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Mirtle: Tim Gleason the unsung hero of Leafs latest run

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier makes a save as defenseman Tim Gleason looks to help out

John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports

He was a question mark to even play, what with the abuse he had taken two nights earlier.

A puck to the midsection. Another to the face. And then an awkward hit along the boards that forced him out of a close game late in the proceedings.

But not only did Tim Gleason dress on Thursday, he ended up leading the Toronto Maple Leafs in ice time, skating in a season high of nearly 24 minutes in what became a 6-3 win over the Florida Panthers in his 13th game with his new team.

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With every one of those outings, he is endearing himself to his teammates and coaches more and more.

"He's an animal that guy," said Nazem Kadri, who had three assists in one of his better games of the season. "He'll stand in front of anything. That's important for a team to have – those players that will do anything for the team. That's Tim Gleason."

"He's a big part of why we're winning," added netminder Jonathan Bernier. "Guys are looking at him and he blocks a lot of shots, he's strong defensively, wins battles on the boards. He's a great veteran guy. It shows in our games."

Gleason is one of those stay-at-home types whose game isn't pretty or particularly complicated. Be in position. Block the shot. Move the puck.

But on a Leafs blueline that has laboured desperately for consistency, especially in its own end, he has brought those fundamentals quite well, giving whatever pairing he's been on a confidence that's been lacking all season.

He has also been dealt extremely tough minutes by coach Randy Carlyle for a player that had fallen out of favour with his former team, eating a ton of defensive zone starts and difficult competition, as well as a lot of minutes with a D-partner in Cody Franson who has struggled with turnovers and positioning this season.

But the Leafs are now 8-4-1 with Gleason in the lineup, a stretch during which there have been some subtle positive changes that have helped lead to wins. Toronto has generated more shots on goal, prevented a couple more and finally received some secondary scoring after a long stretch without any. (The Leafs have been outshot by an average of six per game with Gleason, compared to 9.4 per game without him, and their possession rating in all situations is up 2 per cent to 45.4.)

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Not all of that is directly attributable to Gleason, obviously, but it's unmistakeable that there's been a little more surety in the Leafs defensive game than at any other point this season.

Off the ice, Gleason is as no-nonsense as he is on it, the product of a working class upbringing in a Detroit suburb where he was a baseball star as much as a hockey one growing up.

He believes the New Year's Day trade that landed him in Toronto was a freeing one in that it helped restore and simplify his game after some trying times (and injuries) in Carolina the last two years. His struggles had led to overthinking his play, which led to mistakes, and those in turn led to some doubts from the Hurricanes coaching staff.

That hasn't been a problem with the Leafs, where Carlyle has been so desperate for physicality on his blueline that he stuck with Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser in that role for too long.

Now he has a player to lean hard on who has played these type of big minutes on top pairings in the past and even at the 2010 Olympics, the type who won't be phased by any situation or assignment.

"I just feel confident," Gleason said when asked if the trade had reinvigorated him, at age 31. "I can play my game: be physical, move the puck, be hard to play against. That's how I built my career since Day 1 and surprisingly 10 years later I'm getting the opportunity to still do it. I'm just happy to be here, do my job and the best I can.

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"The staff has confidence in me. I'm sure they knew what I could bring when they traded for me so I'm just trying to bring that."

Gleason can't fix everything that ails the Leafs. His possession game isn't a strength and he won't provide a lot of offence from the back end, which had been a team-wide problem until recently. But what his defensive ability has allowed for is more offensive minutes for some of his teammates, freeing up Dion Phaneuf, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner for those opportunities that they just hadn't been getting earlier in the year.

Carlyle even swapped his pairings around midway through Thursday's game for a new look that had Rielly and Gleason together, with that arrangement allowing the rookie blueliner more freedom to press for offence and use his speed while the veteran guarded the fort.

He is a coach that always likes to have his safe options, and for most of his tenure in Toronto, there haven't been many on the blueline.

"He's come in and been a heart and soul guy for us," Carlyle said of Gleason, highlighting his physical game as a key strength. "We don't expect him to do anything more… I don't think you're going to have to worry about Timmy Gleason leading too many rushes."

As for stepping in front of so many shots, Gleason doesn't have a problem with the abuse his body takes. He reasons that it's better that the pucks hit him than the back of the Leafs net.

Even as he said it, however, he was reaching down behind him to knock on the wooden bench in the dressing room, attempting to ward off a jinx of the so-called good fortune he's had in getting in the way of more than his fair share of big shots.

"I shouldn't even say anything," Gleason said. "But I'll knock on some wood because pucks are hitting me. I'd rather have them hit me than go in the net or have [Bernier] save 75 shots or whatever the case. It's just being in the right spot. Sometimes it's the worst spot to be. But I'm just doing my job… "I take pride as a defenceman that you always want to keep the shots [against] down. You always look at the shot board, and they're always ahead of us. So you come to the rink – do your best every day. As a group of six [defencemen] we do the best we can. It's something to focus on every day.

"It's a work in progress."

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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