I know what you’re thinking.
The Leafs have signed defenceman John-Michael Liles to a reported four-year contract extension that will pay him $3.85 million per year. In doing so, the team will lock Liles up until he is 35.
Nice move. Liles has been instrumental in lifting the Leafs power play from the never regions of the league stats to its current fifth overall standing.
Lost to concussion for over a month, Liles should be back soon. His four goals and 17 assists this season pro rate into a 10 goal, 42-point season over 82 games. Liles can skate the puck out of trouble and like a penetrating point guard, his ability to beat a defender resonates with each subsequent pass.
Liles’ role in mentoring prized rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner is second only to the work done by captain Dion Phaneuf.
Toss in Liles’ obvious dressing room skills and a sincere interest in community work and you have a good player, a good guy at a good price.
But that isn’t’ what you came here to read.
You want to know what Liles’ signing means to the oft-stated intention of Leafs GM Brian Burke to upgrade the forwards and soon.
Signing Liles give the Leafs an excess of what plenty of teams are seeking: puck moving defenceman.
Will Jake Gardiner, incrementally better in every game and very good already, should he be shipped back to the good ship Marlies? Maybe, but as good as Liles has been he doesn’t possess Gardiner’s superb vision. Demoting Gardiner comes with two inherent problems: it will impede his development and it’s a stopgap measure. Liles is already here. Gardiner needs to be, if not now then very soon.
The Leafs have eight NHL defencemen: Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Liles, Gardiner, Cody Franson, Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek and Keith Aulie. Korbinian Holzer has emerged as a kingpin of the Marlies blueline, a player with an edge ready for NHL use in any situation.
Put another way, the Leafs have two bona fide offensively-oriented defenceman in Liles and Phaneuf and an emerging one in Gardiner. Gunnarsson and Franson have definite offensive dimensions although both are equally strong in their own end.
If they wanted to, the team could ice one of the fastest, most offensively-oriented defences in the NHL. Now do they want to?
A guess: Liles’ signing is yet more proof of GM Brian Burke’s commitment to a slicker, more mobile defence. There is still room for the heavyweights: Komisarek, Schenn and Aulie. The real question is how much. Komisarek can be turnover prone but he is the only Leaf defenceman whose precinct is his own blue paint.
Funny, in moving toward locking up Liles, Burke has made the club’s blue line projections more fascinating than ever.