The Toronto Maple Leafs will be without Captain Dion Phaneuf during a difficult set of games on back-to-back nights after he received a two-game suspension for his hit on Kevan Miller.
The suspension now creates opportunity for the rest of the Maple Leafs’ defensemen to step up and try and replace their Captain’s minutes. Many defensemen on the team are in the final year of their contracts, and there’s no doubt Toronto management will be keeping a close eye on who rises to the occasion when the team hosts the Los Angeles Kings and then travels to face the St. Louis Blues the following night.
Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner are restricted free-agents at the end of the year while Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser will be unrestricted free-agents at season’s end. All four players will be depended on to help fill the void left by Phaneuf with Franson and Gardiner likely to receive the biggest increase in minutes over the next two games.
Franson and Gardiner have the most to gain out of anybody on Toronto’s blue-line as both players could receive significant raises in the offseason. Ranger and Fraser, although important to the team’s success, don’t have the type of potential upside Franson and Gardiner possess. However, don’t be surprised if Fraser finishes the set of back-to-back games recording big minutes given his physical style of play and the physicality and size of the Maple Leafs’ opponents.
Franson has arguably been Toronto’s second-best defenseman behind Phaneuf while only making $2 million this season. He’s recorded 14 assists with no goals in 29 games while owning a plus/minus rating of minus-three. Franson is tied with Gardiner for second-most minutes on the blue-line behind the captain with 21:03 minutes per game.
In 30 games this year, Gardiner has one goal and eight assists to go along with a plus-five rating. Despite struggling mightily to begin the year, the American defenseman has greatly improved over the past two weeks. He’s played over 25 minutes three times in the past five games and is also on a three-game point streak. If Gardiner can continue to play like he has lately and avoid stretches of the way he played earlier in the year then he’ll be getting a big raise in the summer over the $875, 000 he’s making this season.
The problem with losing Phaneuf and asking Franson and Gardiner to lead the way in replacing him is Toronto’s opponents couldn’t get much harder. Both Franson and Gardiner are known more for their offensive skills than their defensive abilities, and that could spell trouble considering they have to try to contain players such as Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, David Backes and Alex Steen. Franson and Gardiner can deliver all the pretty passes they want, but if they aren’t more physical than they normally are it’ll likely result in Toronto being dominated around their net.
Given that Phaneuf is also in a contract year that’ll see him become an unrestricted free-agent at the end of the season, the suspension allows Maple Leafs management to see what life would be like without their captain. A notoriously thin blue-line is only made worse by the loss of the team’s best defenseman, and if the team struggles badly without him all the leverage in contract talks will be in Phaneuf’s corner. However, if the opposite and unlikely scenario occurs of Toronto managing to hold their own without Phaneuf then suddenly management might think twice before giving their captain the big contract he’s asking for.
It’s only two games, but it is against elite competition. Despite the small-sample size, the next two games could provide plenty of foreshadowing regarding the team’s roster decisions in the future.