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Sketchy Leafs' defence requires retooling

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer reacts after Buffalo Sabres winger Drew Stafford's goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y. on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)

Don Heupel

When one of his young players has a bad night, Ron Wilson loves to lay it at the feet of the media by declaring some of us had prematurely erected statues honouring the young fellow in question.

The Toronto Maple Leafs' head coach never lets the truth get in the way of that accusation, of course, but he was right in one sense last weekend.

When rookie goaltender James Reimer, the newest sensation on the team, had his first bad game as a Maple Leaf on Saturday night, there were plenty of statues around. Unfortunately for Reimer and Wilson, they were all wearing Leafs sweaters. They stood stone still while the Buffalo Sabres lit up Reimer. The only time one of them moved, it was to hand the puck to the enemy for another goal.

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In the meantime, Jonas Gustavsson passed the first night of his exile to the Leafs' farm team by stopping 24 of 25 shots in a 3-1 win for the Toronto Marlies. Maybe, when his conditioning stint in the American Hockey League ends in a couple of weeks, he should insist the Marlies' defencemen come with him.

Which brings up a couple of questions as Leafs general manager Brian Burke works the phones in advance of the NHL's Feb. 28 trade deadline:

1. How can these guys play such a defensively tight game against the Carolina Hurricanes one night and then stand around and give the puck away the next time out?

2. Since the defence was the one unit that was supposed to be in place, barring a Tomas Kaberle trade or free-agent departure, is it time for a major retooling?

There were no answers to the first question in the Leafs' dressing room after the Sabres embarrassed them 6-2. Kaberle thought it was because the Leafs spread out too much (translation: the forwards didn't come back and help), while François Beauchemin said the defence just couldn't handle the Sabres' fore-checking.

But that in itself is an answer. If these guys can't handle the fore-checking of a team that sits 10th in the Eastern Conference, then what is the point of keeping them together? Sure they looked good against Carolina, but one game a week doesn't cut it.

Burke builds his teams from the goaltender out. When Jean-Sébastien Giguère was brought in and Gustavsson signed up, that position was allegedly stable for the short term.

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The defensive woes that plagued the Leafs before the arrival of Giguère were supposed to come to an end. While the unit boasted veterans like Kaberle, Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek and promising youngsters like Luke Schenn, the whipping boy was goaltender Vesa Toskala, the indifferent Finn. With Toskala replaced by Giguère, and Dion Phaneuf added in a blockbuster trade, it was time to move on and patch up the forwards.

Only it hasn't worked out that way.

Phaneuf eats up $6.5-million (U.S.) in cap space and plays with the discipline of a five-year-old. That would be all right if he provided some offence, but there is nothing happening there, either. Kaberle does provide offence, but in his own end he is still an adventure. Beauchemin was always a steady two-way defenceman, but not with this group. Komisarek is one of those free-agent signings that management would rather not discuss. Ditto for Brett Lebda.

Mind you, it does look as if surgery is ahead for this group.

Phaneuf and Komisarek are not going anywhere thanks to their contracts. Neither is Schenn, the cornerstone of the future, nor Carl Gunnarsson, another decent youngster.

But Beauchemin and Kaberle are getting a lot of attention from Burke's fellow GMs as the deadline approaches. Kaberle has still not told Burke if he is willing to waive the no-movement clause in his contract, but one way or the other, this is his final season as a Maple Leaf. Beauchemin has a partial no-trade, but he gave Burke a list of 12 teams that would be acceptable to him. And Lebda is a candidate for a buyout or to spend next season, the last on his contract, down on the Marlies with Jeff Finger, another expensive mistake.

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Internally, the only sure candidate for next season is Marlies defenceman Keith Aulie. That leaves the trade and free-agent markets, which can't be fun for Burke since he already needs to use them to upgrade his forwards.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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