July 31 2014 07:32AM
With the Jake Gardiner contract now sorted out, the Leafs look to be just about done with their off-season activity. They've made a few short-term, low-risk moves that most around these parts are happy with, and handled everything else a lot better than we were expecting. It's been a relatively positive summer.
There could be a minor change or two left to open up some bottom six forward spots, but it looks like we've finally reached the point where we can do what Leafs' fans do best: pick the lineup apart five-hundred different ways until opening night.
The blue line has obviously been a problem Nonis (I guess I still have to say it's him, right?) is trying to address. In with Polak and Robidas, out with Gunnarsson and Gleason - the Leafs haven't made sweeping changes but they certainly needed to try something new, and are hoping these tweaks, along with the continued emergence of Gardiner and Rielly, will be enough to improve what was a dreadful group last season.
But how does that look in the lineup?
The guys on That's Hockey (Kouleas and Simmons) discussed Gardiner's new contract on Wednesday evening, and Simmons mentioned that according to folks he's talked to around the Leafs, the idea is to pair up Gardiner with Robidas, Phaneuf with Polak, and finally Rielly with Franson. Of course this isn't set in stone by any means, and it could obviously change a million times before the season starts, but it did make me think. Until now, Phaneuf has been carrying all the heavy weight, logging enormous minutes, and is widely viewed (rightly or wrongly) as the Leafs' number one defenceman. Whether he'd have that title on a better team has been debated for a while.
Either way, the thinking has typically been that Phaneuf would remain a top-pairing guy, and the veteran Robidas would likely join him to take on the best opposition. I like the idea of Gardiner with Robidas a whole lot more, and seeing Phaneuf's minutes start to take a cut would be a nice change. It isn't that I dislike Phaneuf, but he hasn't exactly shown the ability to turn the puck in the other direction in the role he's been playing, and he could probably use the break from it. Placing him in a reduced role against some easier matchups could make him oodles more effective, and leave some gas in the tank.
There's the assumption that due to his contract, Phaneuf needs to be played as the top defenceman on the team, but that's a poor way to run a hockey club. It could be time for Gardiner to take a big leap here and step in to those heavy minutes. He's logged a decent chunk already (averaging 21:15 in his time with the Leafs) but alongside a guy like Robidas, it would be nice if he could help take what's been seasons of the Leafs being buried in their own zone for the majority of each game, and turn it into putting the other team on their heels for once. You need to get to a place where your most talented defencemen are on the ice and making the opposition worry, instead of being in constant survival mode.
Suggesting that Phaneuf moves on to a pairing with Polak (or Franson, whoever) is suggesting that his minutes likely go south. Polak has seen his overall playing time with the Blues decrease every season since 2009, most recently averaging 17:20 per night this past year. On a good team he isn't a 2/3, and the Leafs want to be a good team.
Another positive spin-off from this could be that Phaneuf sees his production increase in lighter minutes, and the Leafs can then entertain moving that enormous contract sometime in the next year or so.
Now that the Leafs have added Winnik and Booth, I'm even more baffled by the signing of Komarov early in free agency. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Komarov, but the salary and term for a bottom six guy didn't make much sense at the time of his signing, and now the Leafs have added players that can bring as much or more to the table for nearly a third of Komarov's price. Komarov won't be a disaster in the lineup or anything like that, but maybe the Leafs could have waited and added another Winnik/Booth-type deal, saving themselves a lot of money. It's probably not something to be overly worried about in the big picture going forward, as it seems management might be a bit more thoughtful about their use of cap dollars than they were a month ago, but to that point, it makes you wonder how much the conversations between Dubas and Shanahan have impacted that office already, and who's actually in charge right now.