By Matt Stephen
Luke Schenn, at 22, is already in his fourth season in the NHL. And thanks to a young defense corps made even younger by injuries, he’s having to play beyond his years.
The NHL’s second youngest team has been without its two eldest blueliners – Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles, each 31 – for a good portion of the season. Komisarek missed 21 games with a broken arm and Liles has been sidelined with concussion-like symptoms since Dec. 22. With these two “senior” pieces out the lineup, a group of promising young D-men have stepped up to fill the gaps.
In the 13 games Liles has been out of the lineup the Leafs have only given up more than three goals twice, shutting out opponents twice in that stretch. Schenn, the longest-serving Leafs defenseman, has done a square dance this season – often trading partners – but he most often finds himself paired with rookie Jake Gardiner, who’s suited up for 40 of 47 games. Gardiner ranks third in average ice time per game among rookie defensemen and ranks fourth in Leafs ice time on a relatively deep corps that’s seen eight blueliners play more than 15 games.
Schenn, only a year Gardiner’s senior, has 237 more NHL games under his belt.
“He’s handling it real well, he plays with such poise and confidence out there,” Schenn said of his blueline mate. “He’s a great puck-moving defenseman, he makes it look effortless. He’s real fun to play with.”
The season hasn’t been without its hiccups, with Schenn making a lot of the mistakes you would expect a young defenseman to make. The season began with the Saskatoon, Sask., native’s usually defensively sound game weighted down by turnovers, bad decisions and a lack of spatial awareness. On Nov. 5 Schenn’s play warranted his first healthy scratch since his sophomore season of 2009. Schenn, who believes he is better when he’s playing physically, has gone only one game without recording a hit since sitting in the press box. After he topped all ‘D’ with 251 hits in 2010-11, Schenn is again at the top with 153 this campaign.
Part of his improved play likely stems from the fact he’s accepted his role in a highly competitive environment.
“It’s a good thing, you want to have competitiveness,” said Schenn. “When you’re fighting for your job it keeps you from being complacent. Every night you know the defensemen are champing at the bit. At the end of the day it’s going to make your team better.”
On a young team it’s important for any player with experience to take on a leadership role, never mind their age. Schenn says that it’s not a case of one loud voice in their dressing room, rather a communal sense of leadership. “The cool thing about our team is there’s a lot of guys who lead in their own way,” he said. “Dion’s our captain, but beyond that guys can step up and say what they need to say.”
Schenn may shy from the spotlight, but not from his role in the community. Beyond his “Luke’s Troops” effort, where he hosts the family of a service person at every home game, Schenn spent part of his holiday season helping six local kids from Big Brothers and Sisters of Toronto get sized up with new gear at SportChek.
The work is a sign Schenn is comfortable as a Leaf and a Torontonian – and that his maturity extends beyond the ice surface.