If the Toronto Maple Leafs really were rewarding players based on performance, it seemed like just a matter of time before John-Michael Liles clawed his way back in to the NHL, even if for a brief stay. Now, twenty nine days after clearing waivers and being assigned to the Toronto Marlies, he’s back with the big club.
"I think we have quite a few really good defencemen in this organization and its never a bad thing to have. It just makes for a couple of odd guys out every now and again." said Liles when originally sent down, and so far, he appears to be right. While forwards have made their way up and down over the past few weeks, it’s been hard for any defencemen to make a leap in any part of the organization.
None of the Leafs’ top seven have shown any significant reason to be put out of the lineup. Paul Ranger started off slow, but has been getting closer to form every game as he re-adjusts to the NHL pace. Mark Fraser is currently the odd man out, but that’s the result of an injury, not his performance. Morgan Rielly managed to convince management that it would be pointless to send him back to the WHL, making the log jam even harsher.
Even the Marlies have run into similar problems. The defence corps played a massive factor in winning four of their first five games, both in their ability to shut down opponents, and their offensive contributions. As such, Steve Spott kept his pairs exactly the same until this weekend, finally making room for Kevin Marshall and Jesse Blacker, two players who are definitely above "AHL Healthy Scratch" level.
Back to Liles. Many will give their speculation on why the Leafs made the call up. Some are hoping that a trade is imminent involving a defencemen. The reality is much more simple; Toronto has games in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver this week, and probably feel it to be a good idea to carry more than six healthy defencemen.
As for why it’s Liles? Simply, he’s been the best all-around defenceman on the Marlies this year. Yes, T.J. Brennan has also been fantastic, producing like a budding elite winger instead of somebody playing the point, but a lot of that comes from LIles’ ability to disperse the puck on the powerplay, something Brennan gives him full credit for. "That’s the thing about PP’s. If you have a lot of guys that are threats out there, especially a guy like him, nobody knows who to go to. Johnny’s an All-Star in the NHL. Having him down here is great, he’s a huge threat." Out of his goal and four assists, just one of the helpers hasn’t been from the man advantage.
Even strength and on the penalty kill, Liles has been playing with Petter Granberg. While Granberg hasn’t been stunning by any means, he’s typically in good position and has allowed for Liles to lead the rush. His awareness and speed really showed at the AHL level, and allowed him to define the pace when he was on the ice, no matter what the situation.
"I’d love to be back in the NHL, I don’t feel like I’m done playing in the NHL. But for now, I’m here and am just going to work hard and focus on the opportunity here." From the looks of it, the hard work and focus has paid off rather quickly. Whether he plays on this trip remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised. If nothing else, the Leafs owe it to him to allow him to plea his case to other teams with his play, and a solid game or two would certainly lead to some interest. Besides, if he’s not in the teams long-term plans, that extra $2.95 million in cap space could be useful in a few months.
Liles has one goal, four assists, eight penalty minutes, twenty five shots, and is +3 through eight games with the Marlies this season.
Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com