Maple Leafs After Season Report: Defence


Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In part three of our continuing look at the Toronto Maple Leafs season we’ll examine the defence. We’ll look at how each player performed this season and grade them based on how they did in regards to expectations of what they would provide coming into the season as well as player growth and development. Due to the smaller volume of defensemen, we’ll look at all eight who were with the team at the end of the season.

Dion Phaneuf

Phaneuf played one of the hardest quality of competition schedules in the entire league this season, logging gigantic minutes against the opponents top line every single night. He was out there in every situation, as if he was Carlyles safety blanket.

Phaneuf spent 1,885 minutes on the ice this year, a decline for him. He’s had exactly one full season will less minutes, his rookie year in 2005-06. He’s been over 2,000 minutes four times and in the 1,900’s twice. That works out to just under 17,000 minutes in the NHL.

To put that into perspective, Shea Weber who is a minute machine like Phaneuf, has 3,000 less minutes in 73 less games. For Weber to catch Phaneuf, he’d have to play over 40 minutes a game over those 73 games.

That being said, despite the lower minutes than normal, Phaneuf spent more minutes in his own end than in previous seasons. As such, certain parts of Phaneuf’s game really suffered. His points total of 31 was the lowest he’s had in a full season since 2010-11. He also only had 11 PP points, which has been a big part of his game since he established himself in the league.

Due to the high amount of shifts in his own end, Phaneuf’s poor decision making was also highlighted. He took 144 penalty minutes this year, the second highest total in his career. His penalty differential was -29, which is at least bad, if not horrendous.

With the stunning collapse the Leafs had to end the season, the media decided that questioning Phaneuf’s leadership was the way to go. Only the other Leafs can tell you for sure how they feel about Phaneuf as the captain, but this is a man who logged the most ice time of anybody on the team, played at least a chunk of the season visibly hurt, never complained and took the brunt of the media and fan attacks, so that other players didn’t have to.

Sounds like a pretty decent leader to me.

Grade: C+

Jake Gardiner

He may have been the best Leaf down the stretch where he piled up 10 points in the final 10 games. Gardiner also had a career high in goals (10) and points (31). He once again showed this year that he’s a puck moving defensemen who doesn’t take penalties. Among full-time blueliners only Morgan Rielly took less.

While Gardiner drove Carlyle crazy this year with questionable pinching or when his rushes backfire, he’s clearly a better player when given some freedom. While he is going to make mistakes there are ways to minimize the results from them, such as pairing him with a defensive defensemen.

Gardiner wasn’t just the top possession player for the Maple Leafs, he was one of the best in the league. That jumps out compared to the rest of the back end.

Originally Gardiner had been thought of as a possible trade chip, but once again the Leafs should be wary of dealing a 23-year-old with upside. Gardiner progressed well this year, especially when you consider how much pressure the entire defensive core was under.

While he may give the other team opportunities, he’s also the most reliable breakout passer the Leafs had this year, and is only going to get better.

Don’t forget Gardiner played only 12 regular season games last year before becoming one of the two best defensemen for the Leafs in the playoffs, so coming into this year expectations were certainly mixed. Gardiner responded by logging the second most ice time of any Leaf.

He’s an RFA and will be looking for a sizeable raise from his $1,116,667 salary ($875,000 cap hit) and will be one of the main focuses of Dave Nonis this offseason.

Grade: A-

Morgan Rielly

Leafs fans will always remember the words of Brian Burke at the 2012 NHL entry draft. After selecting Morgan Rielly with the fifth overall pick, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman leaned over and asked Burke if the Leafs got the guy they wanted. Burke’s reply was simple. “We had him first. We had him first overall.”

While that phrase will be with Rielly forever, it’s not hard to see why Burke was excited. In his rookie season Rielly played 73 games, scored 27 points and only had 12 minutes in penalties. Rielly is a puck moving defensemen who doesn’t take penalties. His skating, passing and puck skills are excellent.

Prone to mistakes, like any rookie, Rielly tightened up his game as the season went by. He’s clearly got another level of offensive ability ready to him but has been working on the defensive side of his game.

Rielly showed maturity and confidence and seemed to not dwell on mistakes and continued to push himself to get better. His hockey intelligence is also excellent.

This wasn’t an easy position to step into for someone who was a teenager when the season started. Unable to play in the AHL for the Marlies, the Leafs were left with either letting Rielly dominate the WHL in Moose Jaw or play against the pro’s. He earned his spot out of training camp and proved by December to be too big a part of the Leafs to be let go for the world juniors.

Rielly obviously has a lot to learn and as a 20-year-old is still coming into his own. Despite his age he appears to be a can’t miss prospect, already logging key minutes for the Leafs and showcasing himself as a potential top PP quarterback from the back end.

Grade: B+

Carl Gunnarson

While +/- is a bad stat to pay too much attention too, it’s worth noting that Gunnarson led the Leafs at +12. In fact he was double the next best Leaf, Troy Bodie.

After putting up 15 points in 37 games last season, Gunnarson dropped back to earth with 17 in 80 this year. A defensive defensemen, Gunnarson dropped down the depth chart this year as Gardiner and Rielly found solid footing with the Leafs. Originally a top pairing guy, Gunnarson fell to fourth among defensemen for ice time.

He’s signed for two more years at $3.15-million per and should continue to have a presence until then. That being said, several Marlies look ready for a shot and Gunnarson is one of the three most replaceable defensemen and one of the two who could bring in something through trade.

If he sticks around, he’s got to jump up more into the rush, which he started doing late in the season. He’s also got to improve defensively, just like everybody else on the Leafs backend.

Grade: C

Cody Franson

It might be time for Franson to be moved. That may seem harsh when talking about the highest scoring defensemen the Leafs have, but it may be true.

Franson will be 27 before next season starts, in theory in the prime of his career. He’s also coming off a career high in points despite a career low in shooting per centage. Franson was also the best Leaf defensemen in the playoffs last year. So why would you move him?

For starters, Franson is about to get paid. He’s an RFA for the very last time, and only agreed to a one-year-deal with the Leafs last summer for $2-million. Of all the available UFA’s this year only five other defensemen outscored Franson.

You can say what you want about his play, and rightfully so, but points talk and teams will listen.

The problem is that Franson has begun to show his true colours.

Franson was 8th in scoring among defensemen last season. This season he fell to a tie for 38th. Despite that he was 10 points above Andrew MacDonald, who is one of the worst possession players in the league. The Philadelphia Flyers just gave him six years at $30-million.

He also couldn’t buy a point over the last quarter of the season on the powerplay. Considering he’s a powerplay specialist, that’s extremely concerning. Gardiner and Rielly are also proving to have better upside and better offensive and defensive potential.

So what does that make Franson? A powerplay specialist who may not see powerplay time as early as next year?

Franson is also limited in his ability. While a big body at 6’5” and 213 pounds, Franson is slow and immobile and doesn’t have the natural defensive ability to be a top four defensemen. The more minutes he got, the more that became apparent.

Nashville, who traded Franson to the Leafs with Matthew Lombardi for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney, always deployed Franson in a sixth defensemen role. It appears that’s what he’s best suited for, with powerplay time to help out offensively.

He won’t get that powerplay time here and will cost too much to deploy in a sixth defensemen role. The money spent on him could easy be moved to a free agent defensemen and Franson could be a piece of a trade. If the Leafs aren’t happy with picking eighth at the draft this year, tossing their first round pick and Franson to one of the teams with a better pick is a real possibility.

Grade: C-

Paul Ranger

Attempting to rebuild his career after walking away from the game, Ranger seemed to fit into his role more as the season went on. Late in the year when he got consistent ice time when the Leafs started rolling seven defensemen, Ranger seemed to shine more in his limited role.

In fact, Ranger was one of the Leafs best penalty killers when given the opportunity. His more simplistic game really showed there, where he used his big body to block shots and move opponents from the crease.

Cheap at only $1-million a year, Ranger is a UFA who may not be back next year. If he does return it’s in a purely defensive role where he’ll add depth in case of injuries. That all being said, he’s just as likely to find himself beaten out for a position at training camp as he is to make the Leafs.

Grade: C

Tim Gleason

When John Michael-Liles was moved by the Leafs for Tim Gleason this year, many questioned the move. Gleason came in a house afire though, looking to prove himself and many forgot why they were worried about the trade to begin with.

Time to refresh your memory.

Tim Gleason with the Maple Leafs had less goals, less points, a worse +/-, more penalty minutes and less powerplay points than John Michael-Liles did for the Hurricanes. Gleason also averaged less ice time for the Leafs than Liles did this year.

Liles has two years left at $3.875-million dollars.

Gleason has two left at $4-million.

Gleason was the second worst Leaf at even strength, as the team was heavily outscored when he was on.

While hardworking and displaying a blue collar attitude, Gleason struggled more and more as the season went on. He’s battled injuries throughout his career and it appears they’ve caught up to him. That means he may be a buyout candidate where he would save the Leafs over $3.1-million in the first year and over $2.1-million in the second.

Considering his job could be replaced by a graduating Marlie or a returning Paul Ranger, Gleason may have played his last game for the Leafs.

Grade: D+

Petter Granberg

Why on earth are we discussing Petter Granberg, who played exactly one game for the Maple Leafs this year when we didn’t cover a few forwards who had more games? The reason is simple, Granberg could be a Maple Leaf out of training camp next year, where as Jerred Smithson, David Broll etc will not.

It’s hard to look at any player in their first game and draw any conclusions unless it’s really good or really bad. As such let’s look more at what Granberg accomplished this year in the AHL. A fourth round pick, the 21-year-old logged 70 games with the Marlies, putting up seven points. He was +19 with 28 penalty minutes.

In his one NHL game he didn’t look out of place. He got a rough introduction to the Maple Leafs when asked to breakup a four-on-one, but he managed to keep the Senators from even getting a shot.

At 6’3” and 210 pounds, Granberg is a big defensive defensemen. His game is a simple one, don’t get caught out of position, don’t get caught up ice. He could be more physical given his size, but he’s a good presence clearing the net.

He’s been compared to Carl Gunnarson but is expected to one day become a better defender, albeit probably a more offensively limited one.

While rookies always take time to adjust to the NHL game, european’s tend to have more issue in their first season due to the sheer increase in the amount of games. As such next year should be an interesting one in development for the big Swede.

He’s got one year left at $800-thousand before becoming an RFA, but could easily be a cheap sixth defensemen for the Leafs if they choose to invest in a defensive upgrade through free agency. We’ll look at Granberg and the rest of the Marlies who could crack the NHL roster in a later article.

Grade: N/A

That’s it for the defence, up next we’ll break down Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer and look at the future of the Maple Leafs between the pipes. You can read about the Leafs top six forwards here or the bottom six here.