Quick, without thinking — who has been the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs this year? If your answer was defenceman Luke Schenn, you’re not alone.

The third-year pro’s defensive effort has been as consistent as that of anyone on the roster, and he has been far better than he was last season as a slumping sophomore. Schenn will never match Ray Bourque in terms of point production, but the 21-year-old remains on pace for a career year on offence.

In a year that is quickly going pear-shaped for the Buds, Schenn’s continued development must be considered a positive. But there’s a negative to counterbalance that positive — and, of course, money is at the root of that negative.

Quick, without thinking — what do you pay Schenn at the end of this season, when his three-year rookie contract expires and he becomes a restricted free agent?

If GM Brian Burke offers a small raise on the $2.975 million Schenn will make this year, the Leafs risk losing his services to a team that makes a more lucrative offer. Toronto can match, but the point remains: The Leafs, either by their own choice or through a move forced by the competition, could be paying Schenn a lot of money.

How much? Let’s look at Atlanta blue-liner Ron Hainsey as a comparable. Like Schenn, Hainsey was a first-round draft pick who needed time to develop into a bona fide NHLer. When he finally did — as a 25-year-old member of the Columbus Blue Jackets — Hainsey went on to break the bank: In 2008, he signed a five-year, $22.5-million contract with Atlanta.

That’s $4.5 million a season. That would represent a greater than 50 per cent raise for Schenn — and, in light of Toronto having already committed to more than $16 million for next season’s defence corps, that’s not an insignificant amount.

Maybe they use some of the cap space from soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Tomas Kaberle to adjust. Maybe they trade Francois Beauchemin or Mike Komisarek.

Regardless, the better Schenn plays, the more likely it is the Leafs’ defence changes.

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