What if the Maple Leafs Lost Dion Phaneuf For the Season?

Photo courtesy of TheStar.com

By Lukas Hardonk (@LukasHardonk)

The Philadelphia Flyers recently suffered a huge blow to their lineup, as the team announced on Thursday that captain Chris Pronger will miss the remainder of the 2011-2012 regular season, as well as the 2012 playoffs.

Some have even questioned whether Pronger will ever be able to play in the NHL ever again, based on his age and the severity of his post-concussion syndrome. Not only has this affected the Flyers, but it has also sent a shock wave around the entire league.

With Pronger having been Philadelphia’s top defenceman for quite some time now, he carried much of the load on the Flyers’ back-end. So much in fact, that he averaged 22:28 of ice time; second on the team to only Matt Carle, who has played in 17 more games that Pronger.

This has likely made many teams around the league consider what, if any roster changes must be made in case of an event like this happens to their team. While it is unlikely to happen, the possibility remains.

The Toronto Maple Leafs is a team that has had its ups and downs this season. From long winning streaks, to win-less droughts, to poor goaltending and a strong offensive attack, no one ever really knows what to expect from the Maple Leafs each night. One thing that we do know to expect, though, is solid play from captain Dion Phaneuf.

Phaneuf is probably the Leafs’ most comparable player to Chris Pronger. He is a big defenceman who can both shut down the league’s top players and help out on the offensive side of things, he is the team captain and he is a large part of the Leafs’ special teams.

Phaneuf, a former 20-goal scorer, drives the Leafs’ offence from the back-end along with John-Michael Liles. His shot is lethal and he must be accounted for every time he steps on the ice, despite being a defender.

In terms of defensive play, Phaneuf has hockey smarts equal to some of the best defencemen in the league, he is a huge hitter and he isn’t afraid to stand in the way of anything on the ice.

It’s clear that if the Maple Leafs were to lose Phaneuf to a season-ending injury, whether it be the same as Pronger’s or not, there would be a huge gap on the Leafs’ defence and their chances at the post-season would be in serious jeopardy. So who would fill the hole?

Unfortunately, the Leafs aren’t really a team that is known for its depth on the back-end, or at least when it comes to top-level talent. After Phaneuf, responsibility really falls into the hands of Liles, followed by Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson and Mike Komisarek. Aside from Liles and Komisarek none are really heavy on experience, and there are also downsides to those two as well.

Like Phaneuf, Liles is a defenceman who can also provide some serious offence. However, we have seen that get in the way of his defensive abilities and result in poor play in his own end.

Meanwhile, everyone knows about Komisarek’s struggles. He just hasn’t been quite the same since he joined the Leafs in summer of 2009. While he has been improving gradually, he certainly is not deserving of the 25:32 ice time that Phaneuf averages.

Gunnarsson has been known to have tremendous turnover troubles, Gardiner probably shouldn’t be playing more than 22 minutes per game based on the fact that he is only 29 games into his NHL career, and Franson is still trying to become a more well-rounded defenceman.

It’s clear that if a replacement for Phaneuf were to come from inside the organization, it wouldn’t be one who could really step into his shoes and take over the role that he were to leave behind. What about outside of the Maple Leafs organization? What about a trade?

Because Phaneuf isn’t currently injured and the chances of him actually getting knocked out for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, it would be unrealistic to look at who might currently available. Even so, we likely wouldn’t find anyone of his calibre.

But let’s think for a moment: What if there was a Phaneuf-calibre defenceman available, but the price was a little steep? Say, Nazem Kadri and/or Joe Colborne, along with a draft pick. Would it make sense? Absolutely not.

The thing with injuries is that you never known when the player will actually return, no matter what the initial prognosis is. Because of that alone, how does it make any sense to give up on a prospect and an upcoming draft pick in order to receive a player who wouldn’t be in his expected role for his entire time with the team?

The same goes for signing a free agent defenceman. There would be absolutely no reason to kiss cap dollars away when the team is already $400,000 away from the league-mandated salary cap.

With that, the replacement would have to come from within. But even so, the Leafs would not be in good shape.

Now one can see why an injury as substantial as that of Pronger’s is a lose-lose situation for any team and any player.

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

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