Johnston: Liles likely to lose his spot on Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have recalled defenceman John-Michael Liles from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, the team announced Friday. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – No one is saying much about John-Michael Liles around the Toronto Maple Leafs right now. He played in just two of six pre-season games before getting left behind again on Friday when the team travelled to Detroit. And with the final training camp cuts looming, that probably isn’t a good sign for the veteran defenceman.

Even more telling was coach Randy Carlyle’s refusal to offer up an assessment of the 32-year-old’s performance over the last few weeks.

“The feelings that are inside the management and the coach’s office should be left there,” Carlyle said after the morning skate at the Air Canada Centre. “We know there are tough decisions coming. We think that some people have separated themselves both positively and negatively.”

Read into that what you will, but it hardly seems like Liles has been given much of an opportunity to separate himself. And if he isn’t among the six—or possibly seven—defencemen to make the team, he’s almost certain to become the latest in a long line of well-paid Toronto Marlies. Of course, he would have to clear waivers before getting sent to the American Hockey League but it’s hard to imagine any other team taking on a contract with three years and $11.25-million remaining on it, especially with a good portion of the league feeling the cap crunch.

Liles would have to be placed on the waiver wire either Saturday or Sunday.

If he is sent to the minors, the Leafs would only receive cap relief for $925,000 of his $3.875-million salary, but they need every bit they can get right now. The team is carrying 10 defencemen among the 32 players still in camp—some have been forced to change on folding chairs in the cramped dressing room—and must pare the roster down to 23 or less by Monday afternoon.

Maple Leafs facing tough long-term decisions

Liles is an offensively gifted defenceman who twice scored 14 goals in a season for the Colorado Avalanche. But the native of Zionsville, Ind., has been dealt some tough cards in recent years and believes his decision not to go to Europe during the NHL lockout last season was a mistake. He never quite got up to speed when hockey returned.

His contributions to the Leafs go well beyond the ice. As the oldest player in the dressing room, he has taken on a mentorship role with many of his younger teammates since being acquired in a trade with Colorado at the 2011 draft. That character and experience would be tough to replace.

But it’s clear that Carlyle’s preferred style of game is not particularly well-suited to the smooth-skating defenceman. Liles was a healthy scratch for a run of 12 straight games last season and only found himself back in the lineup during the playoffs after teammate Mark Fraser suffered a skull fracture.

It’s been an up-and-down experience with the Leafs overall. Liles missed more than a month with a concussion during his first season in Toronto—former GM Brian Burke gave him a $15.5-million, four-year extension while he was on the sidelines—and the veteran struggled to earn Carlyle’s trust during the lockout-shortened campaign.

The end of Cody Franson’s contract standoff earlier this week might have ultimately sealed his fate. The Leafs starting six on the blueline for Tuesday’s season opener in Montreal will likely be comprised of Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Paul Ranger, Fraser and Franson. Top prospect Morgan Rielly is also likely in the mix, which seemingly leaves Liles, T.J. Brennan and Korbinian Holzer on the outside looking in.

In the minds of the players themselves, nothing has been set in stone just yet.

“I think it’s pretty much still up in the air,” said Fraser. “No one should be taking the approach that they have a comfortable spot because we definitely have a few new guys and young guys that are coming in that can easily push for a spot on this roster.”

If Liles were sent to the AHL, it would be the first time he’s played in that league since a brief stint with the Hershey Bears after finishing college. However, there’s no reason to expect that he’d handle the assignment with anything but class. Liles has remained a consummate pro during what must be a difficult period. Even though he’s clearly grown tired of questions about his job security, he once again stood in front of the cameras on Friday afternoon and faced the music. He believes he’s been given a fair shot to crack the opening night roster. “You go out there and you do what you can do,” said Liles. “Ultimately, it’s up to the front office and not up to you.”

Of course, we won’t know exactly what the Leafs plans are for Liles until later this weekend. But it’s hard to ignore the writing already on the wall.

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