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Hurricanes swap Tim Gleason for John-Michael Liles

Everyone around the hockey universe knew that Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford was looking to make a few trades and we've seen a couple go down over the last few days, the biggest of which occurring yesterday. Longtime Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for defenseman John-Michael Liles and prospect Dennis Robertson. This was something rumored to be in the works for awhile and it's a deal that seems like a wash for both teams, in my opinion.

Gleason has been a staple on the Hurricanes blue line for years, but he has not looked like himself over the last two seasons. He plays a rough style of hockey and has taken on a lot of mileage over his career and it looks like this has finally caught up with him. Shutdown defensemen typically do not age well and while Gleason is only 30 years old, he looks slower than usual and has had to miss time with an assortment of injuries. I showed some concern about him before the season started because he was trending in the wrong direction last year and his play has only gotten worse since then.

For most of the year, Gleason has been stuck on the Hurricanes third pairing and when he is on the ice, the Canes have been getting heavily outshot at even strength, especially at even strength. The coaching staff has tried to help him out by using him with a number of different partners and giving him sheltered minutes, but nothing has seemed to work. His ability to suppress shots has been among the worst on the team and his territorial numbers are comparable with the likes of Mike Komisarek and Ryan Murphy. Considering that these two players have gotten similar minutes to Gleason, that isn't a good thing.

Gleason played a key role on the Hurricanes in year's past as their key shutdown defenseman and an alternate captain but right now, his play has been on par with that of a third-pairing defenseman and the Canes can't afford to pay him over $4 mil. for the next three years for that. Not when the team has other needs. One of the areas of concern is the power play, which is where John-Michael Liles will hopefully fit in.

I'll admit that I was not thrilled with the idea of trading for Liles because he couldn't crack the Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line, but apparently that had more to do with his contract (Liles has a cap hit of $3.875 mil. over the next two years) and him not fitting Carlyle's system rather than him being a terrible player. Liles is overpaid and limited in some capacity, but he does fill a need as an offensive defenseman and a power play quarterback. Some might be sick of hearing the words "puck-moving defenseman" because they are still having nightmares of Jamie McBain, Tomas Kaberle, Anton Babchuk & Joe Corvo but it's hard to say that this isn't a need right now.

Yes, the Canes have a few offensive guys on their blue-line (Sekera, Murphy, Faulk, Hainsey), but their power play has been atrocious this season both at generating shots and scoring goals. They haven't had any consistent defense pairings on their first or second units and having Eric Staal and Alex Semin playing the point on the first unit just hasn't been working out. Liles should be able to fit in on the second unit, giving them a left-handed shot to pair with Murphy, but he could also quarterback the first unit to take some pressure of Sekera. 

Liles is a career .49 PPG player and has always been a good offensive defenseman but, like Gleason, he hasn't been good at controlling play at even strength. He has been a positive possession player in only one of the last five seasons, but some of that might be related to him playing on terrible teams. Both the Colorado Avalanche and the Toronto Maple Leafs have been among the worst teams in the NHL at controlling territorial play over the last seven years and Liles has actually performed better than his teammates in this regard.

Year ES TOI/60 OZ/DZ% Corsi% Corsi Rel. SF/60 SA/60
2007-08 14.33 59.8 50.9 9.3 29.64 24.68
2008-09 16.22 52.4 48 6.4 30.42 27.91
2009-10 14.25 56.2 44.7 2.4 27.37 30.56
2010-11 16.93 55.6 48.4 7.1 30.8 28.29
2011-12 16.99 51.6 49 2.3 27.93 27.54
2012-13 15.31 48.9 44.8 2.6 24.4 31.03
2013-14 15.03 38.8 37.5 -19.6 26.6 42.63

Over the last seven seasons, Liles' teams have outshot their opponents at a higher rate with him on the ice than they were when he was on the bench. He was given sheltered assignments in most of these years, but that's typically what he will see on Carolina's third pair, so he could fit in. Everyone Carolina has tried on their third pair this year (Harrison, Gleason, Komisarek & Murphy) has been unable to get the puck moving in the right direction at even strength, so all Liles has to do is be better than them to be an upgrade. His career numbers suggest that he can do this, but I said the same thing about Harrison & Gleason coming into the year. I don't know if it's from playing behind weak forwards or what, but Carolina's third pairing has been a problem all season and it doesn't matter which defense combo they roll out. Is Liles good enough to improve that? We'll see. 

Another thing that concerns me about Liles is that he has seen his play fall off the last two seasons. He hasn't played much this year, but he hasn't been good when forced into action and his effectiveness on the power play has also gone down a little, as well.

Whether you want to attribute Liles' declining power play production to bad luck is up to you, but he definitely isn't nearly as good as he was 2-3 years ago. The fact that he hasn't been producing is a concern but what also worries me is that he was creating much fewer shots on the power play since joining the Leafs.

Year ES TOI/G PP TOI/G ESP/60 PPP/60 SF/60 PPSF/60
2007-08 14.83 4.65 0.58 3.181 29.64 48.27
2008-09 16.97 4.03 0.751 4.344 30.42 50.06
2009-10 14.88 3.25 0.655 4.883 27.37 53.5
2010-11 17.72 3.22 1.144 4.178 30.8 55.53
2011-12 17.55 3.23 0.49 3.51 27.93 43.88
2012-13 15.97 2.18 0.861 0.882 24.4 37.05
2013-14 16.1 0.91 0 0 26.6 21.8

I don't know how much of this is his fault, but it's clear that things aren't heading in the right direction for him. Liles is still very good at making outlet passes and has a decent amount of offensive potential, so he at least fills a need. Breakouts at even strength have been a huge problem for this club and I think that's where adding Liles will help out the most. It will take some pressure off Murphy to be the key puck-mover on the third pair and he might be able to slide up with Hainsey if he plays well enough. That might create an issue with two lefties on the same pair, but Liles has played both sides in Toronto.

I don't know if Liles makes this team better or even if he is an upgrade over Gleason, but the Canes are looking to go in a different direction with their defense and Liles at least gives them someone more experienced to help run their power play. Still, I see this trade as a wash. Liles is still overpaid, but he makes $1.25 mil. less than Gleason and will cost less money to buy out if worst comes to worst. Gleason was a third pairing defenseman here and the Hurricanes simply could not afford to pay him $4.5 mil. to play limited minutes.  His fall from grace along with Faulk's emergence and Bellemore settling in as an NHL regular made him expandable and the only way the Hurricanes could move him was to take on another bad contract in return.

The upside with Liles is that he might be able to help the power play and give the Canes some more mobility on their blue line, which they lack. It's unfortunate that it came to this, but I'm hoping that this deal can help both clubs. Best of luck to Gleason in Toronto and I'm looking forward to seeing what Liles can do as a Hurricane.

Stats taken from Hockey Analysis & Behind The Net

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