Johnston on Leafs: An ever-evolving blue-line

Ryan O'Byrne (left) and Jake Gardiner (right) practiced together Friday at Maple Leafs practice.

TORONTO – It was the only position Dave Nonis chose to address at the trade deadline.

And it might just hold the key to how successful this Toronto Maple Leafs season ultimately ends up being.

The blue-line is expected to take on another new look when the Leafs visit the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night, although coach Randy Carlyle wouldn’t confirm any changes. However, it would rank as a surprise if newcomer Ryan O’Byrne wasn’t inserted for his debut with the team and based on the pairings at Friday’s practice he might be joined by the exiled Jake Gardiner.

O’Byrne plays meat and potatoes hockey. There will be no flash or dash and Carlyle won’t mind that one bit.

After seeing his team score three goals against Philadelphia on Thursday night and lose, the Leafs coach conceded that O’Byrne might help tighten things up in the defensive zone.

“This is his first practice with us and there’s always going to be a temptation (to put him in the lineup),” Carlyle said. “We have a surplus of NHL defencemen now. It’s nice to see a six-foot-five, 230-pound guy clearing the front of the net for you.”

The idea of pairing O’Byrne with Gardiner is an interesting one.

At the risk of reading too much into line rushes from one practice, it would seem that the veteran blue-liner could offer something of a stabilizing presence for Gardiner, who has dressed for five of eight games since being recalled from the American Hockey League last month.

Arguably the best season of O’Byrne’s career came in that type of role with John-Michael Liles in Colorado in 2010-11. Of course, Liles is now with the Leafs so it’s possible that Carlyle would look at reuniting that pair as well.

However, you’d have to think that getting Gardiner back to being a major contributor like he was last year should be a priority for the organization. The biggest complaint Carlyle has had about the 22-year-old is his defensive play — something O’Byrne could make easier on him.

A veteran of 300 NHL games, he makes no bones about his role.

“I have to be physical, be hard to play against, be good on the (penalty kill) and move the puck well,” O’Byrne said. “It’s nothing fancy. I don’t score a whole bunch of goals.”

The Leafs are now carrying eight healthy defencemen and the challenge for Carlyle will be striking the right balance among the group. He might also want to ensure that each player is seeing some playing time since the team’s depth could be tested as the intensity picks up over the final few weeks of the regular season, not to mention the playoffs.

When Nonis acquired O’Byrne prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline, he made it clear that no specific role had been carved out for the 28-year-old pending unrestricted free agent.

Essentially the only defencemen that can count on getting their name called each night are Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson and Cody Franson, who has quietly amassed 20 points this year. Mark Fraser probably also falls into that group because he’s been a regular ever since sitting out three of the first four games back in January.

However, Carlyle has demonstrated that he’s more than willing to tinker, especially when things aren’t going well.

And while this has clearly been a season with much more good than bad, when the Leafs have struggled it has often been with their defensive play. One of the top scoring teams in the NHL, they sat 17th in goals against on Friday with an average of 2.73 per game.

So while much of the focus during Friday’s practice was naturally on who might step in offensively with the absence of Joffrey Lupul, a more pressing need for the team was arguably better defensive coverage.

That will likely be reflected when Carlyle fills out the game sheet on Saturday night.

“We try to pick the best group that we think is going to give us the best chance,” he said, repeating a mantra heard often this season. “We feel like that’s an obligation we have to our hockey club.”

Lineup changes are something every team has to deal with and the Leafs have actually been quite fortunate on the health front this year, sitting roughly middle of the pack in man games lost to injury.

If O’Byrne and forward Joe Colborne — who was called up from the AHL on Friday — draw into the lineup in New Jersey, they will become the 29th and 30th players to suit up for the team already this season.

By comparison, Toronto used 33 different guys during a full 82-game schedule a year ago.

Even with the trade deadline now in the rear-view mirror, Carlyle doesn’t expect to have any sort of set lineup until next season at the earliest.

“With the rosters expanding, there’s endless combinations now,” Carlyle said. “The scratchpad takes a beating.”

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