doesn't have enough defencemen able to lock things down in their own zone right now. It's telling, to me, that Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson have been the top option on the penalty kill, playing 40 per cent of all shorthanded situations together while the stay-at-homers sit on the bench.
The rest of the PK minutes have been a mixed bag, with Schenn-Komisarek as the second-most common pairing, and far more goals are going in with them on the ice than Phaneuf-Gunnarsson.
So it's with good reason that Wilson has been reluctant to use anyone but his top pairing in defensive situations. Even at even strength, the Leafs are being out shot the worst with Franson, Komisarek, Liles and Schenn on the ice – and it's not particularly close.
And they've made up the team's entire second and third pairings, at least until Gardiner began logging 24 minutes a game in desperation.
Here was Wilson on why the Leafs were able to come back, down 3-1 going into the third, against Winnipeg the other night.
"As we shortened our bench, basically the whole third, we were moving pucks and had some pressure up the ice and got our speed going," Wilson said. "If we're not headmanning pucks quickly and just chipping it and using our speed to get in on the forecheck, we're not a very good team."
The ice time among defencemen in that period (with Franson in the press box)?
Liles: 9:29 Phaneuf: 9:01 Gunnarsson: 8:21 Gardiner: 8:04 Schenn: 3:32 Komisarek: 1:33
And that's been a regular occurrence late in games so far this season.
For now, it appears what Wilson's going to do is keep giving Gardiner big minutes on the second pairing with Schenn and bump Liles down the lineup. Franson, meanwhile, will get another trip to sit with the media, as his early-season benching and the resulting controversy seems to be in his head and setting him up for a long first season in Toronto.
The Leafs third pairing has been a bit of a black hole in recent years, with the likes of Garnet Exelby, Jeff Finger, Brett Lebda and Komisarek getting a lot of those minutes, but if we're going to come anywhere close to calling this a deep blueline, that has to change.
So far this season, it hasn't and the No. 4 to No. 7 types have for the most part been Toronto's worst performers. So, in Montreal on Saturday, the third pairing will probably have two $4-million men – including a former Hab – trying to finally fix that problem.
The best news with the team's defensive woes is that the Leafs have found a way to win without getting enough from their blueline.
It's hard, however, to see that lasting long term – and that'll be something to keep an eye on as they continue to visit some of the better teams in the Eastern Conference on this trip.Report Typo/Error