For the last few games the Toronto Maple Leafs have been playing quite well, there's no question about that. But they need to continue working hard and developing chemistry to keep up any sort of success.
All the focus has been on Toronto's scoring, how well Luke Schenn has been playing, and the great play of Jonas Gustavsson. But there's something that I've noticed, but nobody else has mentioned it. The potential for a long standing tandem between Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Aulie. The 2 have been playing as a pair for a number of games now, and they look pretty good together. They're only the 3rd pairing so don't get a lot of ice time. But when they do get out there, they aren't making many mistakes. Often times you know a d-man is doing his job because you don't notice them on the ice. And that's exactly what Gunnar and Aulie have been.
If you look at defensive pairings that click over the years on any team you'll notice that they've been together a long time. They get chemistry together, learn the others game, and in the end it makes both players much better hockey players. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Thomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe are 2 examples that come to mind from over the years. But obviously there are many long time pairings that have excelled over the years. And if the Leafs are smart, they will continue to groom Gunnarsson and Aulie to be one of those pairings.
You may be thinking, they've only played a few games, it's a bit premature to put them in that sort of category. And you would be right. It's early in both their careers and anything could happen. But because it's early is exactly why I think it's the perfect time to do this. Ron Wilson should continue doing what he's doing with them. Keep them a consisten pairing and gradually increase their ice time. Obviously they aren't going to get the ice time that Beauchemin, Kaberle, Phaneuf, Komisarek and Schenn get, but it's a process. Mentioning the other d-men brings up an interesting problem. When Dion Phaneuf returns from injury who gets removed from the equation? It leave Toronto with 7 d-men, and chances are the choice is either Gunnar or Aulie. What I would do is send BOTH Gunnar and Aulie to the AHL's Toronto Marlies so they can continue to play together. Insert Brett Lebda back in so it leaves Dion, Luke, Francois, Mike Brett and Thomas as the 6 d-men.
There is the very real chance that Thomas Kaberle is going to walk this summer leaving 1 opening on the back end. Then come next year bring up Gunnar and Aulie and keep Lebda as the 7th d-man who can rotate in if there is an injury. There has also been a lot of talk on the internet about Francois Beauchemin being expendable because of Gunnarsson and Aulie's play. But I think it's too early to be talking about that. Like I said before, anything CAN happen with guys as young as Gunnar and Aulie, so trading away a d-man who has been playing pretty well as of late and taking a chance of throwing 2 youngsters into more ice time is too risky. Put them in the minors to get a lot of play time together, then next year bring them back up and slowly give them more ice time as they develop more chemistry together. Then next year have defensive pairings of:
Phaneuf - Komisarek
Beauchemin - Schenn
Gunnarsson - Aulie
I'm not so sure that this is the way things are going to go however. I'm quite sure that when Dion returns one of Gunnarsson or Aulie will be sent to the Marlies, which one is anyone's guess. But if it were up to me, I'd be grooming Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Aulie to be a longtime Tandem who could become great with the right chemistry development.
For this and more about the Leafs from me check out www.thereedreview.com