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Leaf roster assessment and preview, part II: the forwards

Yesterday, we looked at the back end—goaltending and the projected (in my eyes) defense corps. Today, let’s try to determine where we may sit—with a season that begins around January 19—when it comes to our forward lines.

We know that in the first half of the 2011-’12 NHL season, the Leafs looked like one of the better skating teams in the Eastern Conference.  We were getting the puck out of our zone quickly and with speed.  Players were ‘moving their feet’, as coaches like to say.  Everyone was talking about the Leafs "activating" their defensemen to allow them to create some offense. Things, offensively, looked reasonably promising.  We all remember that the wheels fell off in February and the team never really recovered.

This season, we have a new coach—and now we will see if there are many new faces within the configuration of our forward lines.

Let’s look at what we have (following on yesterday’s assessment of our goaltenders and defensemen) and make an effort to assess where were are as objectively as we can. For fun, we'll include some "grades".

  • Grabovski B+
  • McClement (no grade)
  • Steckel C-
  • Bozak C+
  • Tim Connolly C-
  • Matthew Lombardi C-
  • Komarov** (no grade)
Right wing
  • Brown C+
  • Kessel A-
  • Frattin C+
Left wing
  • Kulemin C
  • van Riemsdyk B
  • Lupul A-
  • MacArthur C
  • Kadri  (no grade)

Marlie hopefuls who are “next up”
  • Colborne
  • Ashton
  • D’Amigo
  • Aucoin
Here’s my question for Leaf observers:  how many legitimate “top-six” forwards do we have?  I’ll say Kessel, though there are obvious holes in in his overall game.  Still, we cannot deny his rather unique skill set.  He is a critical offensive player for the blue and white.  Few forwards are as dangerous on their off wing as is Kessel.  His ability to shift quickly to the middle of the ice at high speed from the off side (and test the opposing goaltender with a tough shot) is a tremendous asset.

Grabovski just makes the grade for me.  Love his heart, like many of you, but he is borderline and I have no idea what kind of playoff performer he will be.  Lupul?  Sure, but he had a career year last season—will he do that again?  For now, I’ll include him.

I believe van Riemsdyk certainly is, or should be,  a "top-six" guy here in Toronto.  He showed plenty in the playoffs two years ago, and I have to believe he will be amped up to be a standout in Toronto.  Kulemin was trending that way until last season.  If Nik's production this coming season is at all like it was in 2011-’12, he cannot be classified a true “top-six” forward in this league.

I know a lot of fans want to put MacArthur in this category but I just do not see it.  Oh, once in a while he has a nice game, but as a night-in, night-out presence as a top forward? No.

Now, if you want to substitute the word “elite” for the above phrase “top-six”, I struggle even more. Is Kessel the one “elite” forward talent that we have?  I’m not comfortable going beyond that, unless Lupul comes up big again in the shortened season.

That’s not a lot of players in an important category.

Now, we do have a ton of third and fourth-line guys.  The concern I have is: are they high-end third and fourth line guys? Here is perhaps the more important question:  how many of our third and fourth line guys would you miss if the season started and they weren’t here?  Brown, maybe, because he plays with heart and guts.  Maybe.  Bozak, perhaps.  But otherwise?

In terms of the constitution of the lines, I’m assuming we will see Lupul and Kessel together (Carlyle reiterated that on Monday).  Grabbo and Kulemin should be together again—likely with MacArthur.

The interesting twist, for me, will be if Komarov does indeed become our third-line center.  We are all anxious to see how he will fare as a classic third-line agitator-type at this level, and as a guy with some offensive pop.

I’ll be honest: this forward lineup does not inspire me at all.  One injury (like Lupul a year ago) and I have no idea where we are.  I do like Frattin as an up and comer, but he will be 25 soon so we can't exactly call him a kid or a prospect.  He needs to be good for us.  And I think he can be, as a kind of poor man’s mini power-forward.  Like Kessel, he can also make plays from his off wing.  Could he ever be “top-six”?  Maybe that’s pushing it, but I do see room for growth and some upside here.

Kadri?  I have no idea.  Hands and vision, yes.  Toughness?  Not really.  Size?  No.  Speed?  Not at the NHL level.  An elite finisher?  I just don't know.  Can he become what the brass thought he could be when they drafted him in the summer of 2009?  Maybe.  I see Kadri more as continued trade bait.  He’s been “out there” for two years, and I think he is still a bargaining chip going forward for Burke in a deal for a goalie, for example, or a stud defenseman.

Down on the farm, Colborne appears to be a project.  Size, some skating ability and a nice passer.  But will he ever have an edge to his game, much less a mean streak?  Will he be the low end of Dustin Penner? 

I like D’Amigo a lot, but when I say that, I don’t know what he can be at the NHL level.  I love his hustle and what he brings.  I just don’t know where he fits on the big club.

Ashton cost us Keith Aulie.  I know a lot of Leaf fans did not mind losing Aulie (a solid plus player in the AHL so far this season) but I hate to see young defensemen like Aulie and Schenn sent away.  It’s so hard to find and develop young defenseman with toughness and the ability to play at the NHL level.  But while I have not focused on Ashton a lot with the Marlies this season, he appears to be developing nicely and he certainly has youth on his side.

Here’s a question I have for you:  who, of the forward group I listed above (and anyone else you think may be in the line-up at some point this season) might surprise us?  Is there a Leaf forward who is flying under the radar who might have a Lupul-like breakout this year?

Share your thoughts.  We’re apparently only days away now from the season starting.  The Leafs will need to be ready.  We might as well be, too.


  1. My perspective is always a little but different than yours. Usually I am more more I am more pessamistic...allot of these guys just won't make the team at the start of the season. There isn't time to fool around:

    Marlie hopefuls who are “next up”

    -Colborne: No, needs another season to prove he can dominate in the AHL.
    -Ashton: No, needs another season in the AHL to get more consistent and meaner.
    -D’Amigo: No, might be ok in a year or two once he has perfected his game as a bottom six guy
    -Aucoin: The most likely call up, but only when Lombardi and Connolly are gone.

    I'll post more later

  2. Michael,

    James van Riemsdyk is the player that I hope surprises everyone and has a break out year. Becoming the impact player that everyone has thought he could become since he was taken 2nd overall. He will get the opportunity to play more minutes in prime time in Toronto than he ever would have in Philly. He needs to run with it and make his mark.

    Lupul seems to have figured it out last year. Hope he remembers what he learned last year, and continues the trend. The same I think, can be said for Grabbo. I am not worried in the least about his play on the 2nd line.

    Kessel will score goals, that I am certain. WIl he buy into the new coaches system and become more of an all around player?

    Kulemin is my second choice for breakout player. A repeat of his 2010 numbers would be awesome.

    I am left with the rest of the forwards. I don't see a lot to distinguish them from each other. A lot of players who to me, seem to be good at one or two aspects and non existent at others. Mike Brown is a guy I love on this team. He is after all a 4th liner, so the expectations are not high. But he will do the things I love him for. Hit, fight, skate and pressure the other team. Whenever my favourite player on the team is low on the depth charts, I feel the team is very mediocre, to bad.

    Steckel, McClement and Komorov will likely be checkers. Guys who I expect to keep the other team from scoring, not actually score a lot themselves.

    I have no idea what Connolly, Lombardi, Frattin or Kadri will contibute this year. Or even if any of them will be on the team after training camp. I like somethings that each of them does well, and hate other parts of their games. Not one of these guys is close to being a complete player in my mind. Connolly and Lombardi are what they are, no change is gonna come there. I have hope for Frattin, I have always felt that Kadri will be someone who looks back and thinks about what might have been. Fans will feel this way as well about him. The, if only, thing we all do.

    If Bozak isn't the worst #1 centre in the NHL, could someone please tell me. Who has a worse one?

    With you on MacArthur and the kids. Never sure which MacArthur is going to play every night. The high energy guy who hits and scores. Or the one that I have to look at the summary to find. I don't see any of Ashton, Colborne, D'Amigo or Aucoin playing in the NHL soon. Too young, too raw, not now.

    My gut tells me this team, as is constructed right now. Could very well be the worst team in the Eastern Conference. They will have to battle the Islanders for that honour. I would say this though. I would rather have John Tavares than any Leaf forward. By a mile.

    Burke has a tonne of work to do, and he needs to do it quickly. Each of these games is going to be intense and hard fought. There isn't a second to waste.

  3. Your comments on Colborne, Ashton and D'Amigo are absolutely fair, DP.

  4. I was nodding along as I read your comments, Jim. And I like Tavares a lot, too. So did Burke on draft day! (Likely still does...)

  5. My lines look like this:

    Lupul, Bozak Kessel
    van Riemsdykm, Grabovski, Kulemin
    MacArthur ,Kadri, Frattin
    Komarov, McClement, Brown

    Conolly, Lombardi and Steckel get spot duty until they are traded or there are trades that free up spots (Bozak, Kadri?). Steckel could take Brown's spot against soft teams.

    I am not sure who goes in trade, but there is a full slate of NHL talent. MacArthur ,Kadri, Frattin could put up some points from the third line. Komarov, McClement, and Brown would be tough to play against.

    some have also sugguested:


    It's better than 6 years ago. No killer top line, but maybe lots of scoring through three lines with a good chip in from the forth.

    Along with Lombardi and Connolly, Steckel and Brown are gone next year.

  6. Michael,

    The BCS game is over in the 3rd quarter. So I am going to devote more time to the Maple Leafs.

    Do you see the team that Burke has assembled right now, being willing and able to play the type of game that Carlyle has always had his teams play? They seem so mismatched to me. Not as mismatched as Brent Musburger and Katherine Webb. But damned if I can see more than half of this team playing hard nosed in your face defensive hockey for 60 minutes a game this year.

    Am I misjudging the new coach? The end of last season wasn't some sort of evil mirage, was it? They did really stink under the new guy, right? Is it even possible that Burke has big trades in the hopper, that will radically change this team? As well as my mind?

  7. Interesting, DP. I initially had pencilled in Kadri at center (I still think that may be a slot for him, sot sure, though...).

  8. Yes, the ND game went south in a hurry. (I was, and my Dad before me, a pretty big Notre Dame fan in my younger Dad dating back to the '20s and '30s...) Glad I did not expect much or invest much emotion in this one.

    You raise very legitimate questions. Yes, I sense trades could be in the works, some quite soon. We'll see. But I do wonder about the "nature" of this group, and the expectations of this coach. On paper, no, they are not a natural fit. Whether Carlyle can push the right "buttons" is a good question. Maybe the better question is whether this Leaf squad can display the intensity level required to be a good team, and can play hard, consistently - even in a shot schedule?

  9. The problem with the forwards is what we have been saying for a while now. There are 2 top six centermen, one Grabovski is a solid second liner, the other Bozak is a marginal 2nd liner for sure 3rd liner. The wingers are the same one top three player in Kessel, a top six in Lupul. Then there are a bunch of guys who are excellent 3rd liners part time 2nd liners.

    Which is a long winded way of saying lack of elite talent is going to spell the demise of this team once again.

    I hope JVR can become a consistent top six guy but he really hasn't shown that consistently in the NHL. He has had some flashes of brilliance and he is young so he could very well do it. Another 15-20 goal, 45-50 point forward is not what we need.

    For all the talk about the farm system, like DP I see no help coming from the AHL, the only guys coming up are guys who were already here (Kadri, Frattin). As Jim said I see the Leafs really in tough this year and having a real good shot at finishing dead last. Which would be true to Leaf form since being last no longer guarentees the top pick (new CBA gives all non-playoff teams a chance).

    Sorry for being so pessimistic, I should be happy that the game is back but I truly don't see this being a real good year for the Leafs.

  10. I don't feel it's being "pessimistic", Willbur. Being a fan does not mean we have to "buy" the pre-season pap and optimism we hear annually from the Leaf brass. We can hope they do better than we expect, but there is nothing wrong with providing an honest appraisal. If we're wrong, great. Thanks for posting.

  11. Although I might be more generous with some of my grades than you were, I'm on board with Wilbur and DP on this one - the immediate future does not look bright. From the Marlies, Frattin is ready for prime time, I'd say, but he's the only one. If Kessel and Lupul can find their chemistry again, I'm OK with Bozak centering them. Who else is there? No idea about Kulemin, but I don't share the optimism others have shown. 3rd and 4th lines are what they are. I'm looking forward to seeing how Komarov does.
    With so many aspects of the Leafs, I end up at the same spot: who knows? But, baring some kind of hockey miracle, I don't see the roster changes that would have been necessary for a successful Carlyle-type team. Or just a successful team, period.
    But I'm still enough of a Leaf fan to hope our coach will prove me wrong!

  12. That's why we're Leaf fans, Gerund O'. Down deep, we want to believe!

  13. "Although I might be more generous with some of my grades than you were, I'm on board with Wilbur and DP on this one - the immediate future does not look bright."

    I suppose I should explain myself a little better.

    I am quite optimistic about the immediate future. It's just that Colborne, Ashton and D’Amigo should not be expected to be part of the Leafs this year and probably not for two years.

    They should stay down in the AHL until they are fully developed. For Colborne and Ashton that means near point a game production, plus throwing some hits and playing a bit mean. Plus they have to be good defensively. Colborne is a pretty good defensive player. He is on ice for very few goals, but few notice this.

    I could see both Colborne and Ashton being the big cheap third line guys in a few years that can help a team. Take a look at Dwight King for the L.A. Kings.

    "Here’s a question I have for you: who, of the forward group I listed above (and anyone else you think may be in the line-up at some point this season) might surprise us? Is there a Leaf forward who is flying under the radar who might have a Lupul-like breakout this year?"

    Bozak could produce more…he goes up every year.

    Kadri and Frattin could have breakthrough years. Frattin was snake bit in the NHL last year. Kadri should have more ice time and better linemates than previous years.

    Based on his KHL performance, Kulemin is a lock to bounce back.

    I think MacArthur is in a contract year so he might be going hard and taking fewer nights off.

    Lombardi and Conolly might be playing for their continued future in hockey, so we might get some production from them.

    I also think Komorov wil have a good year.

    Not all of these guys will have great years, but if enough exceed their past the Leafs could be in the hunt.

    Some really good news from the ECHL...recalls:

    Las Vegas:
    Delete Mark Owuya, G recalled to Toronto (AHL) by Toronto (NHL)

    San Francisco:
    Delete Andrew Crescenzi, F recalled to Toronto (AHL) by Toronto (NHL)
    Delete Jamie Devane, F recalled to Toronto (AHL) by Toronto (NHL)

    This is important because some of these guys were getting very little ice time with the non-affiliated little it could screw up their development. Devane only has 12 game so far this season.

  14. In addition to the call ups Corey Syvret is on now on loan to Marlies from the ECHL
    Alaska Aces joins Ryan Grimshaw as the latest blue liners to join club.

    article here

    Makes me wonder if Marlie dmen are part of a Louongo deal.

  15. Something is definitely (as we all suspected) up with Luongo. It's a question of time and the best deal Gillis can make...

  16. Lupul-Van-Riemsdyk-Kessel

    if Rip Van can handle the center position this could prove to be the best top line the Leafs have iced since Sitler, MacDonald, Thompson

    Bozak goes to the third line where he belongs,
    now I know everyone expects the third line to be a checking line , but we don't have the personnel to implement this kind of team.

    I would like Mark Fraser to make the Leafs as I just dont see ANY truculence on this team, outside of Brown and Komorov.

  17. Some interesting configurations, Anon. If van Riemsdyk plays in the middle, that would shuffle things around for sure. The lines make sense, but I wonder if Komarov eventually ends up centering the third line? (I guess there could be some deals before the season starts next week...)

    Fraser is a tough defenseman. We'll see what the Leafs do with Komisarek. I think a lot of us feel, like you, that they need more sandpaper across the line-up.

  18. Michael, I have no idea as to how this team will shape up this year as far as the forwards. There are a number of new faces to clutter up the bottom six, and we have several young players that have only shown us glimpses of what we want them to do on a regular basis.

    I think we know what we have in terms of Kessel, Lupul and Grabovski. We're hoping JVR will get his game back and prove he can be a top-6 guy. But other than those 3-4 guys, we have some big question marks.

    Bozak is a nifty centre, but we all know he's not a #1C. He can help Lupul and Kessel offensibly, but he is not a good 2-way guy and frequently gets caught up with his wingers. Not sure Carlyle can reset him.

    I'm okay with MacArthur on the second line, but on a stronger team he slides to the third line.

    We have lots of interesting forwards who we know can be okay 3rd line players, but can they step up their game to be something more?? I put Frattin, Kadri, Ashton, and Kulemin in this category. Kulemin had one very good year, but a good forward should not drop off that dramatically. I for one think he something in between that career year, and that horrible year. That makes him a third line winger in my book.

    Lombardi and Connolly are not in the Leafs plans, so they are filler or trade material.

    I have hopes for Colborne and maybe D'Amigo, but as yet these two have not shown they are ready for the big show.

    I'm very doubtful Leafs can make up any ground on the East in a shortened season. Unless we see some big improvements in the second and third line, we shouldn't expect too different a result this year.

  19. It's funny, I'd like to think Bozak has a high ceiling, Don (TML_fan), but I'm just not sure. Will he be a semi late-bloomer and become a solid two,way, second-line center some day? Or is he destined to be a third-line guy? If he became superb at one thing (e.g. penalty-killing), it might help set him apart.

    I'm with you when it comes to assessing the forwards. Some nice pieces, some promise, some hot and cold guys. In many ways a normal NHL team, but it hasn't been enough to have an impact in the Eastern Conference.

  20. Bozak has gotten better each year, and I heard that Lui has only one name on his list of teams to move to and that is Florida, so I don't expect Bozak to go anywhere. So I fully expect the top 6 to start as

    Van-Riemsdyk&Kulemin need to be top 6 to give them a chance to excel. Trade or pick up a true bottom 6 grinder for the forth line.
    Hamilton I put in for leadership, something Burke stressed the leafs lacked as well Komarov was captain of this KHL championship team last year.

    To me the defense is very problematic as we have no true shut down defenseman. I would try to package Kadri, Mac or Liles somehow to obtain one
    Lombardi might be a wildcard, though I don't see how he fits on the team. It would be weird if Connelly has a great camp.....he is being paid enough....

    I think Gunner should really be on the second pairing, and we have too many rushing defenseman,
    and no true shut down defenseman......we have enough talent, but I really don't see the pieces fitting together very well. Liles is the awkward piece IMO. But Burke seems to love this guy, and I doubt he is going anywhere. I really can't configure a balanced defense corp.....unless Komiserik thrives under Carlyle and ends up as Phaneuf's partner instead of being bought out....stranger things have happened, and that is the role imagined for him when we acquired him as a free agent. Well training camp is going to be interesting......

  21. I like Hamilton, too, Anon. I'm just not sure the organization sees him as a full-time guy on the big club. Komisarek is certainly an interesting decision. He could be bought out or end up playing significant minutes under Carlyle. So many possibilities across the roster. Camp should pretty intense, I would think.