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Mirtle: Liles looking like Leafs’ odd-man out

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

He is the latest in a line of Toronto Maple Leafs defencemen who have found themselves on the outside looking in.

First Jeff Finger and his $3.5-million contract were sent to the minors, where he suffered a concussion after 54 games and his hockey career ended, at age 32.

Then Mike Komisarek and his $4.5-million cap hit were banished to the Toronto Marlies last season, albeit briefly.

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And now John-Michael Liles – the oldest member of a young Leafs squad and a player who has spent just five games in the AHL in his career – appears to be in the organization's crosshairs.

With the Leafs cap situation ultra-tight and several members of management talking about carrying a bare bones, 20-man roster, there doesn't appear to be any room for Liles's $3.875-million deal.

He has been in the lineup in just two of seven preseason games to date and has skated in recent practises without a regular partner.

Even though Liles has three years remaining on his contract and the Leafs will get only $925,000 in cap relief by sending him to the Marlies – barring a last minute trade or roster move – he is expected to be placed on waivers by Sunday's deadline.

Given his salary, lack of minutes played in recent years and the tough cap situation around the league, it's unlikely he would be claimed.

"We make our decisions based upon how we feel," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Friday afternoon, offering a non-answer to a question regarding Liles being in tough to make the team. "I think the feelings that are inside the management and the coaches office should be left there.

"We make decisions that we think are in the best interests of our group. And then we can be fairly/unfairly criticized for what decision we make. That's what life in pro sports is about. We're about winning hockey games. We know there's tough decisions coming. We think that some people have separated themselves, both positively and negatively, and we'll make a decision. When we decide, you guys [in the media] will be the first to know."

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With Cody Franson back in the fold, the Leafs now have 10 defencemen in camp. Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Franson, Jake Gardiner and Paul Ranger aren't going anywhere, while Korbinian Holzer and T.J. Brennan are expected to fill roles with the Marlies should they clear waivers.

That leaves Mark Fraser, Liles and top prospect Morgan Rielly vying for the final one or two spots on the blueline, depending on if the Leafs can clear enough cap room to carry seven defencemen to start the season in Montreal on Tuesday.

Liles has been a pretty productive NHLer over his career, with 296 points in the first 556 games of his NHL career as a small and speedy, offence-first defenceman.

But the four-year, $15.5-million extension that former GM Brian Burke signed him to in January, 2012, while Liles was in the midst of recovering from a concussion has turned into an unmovable anchor.

Liles ran into trouble right when he returned to the ice from that injury, as he wasn't the same player that had put up 21 points in his first 33 games as a Leaf. And, despite averaging 44 points per 82 games to that point in his career, he has never been able to produce to that level since.

With a smaller role and some games spent as a healthy scratch, Liles has just 17 points in his last 65 regular season games, by far his lowest sustained stretch of production in his career.

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Making matters worse, he's also ill-matched to Carlyle's style of hockey, which values big men like Fraser who can hit and fight far more than small, finesse types.

On Friday as the team packed up the Air Canada Centre dressing room to fly to Detroit for that night's preseason game, Liles attempted to put a brave face on his situation despite being left behind in Toronto with a group of young players.

Carlyle, meanwhile, noted his roster that night would be the strongest he has dressed to date, hinting many of the players involved would be playing on opening night.

"It's obviously a good thing to have when you have a lot of guys fighting for spots," Liles said. "It shows the depth of the team."

Part of the reason Burke gave Liles such a large extension was that he believed so strongly in his leadership abilities, as the 32-year-old from Indiana is well known for his work in the community and with the organization's younger players.

Now, however, with Burke gone and a new regime feeling less tied to previous mistakes, it's that generous contract that may force him out of the NHL.

"I've had a couple opportunities to get out there and play," Liles said when asked if he was given enough chance to show he should make the team. "Like I said, it's a lot of guys fighting for very few spots.

"You go out there, do what you can do, and ultimately it's up to the front office and not up to you. That's all you can do."

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