Leafs Defend Their Defense

Toronto Sun.com

The season opener is a month away, but already it is open season on the Maple Leafs defence.

Since the club’s failed attempt to land free agent Rob Blake in 2001, the lack of a No. 1 Norris Trophy candidate has been ample fodder for critics of the Leafs’ Stanley Cup chances. Consider that the National Hockey League champion has boasted the Norris winner or runner-up in four of the past six seasons.

There is not a sign of a thoroughbred coming out of the Leafs’ St. John’s farm team or the junior ranks in the immediate future, but club executive Bill Watters gets testy when it’s suggested the club has not improved its blue line.

“You can have one big horse that gets worn out, but we think we have a number of horses,” the assistant to the president said yesterday. “We have a group in the 23 to 27 age range (Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Aki Berg, Karel Pilar, Anders Eriksson and Wade Belak) plus Jyrki Lumme coming off (a shoulder) injury, and Robert Svehla.”

It’s Svehla who is going to get the most scrutiny when training camp starts next week. The club had to give up its best all-around defender in Dmitry Yushkevich, though a looming contract war might have made his departure inevitable.

The 33-year-old Svehla was on the verge of retirement with the Florida Panthers. But he is one of the most consistent hitters in the league and has flirted with 50 points a season much of his career. Offence from the back line has been a Leaf weakness.

“I played with Bobby a year in Florida and with Dmitry for a year here,” Eriksson said yesterday after an informal workout of NHLers at a Toronto-area rink. “They both play the same kind of game. They’re both crazy in the aspect of blocking shots and hitting. You can’t really say who is the better player. It all comes down to who fits best with the team.

“Everybody on our (defence) grew last year, especially in the playoffs. McCabe had a strong second year in Toronto, Kabby played well as usual, Karel will come back from his injury, Lumme is healthy and Aki’s playing well.”

But it will be tough to get used to life without Yushkevich, who is among the top 10 in games played by a Toronto defencemen.

“I talked to Yushkie and he’s excited about going down there to be the No. 1 guy and play a lot under (coach Mike) Keenan,” Eriksson said. “I think it’s worked out for the best and we’ll certainly welcome Bobby here.”

Eriksson is on the bubble himself. A leaner, meaner player when the Leafs recalled him in the spring from a long sentence in St. John’s, there’s no guarantee he can beat someone out for a job on the starting six. The Leafs also have some new defencemen on the training camp roster, such as journeymen Marc Moro and Ryan Bonni and youngsters Petr Svoboda, Richard Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo.

“It’s do or die for me I guess,” Eriksson said. “Hopefully I can push myself to where I think I can play. It was a good thing to be sent down. I matured as a player on and off the ice. It was a wake-up call.”