Luke Schenn is proving his playoff worth for the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo credit:Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
By Nick Richard28 days ago
Drafted fifth overall by the Leafs way back in 2008, Luke Schenn came into the NHL as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, tabbed as Toronto’s next hockey savior and the anchor of their blue line for years to come.
The makings of a fan-favorite and future captain were readily apparent, even as a teenager stepping out of junior hockey. Schenn was never a big offensive producer in the WHL, but he was the physical, hard-nosed, heart-and-soul kind of player that Leafs Nation has shown a particular affinity for over the years.
Saddled with such high expectations and so much responsibility at such a young age, Schenn was under the microscope from the start. It all proved to be way too much, way too soon for the bruising blueliner on a team that was destined for failure. Through Schenn’s first four seasons in the league, the Leafs finished with a record above .500 just once and never sniffed postseason hockey.
Then, just after the 2012 NHL entry draft, general manager Brian Burke pulled the trigger on a deal that sent the former future of the franchise to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for winger James van Riemsdyk.
Chosen with the second overall pick the year before the Leafs traded up to fifth overall for Schenn, van Riemsdyk also struggled with the weight of expectations through the early part of his NHL career. The deal was the definition of a “hockey trade,” with the two clubs swapping struggling young players who were once viewed as franchise cornerstones, providing each of them with a change of scenery and a clean slate.
It’s hard to say the trade didn’t work out for the Leafs, and you could argue it was one of Burke’s best moves at the helm of the Leafs. JVR topped 30 goals twice for Toronto, and tallied 154 goals to go along with 140 assists in 413 games over six seasons with the Leafs. He was a consistent top-six contributor for a team that was low on offensive punch for much of his tenure.
Meanwhile, Schenn played parts of four seasons in Philadelphia, mostly in a depth role, before bouncing around the league for the next several years and eventually getting his name on the Stanley Cup a couple of times with Tampa Bay.
Fast forward to today, and Schenn is back with the club that pegged him as the future of their franchise all those years ago, striving to have his name engraved on hockey’s greatest prize for a third time – with his old mates in Tampa representing the first hurdle on what the Leafs are hoping will be a marathon run.
It was a feel-good story for many in Leafs Land when the team reacquired Schenn from the Vancouver Canucks ahead of the trade deadline, but expectations were much lower to begin his second tour of duty in Toronto. Nearly 11 years after last suiting up for the Leafs, Schenn returned as a grizzled veteran with championship experience who was expected to bolster the Leafs’ defensive depth.
Through the first four games of Toronto’s first-round battle with the Lightning, Schenn has done that and a whole lot more.
Heading into the postseason, Schenn’s role was a cause for concern from some corners of the Leafs’ fan base, and justifiably so with players like Timothy Liljegren and Erik Gustafsson waiting in the wings. He brought physicality and toughness, but his lack of foot speed was an issue while his play with the puck was chaotic at times down the stretch during the regular season. Beyond the eye test, his underlying numbers were among the worst on the team, with the Leafs getting caved in more often than not when Schenn was on the ice.
But playoff hockey is a different beast, and all the qualities the Leafs saw in Schenn as a youngster have helped him flip the switch and become one of Toronto’s most impactful players so far in the postseason. Playing alongside Morgan Rielly, Schenn has been a steadying presence on what has been the Leafs’ best defensive pairing.
He is providing all the intangibles and toughness that he has come to be known for, including a spirited scrap with Tanner Jeannot in game two. With the Leafs up big in the third period, the Lightning got running around in an attempt to impose their physical will on the Leafs and Schenn did his part to put a stop to it. All too often in past years, the Leafs haven’t had a response in those situations, and Schenn’s willingness to go toe-to-toe with one of the top brawlers in the league was a statement that this team isn’t going to be pushed around.
Schenn was there to quell tensions again when things got heated in game three following a scary collision between Rielly and Brayden Point, and the brawl that ensued. With the likes of Jeannot, Pat Maroon, and Brandon Hagel doing their best to intimidate the Leafs’ bench following the chaos, it was Schenn standing guard between the benches as if to say “you’ll have to get through me first.”
Some may scoff, but these are the type of things that make everyone on the team feel a few inches taller and play a little bit heavier. Schenn was just one of a handful of players brought in at the deadline in an effort to improve the team’s overall competetiveness, and his impact has been obvious in that regard, but his contributions have gone well beyond that.
Schenn’s poise and composure in some of the series’ most crucial moments has been notable. He has been able to handle Tampa’s heavy forecheck, protecting pucks along the wall and making smart outlet passes, and he has shown some surprising elusiveness under pressure. He is averaging just under 18 minutes of ice time through the first four games of the playoffs, and the Leafs have been winning those minutes by a significant margin.
His 63.57 xGF% ranks third on the team and first among blueliners, and the Leafs are outscoring Tampa 5-1 with Schenn on the ice at 5v5. Schenn has made life difficult for the Lightning forwards in the Leafs’ zone, checking in with 22 hits and seven blocks while providing a barrier to the front of Toronto’s net – another area where the Leafs have been outmatched year after year. All of that physicality, toughness, and willingness to pay the price, combined with improved puck management has been a big part of Toronto’s success thus far.
Schenn’s first stint with the Leafs didn’t go the way that anyone hoped it would, but he is relishing his second opportunity to suit up for the Blue and White and taking full advantage of it. Speaking to Joshua Kloke of The Athletic, Schenn said, “I just want to enjoy every moment of it. It’s a dream to have a chance to play in the playoffs with this team.”
Exceeding all expectations this time around, Luke Schenn has played a pivotal role in the Leafs jumping out to a 3-1 series lead over Tampa Bay, while proving to be much more than just a feel-good story.
(Statistics from Hockey-Reference.com & Evolving-Hockey.com)
Recent articles from Nick Richard