Sep 132011
 

There is no greater union in the NHL today than Brian Burke and Toronto Maple Leafs.

For all his bluster, and for all his previous on-ice success, Burke’s greatest strength is jousting with the media. And if there’s one thing media saturated Toronto needs is a Maple Leaf general manager with an aptitude for soundbytes.

During last week’s “state of the union”-type press scrum with Toronto media, Burke insisted the Leafs defence “stacks up really well against just about any other team in the East.”

Does it really? Let’s take a look at Eastern Conference defence rankings headed into the 2011-12 season.

B+ Grade

Boston
Last Year (A)

A slip in the rankings based entirely on two things: 1) As bad as Tomas Kaberle was for the Bruins (and make no mistake, he was this type of bad), Joe Corvo is worse and 2) Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid are all defensive-first guys. Expect the Bruins to search for another elite puckmover (preferably one who doesn’t cause as many goals against as Corvo) at the trade deadline again this year. 

Philadelphia
Last Year (A+)

Rated as the best defence in the Eastern Conference last year, the Flyers drop a full grade thanks to Chris Pronger’s uncertain health and advancing age. On a related note, someone else who is also losing marks for uncertain health and advancing age: Christina Ricci.

Washington
Last Year (B)

Quietly, this has become a real area of strength for the Capitals. In fact this group could become the league’s best as early as this year. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are up-and-comers, and could prove to be a top-defensive pairing in the NHL for years to come. Mike Green had a very difficult 2010-11 season, but even a mild return-to-offensive form would help the Washington powerplay immensely. Dennis Wideman is another puck-mover for the second powerplay unit, while Roman Hamerlik is a veteran warrior.

B Grade

Pittsburgh
Last Year (B+)

One of the best top-two defence pairings in the league, with Kris Letang leading the blueline attack. The issue is depth, as Matt Niskanen stopped developing last year and Ben Lovejoy is more AHL’er than NHL’er.

Montreal
Last Year (B)

P.K. Subban is the real deal and should excite the Molson Centre crowd for years to come. On paper this is another strong two-way group, although Andrei Markov’s health remains a concern. if Alexei Yemelin is any good this group moves up a grade. It’s funny how Hal Gill has turned from the tallest pylon in the league as a Maple Leaf into arguably the league’s best shutdown defenceman.

Winnipeg
Last Year (C+)

The Jets would have ranked higher on this list if Dustin Byfuglien weighed less than roughly 300 lbs. Modify your expectations appropriately, ladies and gentlemen. Otherwise, a new coach should breathe life into Zach Bogosian’s development, and Tobias Enstrom has firmly established himself as a better-defending version of Tomas Kaberle. Too bad about those new uniforms though – talk about bland. They look like a rejected Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment logo. 

B- Grade

Buffalo
Last Year (B-)

The sophomore slump hit Tyler Myers like a pie-in-the-face, but he recovered with a strong second-half. The additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehroff are steps in the right direction, although both players have already experienced their best days in the league. Regehr has looked slow for a few seasons in Calgary, while Ehroff will be hard-pressed to post 50-points again. The Sabres just don’t activate their defence like the Canucks do.

Toronto
Last Year (B+)

Sorry, but Brian Burke’s fudging the truth a little when it comes to his defence core. Either that or he’s incredibly optimistic. This is one of the youngest bluelines in the NHL, and inconsistency should be expected. Continued improvements from Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie would move this group up a few spots, especially if Dion Phaneuf plays as well as he did in the second half of last year. However, it’s just as easy to see this group of youngsters struggle, bringing down the team with it.

C+ Grade

New York Rangers
Last Year (D+)

This is a blueline headed in the right direction. Marc Staal and especially Dan Girardi took big steps toward becoming impact defenceman. Like the Maple Leafs though this is a very young group, and inconsistency will be a nightly threat. There’s a lot of hype about Tim Erixon, who was arguably Calgary’s top prospect before being dealt to New York. But it’s not like the Flames need defencemen, or youth, or you know, the promise of a better tomorrow.

Tampa Bay
Last Year (D)

The Lightning are moving up these standings based on the continued improvement of Victor Hedman and the acquisition of Eric Brewer, one of the most underrated defenceman in the entire league. Pavel Kubina and Marc-Andre Bergeron are liabilities though. 

Carolina
Last Year (C-)

There’s some solid offensive promise here, with veterans Joni Pitkanen and Tomas Kaberle supported by future powerplay specialist Jaime McBain and hard-shooting Derek Joslin. It’s the defensive side of the game where this group is lacking, although Tim Gleason is underrated. Bryan Allen and Jay Harrison are borderline starters on a contending team – here they’ll play key minutes.

C Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (C+)

Other than Gabriel Landeskog there may not be another 2011 draftee with an easier time making the NHL than Adam Larsson. The Devils are that desperate to inject some offense into their blueline. If Larsson can have a Cam Fowler-esque impact, this group moves up the standings, as Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are two of the best defensive defenceman in the league. Otherwise it’s an average group with below average skill playing for a franchise that might not be able to pay its bills. Tell me again why putting multiple teams in Southern Ontario isn’t a good idea? They’re certainly struggling to make it work in New York.

Florida
Last Year (C-)

It’s an eclectic mix on the Panther blueline, with a rock-solid rookie (Erik Gudbranson), a “ready-to-retire-to-Miami” veteran (Ed Jovanovski), a reclamation project (Brian Campbell) and swashbuckling Russian (Dmitry Kulikov) anchoring the top-two defensive pairings. And yes it is as much fun to type the term “swashbuckling Russian” as it is to say “swashbuckling Russian.”  It wouldn’t surprise if Brian Campbell has his best year in a long time in Florida. It would surprise if Ed Jovanovski was healthy enough to play 40 games and doesn’t quit to take up shuffleboard.

New York Islanders
Last Year (D)

While few people were noticing, Andrew MacDonald had a heck of the year playing well at both ends of the ice. A healthy return to the NHL by Mark Streit would give the Islanders two defenceman to build around. The rest of the blueline looks like AHL scrap though.

C- Grade

Ottawa
Last Year (C+)

While Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar and rookie David Rundblad are talented offensive players, I wouldn’t expect them to defend a snow fort well, let alone an NHL goaltender. Chris Phillips can’t solve all the team’s defensive problems, and Brian Lee and Filip Kuba are two of the worst defenceman in the league. Goaltender Craig Anderson better be healthy, because he’s going to face a lot of shots this year.

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