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How many true “top-six” forwards to the Leafs really have?

Earlier in the week we talked about my suggestion (and some of you agreed) that the Leafs really have two “fourth” lines, instead of a third and fourth line or two really good “third” lines.

I have felt that way most of this season and the occasional nice game from one of the bottom units doesn’t really sway my thinking, I have to admit.  Not that these players can’t improve, or play solid games or do a good job, but I think they pretty much are what they are, as it were.  There isn’t a higher ceiling for these players.

Today, I have a similar question for you, but it’s one I’d like you to honestly think on and consider:  how many true “top-six” forwards do the Maple Leafs have right now?  Think on that but let me also put it another way:  If our guys were playing in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver or Pittsburgh (maybe even Philadelphia, Washington or with the New York Rangers), where would they fit?

I think we all agree that Kessel is a first-line player, certainly top-six on any team in the NHL.  Lupul wasn’t, but based on current performance, he too is playing like a legitimate elite-level NHL’er.  But things get kind of murky from there.  When Grabovski is on his game, he is a dynamite little player.  He obviously works hard at both ends of the ice, is shifty, tough for a small guy and he can finish—all good qualities you want to see in a player.  So I’ll give him top-six status, though I know not everyone would agree with that.

That’s three guys on a roster of, say, 15 forwards.

Now I know some will want to jump in (fair enough) and say, “Wait, we also have Kadri, Frattin and Colborne waiting in the wings…next year they’ll all be here…”  That’s true, next year they will likely all be here, for good.  But even if I project optimistically, if we have any kind of rigorous standards for our assessment here, can we truthfully say that, at this point in each of their young careers, any (much less all) of those guys will be elite performers next season?  Personally, I don’t believe so.  (Down the road, maybe.  We’ll see.)

But right now, focusing on the reality of the moment, now well into the fourth year of the Burke vision, who else could play on one of the top two lines on any of the teams I named above?  MacArthur?  Not for me.  Kulemin.  Maybe a year ago but certainly not right now.  Bozak?  I love the player and think he can be pretty darn good if he continues to develop, but, right now—top-six?

I’ve already made my case in yesterday’s post that the Leafs have about 8 guys who, for me, are fourth-line NHL players (including Boyce, and Rosehill).  And on a really good NHL team, well, the number is even higher, in my mind.  But I’d like to get your thoughts on who makes the grade, at this moment, as a top-end NHL forward.

The answers may give us a glimpse into who the Leafs are, despite some significant improvements in the past few years.


  1. Connolly, he's not fitting into the top six right now because he's slumping and Bozak is working so well with Lupul/Kessel but he is a top six player. They do need to figure out what to do with him though (he is NOT a bottom six player), good to see Wilson at least try to sub him into Grabbo's line.

    MacArthur and Kulemin (maybe) are serviceable second line players, they produced like crazy last year and both slumped at times this year (Kulemin perpetually it seems..) but I think their true worth lies somewhere in between. I think some people have the idea that a 'top-six forward' is arbitrarily fast, smaller, skilled and puts up at least 50+ points a year. Realistically every team needs guys like Kulemin in there (again, somewhere between slumping and booming Kulemin).

    Bozak seems like a good second/third line centre with some crazy chemistry with first line players. He's a keeper long-term I think and presently on the edge of the top-six.

    Other than that hopefully one or more of Kadri, McKegg, Colborne etc makes it there in the next 2-3 years. I think the third line and defence (albeit to a lesser extent) need some work before the top six gets looked at by Burke et al but that's just me.

  2. Not sure what you're implying when you say that you're "not sure there's a higher ceiling with these players". We have quite a few players who aren't performing even as good as they did last year.

    Kulemin potted 29 goals last year. I'd say that qualifies him as a top-6 forward. Granted, he's having a tough year this year but that doesn't mean that because of a lack of production, he becomes a 4th line player. If Kulemin was playing for Pittsburgh, I wouldnt be surprised to see him playing on the 1st line with Malkin.

    Connolly is also a top-6 forward. Over the course of his career, his ppg would put him comfortable as a 2nd line center in the league. This year, his production has tapered off but he has also been playing on the 3rd line with the likes of Joey Crabb. Again, like Kulemin, lack of production doesnt indicate to me that he should no longer be considered a top-6 calibre forward.

    Lastly, while I concede that MacArthur is never going to be the gamebreaking forward that the leafs can count on to contribute day in day out, hes still on pace for 27 goals this year. 27 goals wouldve put him comfortably in the top 40 players in the NHL last year. top-6? If not, its very close

    You compare our top-6 calibre forwards with teams like Chicago, Boston, Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington and the New York Rangers but only 4 of those 9 teams have scored more goals than us this year.

    The leafs are 8th in the league in goals scored... production from our forward unit is probably the least of Toronto's worries right now.

    Goaltending specifically has lost the leafs 3-5 games this year by themselves.
    If the leafs had average to above average goaltending, they would be competing for the division, not teetering on the brink of missing the playoffs.

  3. Here's how things play out in my mind:

    Top Six

    Third Line

    Fourth Line

    Some reasoning...

    I put Kulemin in the group of top six players not solely based on his offensive production this year. I hope I'm right on the fact that this year may be an aberration. Hes got the skill to be a top 6 winger and the body size to back up his play and make a little more room for his linemates. The other 3 are self explanatory.
    Bozak would make an ideal third line center, but if he keeps improving, he may start to fit a little more naturally between Kessel and Lupul. MacArthur is also bordering top six. He's had one good season, but needs to show more consistent improvement year after year.
    Normally, Armstrong would be bordering third line for me, but after the last couple seasons with all the injuries, you really don't know what your getting from him until he plays some more. I think the rest of them kinda fall in to place.

  4. I'd agree with you on the big 3-Kessel, Lupul, Grabbo. They are bona fide top 6 NHLers. I'd hesitantly place Kulemin in that group because he can produce (off year this year) and is not a liability. That's about it--3 legits and one maybe. Which explains why we're fighting for a playoff spot and not for home ice or challenging for division lead. We're just not a top team so it's all relative when we say our top 6 would be someone else's 2nd and 3rd, even 4th lines. Connolly, Lombardi, possibly MacArthur would be relegated to checking roles on top teams and would likely excel in those roles where there's no dependence on them to produce offense.

    I'm more concerned about the defence and the way they're playing lately, would question whether we have a legit top 2 pairing, let alone a solid 6 man corps.


  5. Lupul, Kessel, Grabovski are top 6 for me. As some above have said, Connolly should be, but "should" doesn't cut it, or we'd be adding Kulemin and MacArthur as well.
    And that's it.

  6. Ben B....well said. I like your point about the how some observers view the "top-six" in a particular way. As for Kulemin, I'm one of those who feel this may be a one-year thing, not a long-term indication of a drop-off. Bozak is a very interesting young player who is developing week by week. The other youngsters...well, the proof will be in the pudding. I liked a lot of what I saw of Frattin earlier this year... reference to "not knowing if certain players have a higher ceiling" was a reflection of my view that, of those who I see as "fourth-line" guys with the Leafs, they are pretty much what they are, and that I don't see a likely improvement in their overall performance down the road. Not to say they aren't or can't be serviceable NHL players, just likely limited in their impact.

  7. the shawn....I think that's a good (and pretty fair) assessment. As I mentioned to Ben, I'm with you that this year is indeed an aberration for Kulemin. Armstrong is, yes, still hard to "figure" given he has rarely had a chance to play consistently month to month the past two seasons...Thanks.

  8. Great post Caedmon...I sense you've put your finger on a lot of what is troubling Leaf fans these days and that is our overall defensive play and specifically, the performance of our defensemen (and yes, our goalies).

    It's funny...everyone loves Gardiner, will say Franson is playing really well, Dion is tremendous, Liles is solid. Most of us like Gunner. But given the number of goals we allow sometimes, and just what we're seeing in terms of defensive positioning and miscues, someone has to be under-performing, and it's not just Schenn, eh? (doesn't he lead the team in plus/minus?) And we can't "blame" Komisarek...He didn't even play in some of the recent less than stellar defensive performances....

  9. Well, I agree with what you've said with the main exception being Grabovski (which you acknowledged not everyone would agree). Let me ask you this. If Grabovski is a top 6 player, would he be a #1 or #2 centre if you put him on any of those teams you mentioned (CHI, BOS, DET, SJ, VAN, PIT)?? My answer is no. He is also too small for the wing, so if he's top 6 he has to play centre. On the Leafs he may be a #2 centre because we still lack a true #1 centre. If we had say a Getzlaf, then Grabo probably gets pushed to #3.

    I won't speak about the likes of Frattin, Kadri or Colborne, as those are works in progress. They have potential but still a year or two away. Kulemin (with 5 goals) has proven he is not a top 6 guy. Top 6 forewards are never that unproductive offensively (sorry about that Gomez). I think MacArthur could be a #6 foreward if he played consistently. He's only 8 points behind Grabo despite having averaged 2-3 mins less ice time per game.

    I've been disappointed with Connolly, and he has been shuffled around on different lines with wingers. Hard to build any chemistry that way. He could be a very good #2 centre but he has yet to play to that level this year.

  10. Gerund O'....short and to the point. I get it. Thanks.

  11. TML__fan...well said. And you raise a fair question about where Grabbo would fit on certain, let's call them "elite" teams...

  12. If a player is in the top 30 points for their position, they are a legit 1st line player.
    If they crack the top 60 they are a bona fide 2nd liner.

    As it stands, we have 1st liners in lupul, kessel and Grabbo and 2nd liners in Bozak and MacArthur.

    Kuli and Connolly are top six based on previous history, but they their performances so far this year have been abysmal. They still show up defensively on the PK and in other areas but this drought needs to be addressed somehow.

    Despite being our top prospects, Colbourne and Kadri still look like 2nd liners to me. Mckegg would probably find himself there too. We also have an abundance of 3rd line prospects like Frattin, Mueller and D'Amigo. Unfortunately they may not see much action as our third line seems to be reserved for slumping top six.

  13. Thanks Anon....appreciate your comment here....

  14. As a Leaf fan I am hoping like everyone else that this year is the outlier for Kulemin, but it could just as easily be last year that was the outlier

  15. The cut-off for "top six" is lower than you think. Going by the league average standard for "top six" (30 teams x 6/team = 180 players), the Leafs have 6 "top six" guys: Kessel, Lupul, Grabovski, Bozak, MacArthur, and Connolly. Even Kulemin is close. (Source)

  16. Hi Last Minute of Play...I certainly respect your position, but if what you suggest is the accepted "norm" than what I actually "see" does not reflect that point of view. I do not see MacArthur as a top-six level of player, not by the standards that I have set in my mind from years of observing what that responsibility (and status) entails. Nor is Kulemin this season and certainly Tim Connolly is not.

    I'm not talking about potential, or when they have their best moments. I'm talking about their game in and game out performance, what we see with our own eyes. Stats are nice, but tell only part of the story, at least for me.

    If the suggestion is that, in the mediocre Eastern Conference, lots of teams have such low standards of expectation that it is widely accepted that certain guys are "top-six" based on statistics, sure, I'll accept that reality. But that assessment, from my perhaps minority perspective, just affirms that there is a lot of mediocre play in the Conference....

  17. Leaving aside potential and past performance I think to answer this question you have to go by this years play alone.

    In that light I beleive the Leafs have 4 legitmate top 6 forwards.
    1.Kessel, production speaks for itself
    2.Lupul, same as Kessel
    3.Bozak, has been fairly consistent this year and as you mention is getting better seemingly game in and game out lately.
    4.Grabovski, all around good player. His production this year puts him a notch below Ryan Kessler teritory.

    The problem as I see it is these 4 guys are all top 6 forwards, none are top 3 forwards. We lack the elite of the elite amongst forwards and have for a long long time. Even Sundin who was consistent 80 point guy was never at any point the best guy in the game. Very good but never the best. I think that has always been a problem post-expansion for the Leafs. How many individual awards have Leaf players won in the last 50 years? Not one Norris, not one MVP, not one Vezina, it really is incredible that a team that has been around as long as the Leafs have has so few individual awards.

    To me Kulemin is a perfect third line winger. Good defensively, works hard but I am not really sure about his offensive upside.
    MacArthur is too streaky, it seems like he disappears from some games entirely. A decent third line guy who with Kulemin, can provide some bonus offense to go with sound defensive hockey.
    Tim Connolly looks like an aging veteran who always got by on talent alone. Now the results aren't there and he has nothing else to bring to the table (think Kulemin, not scoring like last year but still a very good forchecker and excellent defensively).

    Lastly, you talk about the defenseman and who must be underperforming on account of all the goals we give up. The problem is I don't think they are underperforming. They are as a whole just not very good defensively. I really believe they are decent offensive dmen, all can make good first passes and can join the rush fairly well, yes even Schenn (I think Schenn's future lies as a decent 2 way dman and not as a defensive specialist). They just as a group make bad descions about defensive coverage and have a tough time with posistioning. I almost think the Leafs would be better off trading for some hard hitting, defensive dman. Or at the very least a good shut down guy like, horrors of horrors, Hall Gill.

  18. Loved your post, Wilbur. Found myself nodding throughout....