Almost two years ago, Brian Burke announced two trades that came as an absolute shock to everyone around the league, and took a major step forward in transforming the Toronto Maple Leafs. In one deal with Anaheim, he shipped much maligned goaltender Vesa Toskala and forward Jason Blake out of town in exchange for veteran goaltender Jean-Sebastian Giguere.
The other, more high profile trade, saw a significant number of Leafs regulars leave town. Forwards Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers, and defenceman Ian White, were shipped out to the Calgary Flames in exchange for defenceman Dion Phaneuf, forward Frederik Sjostrom, and a young prospect defenceman named Keith Aulie.
At its core, the deal was about shipping out a number of players that the Leafs did not consider a part of their future in exchange for Phaneuf; a young defenceman who had not been able to live up to the promise of his phenomenal rookie season, and who desperately needed a change in scenery. While Sjostrom was an adequate 4th line/penalty killer recommended by Cliff Fletcher, he was largely inconsequential to the deal. The deal was about Phaneuf, first and foremost.
Yet as Leaf fans would learn, the deal was one that Burke and then-Flames GM Daryl Sutter had discussed for sometime. The deal took months to come together, and one of the key factors that caused the deal to take so long to be consummated was Burke's insistence on Calgary's inclusion of Aulie.
Nearly two years after the deal, Aulie has but scratched the surface of his potential to be a key shut-down defender. As one of the many young defenders currently fighting for ice time on the Maple Leafs' blueline, his proximity to reaching his potential as a player gives him the leadoff spot as we venture into the top 10.
Originally drafted in the 4th round, 116th overall of the 2007 Draft by the Flames, Aulie a behemoth of a player at 6'6" and 208 lbs. was a long-term project with the potential of becoming a defensive defenceman capable of playing a physical game. After two more seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, Aulie graduated to the AHL and joined the Flames' AHL affiliate in Abbotsford.
43 games into his pro career, having scored 2 goals and 4 assists for the Heat, he was sent to the Marlies after the trade. Unfortunately a shoulder injury would bring a premature end to his season after playing just 5 games with the Marlies.
The following season, Aulie was instrumental in the early season success of the Marlies. Playing primarily with Korbinian Holzer on the Marlies first pairing, Aulie was given tough assignments by Marlies coach Dallas Eakins as he was groomed to take on a role playing against other teams' top opposition. Due to injuries on the Leafs blueline, he received his first taste of NHL action in a 12-game tryout where he was primarily used on the third pairing and saw limited ice time. He would return to the Marlies, but would be called up to the Leafs again in February for good, following Francois Beauchemin's trade to Anaheim in advance of the deadline.
With the team's most reliable defender gone, Aulie was thrown into the deep end by Toronto's coaching staff. Paired with Dion Phaneuf, the two would routinely play against other teams' top lines and excelled. Backstopped by a brilliant second half of play by James Reimer, and marked improvement in Phaneuf's play, Aulie survived his baptism by fire, and finished the season playing 40 games for the Leafs, scoring 2 goals and finishing -1.
This season Aulie has struggled to live up to hisraised expectations and has lost his regular place in the lineup. A dismal preseason, coupled with strong play by Carl Gunnarsson and the emergence of rookie Jake Gardiner, saw Aulie assigned to the Marlies to start the season. Aulie's poor play continued on the Marlies, as he was a team worst -10 through 15 games. Injuries would again provide an opportunity for Aulie to be recalled by the Leafs.
Simple statistics like goals, assists and points don't tell the full story for defence-first guys like Aulie. Last year with the Leafs, Aulie was significantly outshot at even strength, with a CORSI ON rating of -21.52 (Mike Komisarek, another defence-first defenceman, was next worst among Leaf regulars* at -9.68). If you're not familiar with CORSI, it means that not only were the Leafs outshot when Aulie was on the ice, they were SIGNIFICANTLY outshot.
So why was Aulie so effective defensively? Well, a big factor was the strong goaltending of James Reimer. Aulie's PDO (a measure of on-ice shooting % + on-ice save %) was 1024, far and away the highest mark among Leaf defenders. (Carl Gunnarsson's 1005 was the next best among Leaf regulars*). In the first half of the season, the Leafs struggled to score and were not getting good goaltending. Both problems corrected themselves during the second half of the season when Aulie played the majority of his games.
That's not to suggest Aulie can't beome the type of player the Leafs anticipate him to be. At 6'6" he is still growing into his body, and remains a physically imposing blueline (you don't earn the nickname Wookie by accident). With that size comes issues relating to his skating and mobility, and he won't ever be confused with Mike Green for providing offence. His game is a simple one, focused on keeping the puck out of his own net and imposing his will on the opponents.
Why do I have him at 15? Because his ceiling is simply lower than some of the other young players in the Leafs system. Already this season, he's been dropped down at least two spots on the depth chart (Franson and Gardiner), and he might have even dropped two more behind Holzer and Blacker. He's still young enough that I think he can make significant improvements, but I have to wonder why they've kept him in the pressbox so long this season. He needs ice time to work through the issues with his play.