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Carl Gunnarsson #36 of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images) (Abelimages/2010 Getty Images)
Carl Gunnarsson #36 of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images) (Abelimages/2010 Getty Images)

Undefeated Leafs tinker with lineup Add to ...

There's been little to nitpick on the 2010-11 Toronto Maple Leafs, what with a 4-0 start and an effort level far superior to that offered by last year's group.

While few teams on that kind of an early roll would dare tinker with their lineup, it's likely Leafs coach Ron Wilson will do just that Monday against the New York Islanders.

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Expected to join the mix is veteran defenceman Brett Lebda, recovered from a shoulder injury suffered in training camp and set for duty on the Leafs' third pairing alongside Mike Komisarek.

"If I go in there and we lose, I don't know what's going to happen," Lebda said jokingly after Sunday's practice.

Lebda's return will come at the expense of Swedish sophomore Carl Gunnarsson, whose struggles in camp have carried over to the season to the point that Wilson benched him for all but six minutes of Friday's 4-3 overtime win over the New York Rangers.

That was the continuation of a trend for the Leafs this season, one in which the third defence pairing has often been nailed to the bench in key situations. Komisarek and Gunnarsson have averaged only about 13 minutes ice time a game, less than all but the fourth-line forwards.

Wilson's top four blueliners have played almost 24 minutes a game each, making the foursome of Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, François Beauchemin and Luke Schenn one of the most heavily worked groups in the league.

Those four have skated an average of 23 minutes 39 seconds a game, more than all but the top four for the Carolina Hurricanes (23:59), Detroit Red Wings (23:46), New York Rangers (23:46) and Vancouver Canucks (23:40) this season.

That's a departure from last season, but not exactly new for general manager Brian Burke's teams. When Burke's Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, they played their top four defencemen (including Beauchemin) almost 28 minutes a night, far more than any other team.

The Philadelphia Flyers used a similar strategy last spring en route to an unlikely trip to the Stanley Cup final, rarely playing the likes of Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent, and loading minutes on their well-paid top four.

The biggest beneficiary of the tactic for the Leafs this season has been the 20-year-old Schenn, whose ice time is up 5½ minutes a game over last season to an average of 22 minutes 28 seconds.

Playing alongside Kaberle on what has been one of the better pairings in the NHL so far, Schenn leads the Leafs in three key categories: even-strength ice time, plus-minus and hits.

"Everyone keeps bringing up the start to last year, but that's so far in the past for us right now, we're not worried about that at all," said Schenn, who in his third NHL season is still the 16th youngest defenceman in the league. "I think the group we have, a lot of us finished the season here last year and we had success and we're just continuing that right now.

"Everyone's in a better mood. You are allowed to joke around a little more and have fun. We've seen the other side of it too around here where it can be pretty miserable when you're losing. It's definitely a nice change."

Many teams that have loaded up the minutes on their top four in recent seasons have done so for salary-cap reasons, as they're able to get by with few dollars committed to the bottom third of their defence corps. With Lebda in the lineup, however, Toronto's third pairing will be the highest paid in the league at a combined $7.5-million (U.S.) and it's likely he's being eased in given his injury kept him out of much of camp.

In time, Wilson may be more willing to go to the two high-paid veterans more than a Komisarek-Gunnarsson pairing that simply wasn't working. For now, though, everything is going right for Toronto's key contributors, making it hard for anyone else, at any salary, to take on much more of a role.



Player

GP

Pts

+/-

TOI/G

Dion Phaneuf

4

2

0

24:39

Tomas Kaberle

4

3

3

24:20

Francois Beauchemin

4

1

2

23:10

Luke Schenn

4

3

4

22:28

Carl Gunnarsson

4

0

0

13:58

Mike Komisarek

4

3

1

13:13

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