Heart of Darkness: A Voyage Down The Leafs Defensive Depth Chart


The word ‘compete’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Gord! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

There are few things as unsettling as the Leafs blueline over the past decade. It has been a slow journey into madness as Kaberle, Kubina, and Stralman have been sent downstream to fend for themselves in the jungle of the NHL while primitives like O’Byrne, Komisarek, Exelby, and Aulie have been brought in for their savagery and their attempts to simply hammer away on their opposition with little understanding for what is going on beyond the understanding that their aggression would be rewarded by hapless warlords in charge of this bloated empire.

“It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not?”


The lack of understanding of the Quinn, Ferguson, Burke, and Nonis regimes to this new uncharted world that emerged following the lockout is a haunting reminder of how quickly a once great empire can crumble, and find itself clinging to the past for any remaining sense of self worth. Instead of embracing the brave new world of fast mobile defense that would move the puck up the ice, the Leafs took it as their place in the world to bring their gift of truculence to the unlearned masses of the NHL. Instead of educating, the Leafs walked helplessly into a slaughter, as most of the inhabitants adapted to the new law of the jungle and were not bound by some false sense of loyalty to foolish old ways.

The conquest of the league, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have smaller fanbases or slightly flatter budgets than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. Toronto’s success in recent years has been largely exploitive. The doesn’t mean the average person in Leafs Nation is to blame for the way MLSE has financially taken over the league, but shouldn’t leave us ignorant to all the other fanbases around the league wanting to see us left in ruins.

After years of failed attempts to establish themselves in this unforgiving new geography the Leafs finally reached out to Dion Phaneuf. Phaneuf is a man who’s style is comfortable to the Leafs. He has all the hallmarks of true Toronto defenseman, but Dion was different. Dion is adaptive. Where others like Komisarek were easily slaughtered, Phaneuf embraced the differences, he began to change, he lost himself.

The Dion Phaneuf brought in from Calgary to lead this journey barely resembles the former Flame, his increasing madness has made him reckless and he’s barely preserving himself while completely detaching himself from what the organization sent him out to do.

Each season should be like a beacon on the road toward better things, a chance for victory but also for humanising, improving, instructing. Instead the Leafs fall further into the darkness, regressing, and crying out for the only thing things they know; grit, compete, lunch pails.

All Toronto contributed to the making of Phaneuf, and by and by I learned that most appropriately the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report for its future guidance.

Phaneuf was once the greatest asset of this proud organization, a proud beacon of what it could achieve, a triumph over the inferior West, and now here we are a few short years later and the Leafs biggest challenge may be reclaiming Phaneuf’s lost soul, undoing the path of madness he left, and determining whether he still an internal ally or whether he better being let loose to wreak havoc on anyone who dares allying themselves with him and his broken mind.

You can’t judge Dion Phaneuf as you would an ordinary defenseman. He’s been made different, to figure out what has taken hold of him you don’t talk to that man you listen to him. He has an enlarged mind. 

The journey down river now belongs to Mike Babcock. Where others have slipped into the fog and haze of the Maple Leafs defensive depth chart, Babcock arrives with an explorers heart. He has accompanied an elite defender on the journey to the promise land before, but he has also searched out the struggle for promise of something new and unknown since Lidstrom’s departure.

Babcock could have chosen stability, rest, comfort, but he purposely asked for the toughest tour, and for his sins it was given to him. Making sense of Toronto’s defense is daunting task, and the personnel to do it with seem to have the Leafs guaranteed to once again find themselves trapped downstream. Two promising kids in Gardiner, and Rielly maybe too young to know how good they are. Polak and Granberg may be too much a return to the original failures of the Leafs to be any help. Robidas is little more than an experienced navigator, but when there’s only one way for this team to go, his value is limited, and Marincin and Hunwick are unknown wild cards, hired mercenaries who offer a little knowledge of the jungle outside of Toronto, but with a hunger to show they belong.

“The lustre of inquiring glance faded swiftly into vacant glassiness.”

Babcock’s journey is as much an internal one as external. The mechanics of fixing Toronto’s blue line is equally drilling inward into the mind of Babcock removing the last of his coaching insecurities, gaining the understanding of himself, and standing in the face of Dion Phaneuf and knowing that the madness of the situation will not consume him the same way, and try to fix the captain without slipping into the dark jungle of his mind.

“The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion. The voice of the surf heard now and then was a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother. It was something natural, that had its reason, that had a meaning.” 

The familiar addition of Jacques Lemaire now increases the likelihood that Babcock’s story will be a redeeming one. An experienced guide who’s time in the Wild (organization) has proven that he’s a man who can step into the darkness and come out a whole person. 

The Leafs defensive zone is one of the darkest places on earth, filled with Lions patiently stalking the ill prepared men of the MLSE company as they haplessly navigate a world they were never prepared to eat. The shadowy assassins of the predatory landscape have spent a decade claiming victims at will, leaving only decaying corpses of goaltenders past to remind the next company of shot blockers that their fate was sealed before they even began their voyage. 

As a reader of this unfortunate tale the unfortunate demise of Mike Babcock seems imminent. Looking at the journey ahead, knowing what awaits him, but not knowing when it will strike sends cold chills down my spine. The chance at madness seem to be high, the chance to salvage Phaneuf and return him to what the company needs him to be seems unlikely, but perhaps the lure of what victory would look like where so many have failed in the past is worth risking you sanity for even the slightest taste of those riches. Whatever the outcome it doesn’t chance how the world views the Maple Leafs defensive depth chart:

“The Horror. The Horror.”