Earlier this spring, I compared Carl Gunnarsson to Keith Aulie, following the logic that Gunnarsson was more deserving a top pairing role than Aulie. Looks like - for the moment at least - that's how it's shaken out. Aulie was demoted to the AHL's Toronto Marlies, and Gunnarsson is set to play in the top pairing with Dion Phaneuf on opening night.
That hasn't changed, and frankly we shouldn't be surprised that Mike Komisarek is in the Leafs top 6. He's the team's 2nd highest paid defender, and he's considered a vocal leadership voice both in the dressing room and on the ice. Sure his numbers have been atrocious, but his defense first mentality is something the team needs as it looks to make the D more mobile going into this season.
Which brings me to the confusion of the moment from where many Leafs analysts sit. Why is Cody Franson on the outside looking in, while Komisarek is holding down the 6th spot on the team? The simple answer - which is already being tossed around in the media thanks to trade rumours - is that Carl Gunnarsson is just being showcased as a top pairing defender until he can be moved to add some offensive size and skill to the forward units. I don't personally think the simple answer is the correct one.
Ron Wilson has a large amount of clout in selecting his team heading into this season. He is a lame duck coach, and he needs to win. He thus plans on icing what he sees as the best group to give him and his team a chance to win games. Carl Gunnarsson is one of the Leafs 4 best blue liners, and is quite concretely one of their top 2 or 3 best "all-around" guys. He produces offensively, and he's respectable in his own end. He also has an extremely affordable contract which makes him an even more desirable commodity.
The problem with the assumption that he's being showcased is, the Leafs don't really have a player that can replace him at the moment. Cody Franson has the offensive chops to match Gunnarsson, but he isn't the defensive Ying to Dion Phaneuf's offensive Yang, he also is in the very early stages of working on playing his off-side defensively - with limited success thus far. Keith Aulie played reasonably well in a 27 game showing at the close of last season, but he seems to have regressed a tad heading into this pre-season, and he needs to clean up some areas of his defensive game before he's promoted back to the show. Mike Komisarek is a slow moving shot blocker, who plays a physical game, but struggles with his positioning at the best of times. He might have lost 20 lbs heading into this year, but it hasn't made him spectacular so far.
So Franson isn't about to replace Gunnarsson at this point, and he isn't a defensive juggernaut so he can't really supplant the likes of Komisarek. He just doesn't provide enough on the PK for him to earn the ice time. So in order to make the team, Franson had to prove his offensive mettle. He didn't. He was outplayed by Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles in that regard. The Leafs Power Play just didn't look particularly dangerous with Franson on the point. Despite arguments that Franson is in for the long haul with this Leafs squad (and it should be noted he's only turning 24 this season), it just doesn't follow that he should be guaranteed a spot on the roster.
Sure he played the 3rd most minutes of any Predators D in the final game (2-1 losers) of Nashville's post season loss to the Vancouver Canucks, but he also played the fewest minutes of any Predators D in their 2nd last game (a 4-3 victory). His 18:15 in ice time in that final game doesn't tell the whole tale, as he extended himself despite only being handed 22 shifts. 4 D men on the Predators were given more shifts - Weber, Suter, Klein, and Blum (the Preds top 4 D men by ATOI in 2010-11). His ice time was also boosted by a double OT game in which he saw 24:46 in ice time - but that was the 6th most for all the Preds D on that night. That double over time game, and the final game of their season, were the only 2 games in the playoffs that Franson saw over 18 minutes in ice time.
In fact, Franson only played over 18 minutes in eight regular season games last year. He played in 80 games, so he was seeing under 18 minutes a night in 87.5% of his games. His ATOI of 15:11 had him playing behind 22 year old Jonathon Blum, 26 year old Alexander Sulzer (prior to his trade to Florida), 26 year old Kevin Klein, 35 year old Francis Bouillon, and 27 year old Shane O'Brien. The only D men on the Preds roster to average less ice time were the late Wade Belak, 23 year old Teemu Laakso. He was a peripheral guy on a playoff team, but that doesn't make him better than every option on a non-playoff team like the Leafs.
Figuring that Liles likely moves on as a UFA after this season - unless we can get him on a reasonable contract - then the Leafs have this to look forward to next year:
Gunnarsson - Phaneuf
Gardiner - Schenn
Aulie - Franson
7D - Komisarek
The Leafs brought Liles in as a stop gap until the development of Gardiner was certain, and he skipped ahead of the program a bit. He may yet regress, and end up down with the Marlies in the near future, particularly if his defensive game proves as suspect as I think it will. When that happens, look for Franson to see more time in the top 6, but until then, don't stress about him riding the pine once in a while. Injuries will happen, and having a few extra bodies with experience never hurt an NHL franchise.