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There may be no consensus yet about who will make the starting six when the NHL season opens but there is one about the quality of the latest group of Toronto Maple Leafs defencemen.

"I think it's the deepest and best group we've had since I've been here," Leafs general manager Brian Burke said shortly before Friday's 2-1 preseason loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

No one can argue that and there is precious little argument to be made over the first five jobs on the blueline. Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, John-Michael Liles, Luke Schenn and Cody Franson are all guaranteed to be in the lineup on opening night, barring injury. The oldest of the group is the greybeard Liles, who is 30.

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It is the choice between Carl Gunnarsson and Mike Komisarek that generates most of the discussion about the defence, although Franson plays a role here as well. Both Franson and Komisarek play the right side, so the coaching staff is thinking about switching Franson to the left, which might help Komisarek nail down the sixth spot at the expense of Gunnarsson.

The only trouble is, Franson, 24, played the left side for the first time this week in a preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was not fun.

"It felt awkward," Franson said. "Everything takes a second longer."

The switch may seem inconsequential to the fans but Franson said it's akin to teaching yourself to do everything left-handed.

"The way you naturally curl with the puck has to change playing the left side," he said. "You've got to pull pucks in the offensive zone off the wall with your backhand instead of your forehand.

"Every little thing is so much different, like keeping your gaps in the neutral zone you have to pivot the other way than you're used to. The little things like that, people don't really realize they are big things to change. It will take some time to get used to."

Nevertheless, Franson, who is in his first season as a Leaf after coming over in a trade with the Nashville Predators, will give it a try even if he would rather not.

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The bigger question is who deserves a spot between Gunnarsson and Komisarek. The latter was almost a marginal member of the unit by the end of last season, as younger players like Gunnarsson, Schenn and Aulie played much better.

Most observers say Gunnarsson, 25, is having a better camp than Komisarek, 29, and that rookie Jake Gardiner may even be ahead of him. Head coach Ron Wilson was heard singing Gunnarsson's praises earlier this week.

But Komisarek has his backers among the Leaf braintrust. They like how he mentors the Leafs' large collection of young players and his positive attitude. Burke shakes his head at the suggestion Komisarek could be traded and said any team needs at least seven NHL-calibre defencemen to get through a season.

Wilson also dismissed any suggestion Komisarek has to worry about a job. "He's going to fit in on one of the pairs if he keeps playing the way he has," the coach said.

What may play a role in the end is which player management thinks will clear NHL waivers. Gunnarsson just signed a two-year contract and now must clear waivers if he is sent down to the farm team, just like the veteran Komisarek.

Gunnarsson counts for $1.325-million (all currency U.S.) against the salary cap compared to Komisarek's $4.5-million in each of the next three years. Komisarek, by the way, does not have a no-trade or no-move clause in his contract. At the start of each season he is required to give the Leafs a list of at least 10 NHL teams to which he would accept a trade but he cannot block a move to one of them.

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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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