The Return of John-Michael Liles: Who Takes the Fall?

(REUTERS, Mike Cassese)

By Lukas Hardonk (@LukasHardonk)

It’s said that the Toronto Maple Leafs will welcome defenceman John-Michael Liles back to their lineup following this week’s NHL All-Star break, which means the Leafs will have an extra defenceman on their roster who won’t be seeing nearly as much time as they did during Liles’ absence. This has raised the question: Who will be the odd man out when Liles gets back to game action?

Liles, 31, has missed the last 15 games with a concussion that he suffered on December 22 when he was the recipient of a hard, clean, open-ice hit from Buffalo Sabres forward Paul Gaustad. There is no doubt that his veteran leadership has been missed in the locker room, as shown by the Leafs’ streaky play over the last month.

It’s not just his leadership that has been visibly absent lately, though. Liles, who is on pace for a fourth 40-point season, is the Leafs’ top offensive defenceman. He can run the power play from the back-end, provide a solid first pass out of the defensive end and he can also notch a few goals here and there. Fortunately for the Leafs, though, Cody Franson was able to jump into his spot and at least provide a fraction of the offence that Liles can.

That point brings us to the first blue liner who could find himself in the press box come January 31, when the Leafs play their first game following the break against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Franson, who the Leafs acquired from the Nashville Predators over the summer along with Matthew Lombardi, seemed to do a solid job of filling the void left by Liles. His quick shot and ability to get the puck on net resulted in some Maple Leaf goals, while his size was instrumental at times in shutting down opposing players. However, he wasn’t the most reliable Leaf defenceman when it actually came down to defending.

The same can be said for Mike Komisarek, with the exception of offence, that is. While he has improved since his first season with the Leafs and is now a much better defender than he was at that time, he still commits a few too many turnovers and allows opposing forwards to skate by him a little too often. He, though, like Liles, brings a veteran presence to a locker room that has lacked very much of one all season long.

The exact opposite of veteran would be Jake Gardiner. In his first year in the National Hockey League, Gardiner has not stopped turning heads. His tremendous level of calmness with the puck and ability to escape the most pressure-packed situations successfully is outstanding, which has him being compared to the likes of Scott Niedermayer.

Those are essentially the three guys who will by vying for two spots when Liles returns. None of them have played to the level where they need to sit a game or two and all three are worthy of the playing time that they have received while Liles has been out. Because of this, it’s easy to see why Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke may be looking to swing a deal that would see a defenceman leave Toronto for a forward and/or draft picks come February 27.

Let’s assume that no trade involving a Leaf defenceman is completed between now and deadline, though. Who sits, and who plays?

As mentioned, the Leafs are a team that has lacked much a veteran presence in the locker room all season. With just three players aged 30 or older, the Maple Leafs stand as the second youngest team in the league. That’s where it makes a guy like Komisarek difficult to remove from the lineup, as, even though he would still be around the team for practices and possibly warm-ups, that would mean one more veteran lost on a team that needs that type of leadership.

So what about Gardiner? He’s a rookie and doesn’t bring very much experience to the room, sure, but he has been one of the Leafs’ most solid defenceman and perhaps their most consistent all season long. Gardiner has also been one of the most impressive rookie defenceman in the NHL this season with statistics comparable to Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils and has been crucial to the Leafs’ success.

That leaves us with Cody Franson. While he has been one of the Leafs’ top offensive defencemen over the last 15 games, he still needs to develop a little more defensively. In a market like Toronto, there is just no room for a defenceman who is much too shaky defensively. Not only does Liles provide better defence, but he can also bring more offence to the lineup than Franson.

There are too many reasons for Komisarek and Gardiner to stay in the lineup to be able to take them out. With Franson, though, Liles has him beat in more than just one category.

Look for Cody Franson to be the odd man out when John-Michael Liles returns to the lineup next week.

Follow Lukas on Twitter @LukasHardonk for more Maple Leafs coverage.

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