|Bernard Weil, Toronto Star|
Today, John-Micheal Liles was handed a 4 year $15.5 million dollar contract (per TSN.ca). This comes just after the news that he is primed to return from a concussion he received December 22nd vs. Buffalo; a scary thought. While Liles has filled in admirably for long time Leaf Tomas Kaberle since his arrival, this comes as somewhat of a surprise.
Many Leaf fans thought that Liles would receive a pat on the butt as a sign of thanks at the end of the season while heading out the door, thus making room for a couple of young defenders that seem primed to take over for him, Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson. It would seem that this move to re-sign the 31 year old makes one of Gardiner and Franson expendable, and for a Leafs defense that has struggled much of the season, this is worrying.
Liles is currently 5th in Corsi Rel, 6th in Corsi Rel QoC and 4th in TOI (all at 5v5), this would point to Liles being used as a bottom pair defenseman that gets a lot of minutes when the opposition has weaker competition on the ice. This type of contract is not something you want to hand to a defensively incapable 31 year old. Liles isn't about to start playing against tough competition all while keeping the puck out of the net, which is exactly what the Leafs need.
Liles' new contract keeps him around until he is 35, taking up a spot on the bench and minutes that could be used for Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, or Jesse Blacker to name a few. Now with Liles re-signed the Leafs have five defensemen under contract for next year that are pretty much guaranteed a spot, with Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Liles, Schenn and Komisarek. Unless you add a Ryan Suter type player to that list or Schenn plays the way he did last season, that is a scary defense corp with only two guys that have proved to be able to play against top lines with good results.
In an earlier post, My dad can beat up your dad: John-Micheal Liles vs. Cody Franson edition, I concluded that while Franson is not as defensively capable as Liles yet, he has the opportunity to provide similar offense while being solid defensively. Meanwhile Gardiner has been arguably better defensively then Liles this year, as well as showing off his offensive upside. I was looking forward to Liles being replaced by a shutdown defender next season, as it seems that most of the Leafs defensive skill lies in offensive range (Liles, Franson, Gardiner and to a lesser extent Phaneuf).
It is very troubling that Burke has re-signed Liles with so many players that have the potential to fill his offensive defender spot (that may not even be needed) seamlessly, maybe even better, in the lineup now and in the prospect pipeline for a lot cheaper then Liles. If a young, controllable defensive asset is traded because of this signing, this may turn out to be one of Burke's worst moves yet, and with a young Leafs team that is so close to making the playoffs for the first time since the lockout it really makes little to no sense.
Follow me on twitter @thesilverfoxto and post any comments you might have in the comments section.