Four seasons into Luke Schenn's career, what do we know?
We know that he probably provides more offensive upside than Leaf fans expected when he was drafted 5th overall in 2008. Without the benefit of virtually any time on the powerplay, Schenn has incrementally improved from 14 to 17 to 22 last season. With 15 points through 52 games, he's on pace for 23 points this year (in significantly reduced ice time). And all but one of those points has been earned at even strength.
We know that he's one of the most prolific hitters in the league. Take the statistics regarding hits for what they are, he has registered at least 150 hits in every season of his career, and was 8th in the league last season (and currently stands 6th in hits this season).
We know that he has issues with footspeed. Whether it's just that he's not a particularly strong skater, or that perhaps he's put too much muscle on in the past summers, Schenn isn't a terribly fast skater. It leads to issues with positioning and he can be caught flat-footed.
And we know that for all the potential to be a shut-down defender, he's yet to show it. The Leafs have given up a significant number of shots and scoring chances while Luke's on the ice, and he hasn't been the victim of a significantly difficult workload that could help explain it. All told he certainly is not ready to take on this role.
So what do we really know? We know that at 22 years old, Schenn still has a significant amount of time to develop as a player, and that as a defenceman, his development trajectory is going to take longer. He's a player who certainly has some warts but he remains a very valuable young player and checks in at #4 on our Top 25 Under 25.
As of this moment, Luke is probably the Leafs 6th defenceman, based on ice time and usage. He hasn't seen too much of the ice in close games, and his average ice time, which was much lower at around 11 minutes earlier in the season, has settled around 16 minutes a night. For a 4th year pro, that's a dramatic step back from the nearly 22 minutes he played for the Leafs last season, a good chunk of which came after the Leafs jettisoned veteran defenders Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle.
But let`s put the numbers in context compared to what goest on around the league.
Since the lockout, 91 defenceman have played more than 1500 minutes (roughly 20 minutes a game) in either their 3rd or 4th season in the league. Just by scanning the age column, you see a lot of players around 24, 25 years old. In fact, if you filter that down, and include only players that are either 21 or 22 years old, you`re left with 17. Luke`s ice time last season was the 7th most of all those players. The players that do make that list comprise some of the most highly touted young defenders in the league.
Dion Phaneuf. Drew Doughty. Mike Green. Brent Burns. Brent Seabrook. Erik Johnson. Alex Pietrangelo. Alex Edler. Braydon Coburn. Kris Letang.
Why are there so few players making a list of this calibre? Because not many defenceman get the opportunity to have two or three seasons under their belt by that time. Defenceman take much longer to develop than forwards, and only the very best young defenders are capable of playing in the NHL as a teenager. Looking around the Leafs own blueline at their other young defenders, Cody Franson didn't enter the NHL until 22. Jake Gardiner is just playing his first season as a pro at the age of 21. Carl Gunnarsson was 23 when he jumped to the NHL.
Hindsight being what it is, Luke Schenn probably should not have played in the NHL at the age of 18. He was rushed into the league because Cliff Fletcher failed to put together an adequate defence, and even though his role was to be a caretaker for the franchise until a permanent replacement could be found, he made a number of short-sighted moves that Richard Peddie never should have allowed. Trading away a substantial amount of picks for marginal NHL players was one (though he was redeemed on Grabovski). Making a trade on the eve of Burke's appointment to the position was another. Letting Luke Schenn play in the NHL at age 18 on a team with no chance of being successful could arguably be a third.
However, I don't believe the damage done to Schenn's career is permanent, or even all that significant to be honest. Schenn still has plenty of time to evolve into the defensive shut-down player that Leaf management and fans hope he will become, and the added depth on the blueline means the Leafs aren't screwed on defence should Schenn be suffering through growing pains. At the same time I don't think it's the worst thing in the world that Schenn has to fight for his ice time; in Schenn's short time in the league he's proven himself to be a highly competitive and smart young kid, and the challenge will hopefullty push him to become better.
Schenn remains one of the best young defenceman the Leafs have in the organization.
It should come as no surprise that birky ranks Schenn lower than anyone else on the panel, dropping him down to 7th. Schenn's rankings were actually quite varied, going as high as 2 and as low as 7, but the most popular vote was #4, which is where he lands having just shaded out Joe Colborne.
Oh, Schenn. Our Luke and Savior. Where has everything gone wrong. We were promised Adam Foote, but were delivered a Luke Richardson. Your handsome Saskatchewan looks can't atone for your lack of mobility or absence of mind in the Leafs zone. That's not to say you're bad at hockey. You'll probably play 1000 games in the NHL. But while Karl Alzner was allowed to develop slowly in the WHL and AHL, piss poor roster management by JFJ and Cliff Fletcher left a gaping hole at RD and you were thrust into a position you weren't quite ready for. You never told anyone you were going to be a top-4 defender. You were just Luke. The media and the fans put those labels on you, and it has been unfair since day one. You seem like a great guy. It will be a sad day for many fans when Brian Burke trades you for James van Riemsdyk or Bobby Ryan or whoever. I will seriously almost feel sad and nostalgic about the hope you offered as the turning point for a moribund franchise. But then I'll remember we just got JvR or Bobby Fucking Ryan and get really, really happy.