While his teammates prepare to face the New Jersey Devils On Friday night, veteran defenceman John-Michael Liles
continues to play the waiting game.
Will he get another chance to play for the Maple Leafs? Will he be sent back to the American Hockey League to play with the Marlies? Will his next NHL game be with another organization?
Nobody, least of all Liles, knows at this point.
"It's a tough situation... an interesting situation," said Liles, who has played 621 NHL games with Colorado and Toronto and signed a four-year, $15.5-million US contract extension with the Maple Leafs in January 2012.
"It's the nature of what we do. It's a business and I know that better than anybody."
Indeed it is. The 32-year-old Liles is a swift, puck-moving defender with solid offensive upside, but with the salary cap having gone down this season, the contract he valued so much when he signed it is suddenly working against him. The Maple Leafs get $925,000 of cap relief by putting Liles in the minors.
Liles was placed on waivers before being demoted to the Marlies at the start of the season, but there were no takers among NHL teams. Nobody was willing to absorb his contract. What is most likely to happen is another team, with injuries on its back line, will trade for Liles, but the Maple Leafs will have to continue to pay some of his salary.
"For me it has always been about working hard and just going out to play hockey," Liles said. "Whether that was in Colorado, here with the Leafs or with the Marlies. That has never changed."
Liles was on top of the world when he signed his extension with the Maple Leafs and never dreamed it would come back to haunt him.
"It's interesting how things work out," Liles said. "It's the nature of what we do. Nothing is ever really certain. Looking back on it, you wouldn't say, 'I can't sign this because there's a new CBA coming up or things might change.' You don't think like that. I was thinking how much I really enjoy being in Toronto and I want to stay here for another four years. That was my main focus."
Liles, like centre Jerred Smithson
, who signed a pro tryout with the Marlies and recently signed a two-way deal with the Maple Leafs after a summer of uncertainty, is now waiting for his opportunity. He recalled making the Avalanche in 2003 after another defenceman, D.J. Smith, suffered an injury.
"Ultimately it's an opportunity game," Liles said. "D.J. got hurt and I ended up making the team out of training camp. It was a tough thing to see him get hurt, but it was an opportunity for me. I'll keep working hard so I'll be ready when my opportunity comes."
That may be with the Maple Leafs. It may be with another organization.
"It's a waiting game and in the meantime I'll just try to be a great teammate and be a good player on the ice," Liles said. "We'll see how it all unfolds."
Who comes out?
There has been a lot of speculation as to which defenceman will sit if the Maple Leafs decide to play Mark Fraser
this weekend. Fraser has been cleared to play after missing 13 games with a knee injury.
Some have suggested it could be Paul Ranger
who gets assigned to the press box, but that could be a huge mistake. For starters, Ranger has returned to the NHL after three seasons out of hockey and one in the AHL. Sitting him could be counterproductive to his reintegration into the NHL. Besides, he has gradually been getting better with each game. At six-foot-three and 210 pounds, Ranger has been very physical and tough to play against, particularly in front of the net. Also, his plus-4 rating suggests he has not been the defensive liability some claim him to be.
It's more likely that if Fraser plays, teenaged defenceman Morgan Rielly
will be the one that sits. Rielly was paired with Liles on the team's fourth defence unit for practice Thursday.
Smithson gets a chance
After a very trying summer in which he did not know if he'd make it back to the NHL, Smithson will get his first shot with the Maple Leafs at home against the Devils on Friday. The 34-year-old Vernon, B.C., native will try to help Toronto overcome the loss of its top two centres, Tyler Bozak
and David Bolland
, who are injured.
"I'm excited," Smithson said. "It's a great opportunity for me. At the same time I'm not here to replace any of those guys that are out. They are world-class players. I'm going to come in and do my job and play with energy. I'll be a good teammate, solid in the faceoff circle and the penalty kill... whatever they ask of me."Changing positions
Moving from wing to centre isn't as big a deal as some might expect, except for in the defensive zone. James van Riemsdyk
, normally a left-winger, will play centre
on Toronto's top line with Phil Kessel
and Joffrey Lupul
against the Devils.
According to Maple Leafs vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin, the biggest adjustment is positioning down low, especially off the faceoff.
"That's because so many faceoff plays are scripted," Poulin said. "The biggest difference between playing wing and centre is the volume of time spent in the defensive zone. Things don't change much in the neutral and offensive zones."Fast-paced practice
After two days off this week (one was a travel day back from Vancouver) the Maple Leafs appeared re-energized at practice Thursday.
"That's part of the equation. As you try to push and finds ways to improve your group, we understand they have to be rested," said coach Randy Carlyle.Giving back, then getting serious
The Maple Leafs' players participated in a fund-raising dinner Monday night and also visited Sick Kid's Hospital on Wednesday.
"There is a lot of responsibility that goes with being a Toronto Maple Leaf," Carlyle said. "And as for the on-ice commitment, out level of work has to go up. We have stated that and we have told our players that the message is going to start to be delivered in a different manner. It's as simple as that if we're not going to get the results we're after.
"It's not just about wins, it's about how we play and our work ethic and our fore-check, our back-check and our dogged determination around the puck. These are all things we believe have to go up."Up next
The Maple Leafs host the New Jersey Devils in a rare Friday night home game at Air Canada Centre at 7:30 p.m. ET, then travel to Boston to meet the Bruins on Saturday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca
, 6:30 p.m. ET).
The Devils, who play the Flyers in Philadelphia Thursday night, have been shut out in each of their last two games, losing 4-0 to Minnesota and 1-0 to the Flyers. The Bruins, who host the Florida Panthers Thursday, are also on a bit of a cold streak, having lost four of their last five games.
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