Maple Leafs' John-Michael Liles ready to fight for a spot | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in CanadaMaple Leafs' John-Michael Liles ready to fight for a spot

Posted: Saturday, September 14, 2013 | 03:27 PM

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John-Michael Liles played just 32 of the team’s 48 games last season and only four of seven playoff games. (Rick Stewart/Getty Images) John-Michael Liles played just 32 of the team’s 48 games last season and only four of seven playoff games. (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

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John-Michael Liles doesn't have to re-invent himself to get back to playing regularly with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He simply has to get back to doing what he did to attract the Leafs in the first place.

John-Michael Liles doesn't have to re-invent himself to get back to playing regularly with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He simply has to get back to doing what he did to attract the Leafs in the first place.

"It's focusing on the things that I do well," Liles said. "Ultimately that's everyone's key; do what you do well. For me that is creating some offence from the back end, using my skating to generate some offence and being a good guy on the power play."

Too often last season the veteran blue liner was a healthy scratch. He played just 32 of the team's 48 games and only four of seven playoff games. This following a season in which his playing time was limited because of a serious concussion.

Even with Cody Franson still unsigned and not in camp, there is terrific competition for jobs on the blue line. The defence will definitely include Dion Phaneuff, Carl Gunnarsson, Paul Ranger, Jake Gardiner, Mark Fraser as well as Liles, but others in the mix include teenage sensation Morgan Rielly, Stuart Percy, Jesse Blacker and Swedish newcomer Petter Granberg. Franson, if he signs, will also be a regular.

"I think every year you come in and you're fighting for a spot," Liles said. "I think there are 4-5 players on every team that are established, but the rest of us are fighting for jobs. I have felt like that each and every year. Nothing is ever guaranteed. There's always young kids coming in pushing you and ultimately you have to justify yourself being there."

Coach Randy Carlyle likes bruising defenders, but that doesn't mean there isn't a spot on the blue line for a skilled player such as Liles or Gardiner or, for that matter, Rielly. But just because you may be small, doesn't mean you have to play small. Gardiner found that out the hard way last year when a season after being on the NHL's all-rookie team, he was sent to the minors and asked to be more engaged physically.

Liles knows he has to be more physical, too.

"I've talked to Randy about it and he has never said he needs me to run guys over or kill guys because if I'm trying to do that then I'm not playing my game," Liles said. Sometimes I think you lose focus on why you are here and ultimately when you struggle, you have to get back to the three things you do well. Adam Foote told me that early in my career; focus on three things that you do well and just continue to try to do those."

Good impression

Carlyle was actually quite complimentary regarding Liles' attitude and professionalism last season.

"I think John-Michael Liles understands totally what we are looking for and his baptismal to our group last year is going to be the same," Carlyle said. "John has put in a tremendous amount of work over the summer and I think if you ask him he'd tell you he really wasn't ready for what came at him last year in the shortened season so he has taken a much different approach. 

"He has been very good here. He was an excellent teammate and a true professional last year. He just has to continue to show us that he'd going to play hard, move the puck effectively and he's going to be a guy you can trust when you put him on the ice."

In a perfect world Liles will play all 82 games this season and add to his career totals of 621 NHL games with 77 goals and 313 points. If he plays to his potential he could also play for the United States in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia even though he wasn't invited to the summer camp.

Liles said last season was frustrating, but he's ready to move on.

"It's never easy being a scratch, but when I came into the league there were older guys that were scratched and throughout my career I've been scratched a few times," he said. "It's not fun, but you take a step back and re-evaluate how you can be better. Ultimately you have to act like a professional. Nobody likes to be scratched. It's never fun; it's never easy and it's definitely not fun at home for your family when you've been scratched."

Though he doesn't fit the cookie cutter mold that hiss coach likes in terms of being a hulking defender, Liles thinks he has enough skill and smarts to get by.

"I'm 5-foot-10," he said. "I'm waiting for the growth spurt, but at 32 years old I think it may have escaped me. I know what my strengths are and he knows what my strengths are and ultimately you have to play to your strengths. When you start getting away and maybe trying to do other things, you get in trouble. I'm never going to run guys over, but I can get in the way. I can play the body. That is how it has been for a long, long time."

Stand out from the pack 

Carter Ashton knows if he is going to make the Maple Leafs, he has to do something - anything - to be noticed by the coaching staff.

So there he was Saturday morning riding veteran defenceman Carl Gunnarsson hard into the net and then slashing enforcer Frazer McLaren. In response, McLaren grabbed Ashton and tossed him to the ice. There was no fight, but McLaren left the scrimmage and was having a damaged finger x-rayed.

Coach randy Carlyle said afterwards there is a method to Ashton's madness.

"With any young player, you have to be noticed," Carlyle said. "What happens with young players at times is they don't understand that they just have to do something to get themselves out of that survival state. If they were a scorer in junior they may have to change that to get your first step into the NHL; you may have to take on a lesser role and grow into where you were in junior. You have to do something to separate yourself and that was a prime example right there."

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Ashton is generally an aggressive player who scored 11 goals and had 19 points with 67 penalty minutes for the Toronto Marlies last season. He was pointless in 15 NHL games the year before with the Maple Leafs.

"There is a high compete level in these scrimmages and stuff is going to happen around the net with sticks flying around," Ashton said. "It's just part of the game and I'm not going to shy away from it. You have to do something to make yourself noticed out there. Everyone is fighting for a job. It's never personal. I've known these guys for many years and when you step on the ice, even in these scrimmages, you're fighting for a job."

Riding Shotgun

Morgan Rielly continues to impress at the Maple Leafs training camp, just as he did at the rookie camp in London. The team's top draft pick, taken fifth overall in 2012, was partnered with captain Dion Phaneuf for Saturday's scrimmage. He carried the puck with confidence and scored one goal.

"Scoring a goal is always nice," Rielly said. "I think it was just a small piece in a long game."

Rielly enjoyed the opportunity to play with Phaneuf.

"He is obviously a great player," Rielly said. "It helps when you are playing with a guy who has played in the league for a long time. He was very helpful out there."

Rielly continues to make it hard on the Leafs coaching staff and management team to consider sending him back for a final year of junior. Carlyle said he is not surprised by the composure and skill Rielly has displayed.

"I'm not that surprised because of where he was taken in the draft," Carlyle said. "When you have elite level junior players get selected where he was selected, you would expect there is going to be some skill set that shines above other players.

Play on

With time running out in Saturday morning's scrimmage game, which was played before a handful of season ticket holders, coach Carlyle ordered an additional 10 minutes to be put on the clock.

"I thought the first two 20-minute periods went through with not a lot of whistles," Carlyle explained. "We're mandated by the CBA that we can only have an hour and 45 minutes of ice time with the players. In our minds to have a scrimmage for an hour and a half of ice time made more sense than just going 60 minutes. We added another 10 minutes."

Just when the players though the scrimmage was over, the additional time went up on the clock.

"When the coaches added the extra time the players were, I'm not sure about angry, but kind of chuckling on the bench," said Rielly. "They were kind of tired, but I guess that is what happens in training camp."

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