Being a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs all these years there have been many times where I’ve been left shaking my head in confusion. This season though it appears that the oddest of storyline’s is beginning to develop. In late August of 2012 Paul Ranger signed a contract to play hockey with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. Of course a player signing a deal with the Leafs’ farm team is not that big of news, yet when the player signing this contract was once a reliable and well thought of young blueliner in the NHL who abruptly walked away from hockey and vanished off the grid people begin to take notice. Ranger broke into the NHL as a 21 year old with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He logged over 17 minutes a game and posted a + 5 (take plus/minus for what it is). Following his rookie campaign Ranger emerged as a 20 plus minute a night blueliner, and became a top pairing defenseman alongside Dan Boyle. At 6′ 3″ and 210 lbs the sky appeared to be the limit for Ranger as he blasted his way to a career high 10 goal, 31 point season as a 23 year old in 2007-08. That was the height of Ranger’s career though in the sunshine state. The 2008-09 campaign saw the Whitby, Ontario native dress for only 42 games due to a shoulder injury. Ranger followed that by appeared in only 8 contests in 2009-10 before taking an odd, and still unexplained, permanent leave of absence.
While it was very strange that Ranger walked away from his team and a seemingly long career playing hockey, no real reason ever officially emerged as to why the big defenseman left. Off the grid since 2009, Ranger resurfaced with the Marlies this fall and appeared to be ready to recommence his hockey career. With the lockout an inevitability at the time, it made sense for Ranger to catch up with the Marlies and then graduate to the Leafs when a new CBA would be signed. While with the Marlies Ranger has been as rock solid and dependable as he was during his former playing days. In 32 games this season with the baby buds Ranger has scored 6 goals and has registered 20 points, all the while contributing strong play in his own zone leading the Marlies with a + 17. Both his booming shot from the point, and his quick outlet pass are NHL quality.
As Jake Gardiner recovers from a concussion the Leafs are in desperate need of reinforcements on their blueline. Currently the defense shapes up as:
Carl Gunnarsson – Dion Phaneuf
John Michael Liles – Cody Franson
Mike Kostka/Morgan Rielly – Mike Komisarek
While Kostka has been very good for the Marlies this season (34 points in 34 games) there is a strong belief that Ranger is more capable than both him and Komisarek at the NHL level. Needless to say it would also be prudent for the Leafs to not rush the 18 year old Rielly into the NHL too early. It appears to be a perfect situation for Ranger, he can play for his hometown club and recommence his NHL career while he’s still in his prime. However, as of late Sunday afternoon, Ranger has still failed to sign an NHL contract with the Leafs or any other team. CBC’s Elliotte Friedman published an article last week implying that Ranger may choose the AHL over the NHL. The 28 year old Ranger continues to be an enigma.
Having watched more Marlies games this season due to the lockout, you cannot help but be impressed by Ranger. His tools are definitely NHL calibre, and – considering the woeful Leafs blueline of late – he would become a valuable member of the blue and white squad. While there are many things about Ranger that are confusing, what makes me wonder is why he chose to come back to the Marlies? If he wanted to play professional hockey away from the NHL why choose a city and market that will hound him on a daily basis as to his enigmatic decisions? Heck, the Hamilton Bulldogs would have been a better option than the Marlies. If the Leafs begin to struggle defensively – and with an injured Gardiner an un-established goaltending this might happen sooner rather than later – you can bet the media will begin to ask the Ranger question more and more often.
As a fan of the Leafs I hope Ranger changes his mind and decides to give the NHL another chance as a member of the blue and white. Personal issues are a tough thing to get a handle on and I of course hope Ranger has stabilized whatever area of his life that made him leave the NHL in 2009. Should all those issues be behind him, the big blueliner would be a big boost to the Leafs. As of the writing of this article Ranger had been pulled from Sunday’s Marlies game after having opened the scoring in the first period. At the time of publishing it hadn’t been determined if Ranger was injured or if he had signed an NHL deal. Stay tuned for updates.