It seems to be a near-unanimous view that the Maple Leafs will be stronger in their “bottom six” forward group than they have been in recent years. That may or may not be the case, as we will have to see how the third and fourth lines actually fare when the games begin in earnest next month.
I would, though, go so far as to say that even a few short years ago, I felt the team was over-run by third and fourth line players. Over time, however, that has changed to the point where there is some legitimate star talent on the first line—and maybe even a bit beyond that.
It does seem as though there is potentially more balance now throughout the lineup, and more players who can provide some combination of point production, grit, energy, defensive awareness and shutdown ability.
But here’s a question to get us warmed up for training camp and the exhibition games that will tell us a bit more about what we have: with the summertime changes that created a new look for the roster, what is the realistic ‘ceiling’ for most of these players? Do we have a lot of second line guys, or do we in fact have a bunch of replaceable third and fourth line guys yet again?
Many of us were pleased with David Bolland (until he was injured, of course) and former Canuck Mason Raymond, who were productive Leafs early last season. And General Manager Dave Nonis had added ex-Devil David Clarkson as well. But despite some promising moments, we still missed the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference.
This summer the Leafs have added players including: Leo Komarov (back for a second stint in blue and white), Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, David Booth, Peter Kontiola and Matt Frattin, also back with the Leafs. We still have Carter Ashton, Troy Bodie, Peter Holland and youngsters like David Broll and Jamie Devane, to go along with the veteran Clarkson, as likely candidates for the bottom-six forward group.
But I’d like to get your thoughts as to how many true, legitimate “top-six” forwards we have right now based on what we think we know heading into camp, and how many high-end third and fourth line players the Leafs will be working with this season.
Numbers we have, and plenty of depth on paper, for sure. But do we have quality?
Some of you know the newcomers I mentioned above much better than I do. I have very little sense of what they will bring to the Leaf table this coming season.
But beyond Kessel and I would say van Riemsdyk, who are first line performers here? Where does everyone else fit?
Bozak works with Kessel, so that’s not a point of debate, though many do not see Bozak as a first line center. But for the sake of argument, let’s call that the first line, though I’m sure Carlyle will move his skill guys around at times as needed to ensure balance throughout the lineup.
Lupul, when healthy, is certainly a top-six winger. But is this where the questions begin to percolate?
Do you see Kadri, right now, as a true second line center? He certainly puts up points.
Is Clarkson more than a solid third line winger? Could he play effectively on the team’s second line?
I saw a headline a few days ago that referenced Frattin potentially playing on the second line. He struggled to be in the lineup in Columbus at the end of last season, if I recall correctly, so as much as I liked Frattin’s ceiling with the Leafs a couple of years ago, the second line feels like a stretch.
It’s doubtful any Leaf supporter is expecting young Nylander to make the team as a second line center, though I suppose it’s possible. But wouldn’t we once again be pushing a kid too soon? Didn’t we just go through that yo-yo thing with Kadri?
As for all the newcomers—Kontiola, Winnik, Santorelli, Booth, Komarov—I don’t doubt that they are all NHL players. We already know about Komarov here. Winnik helped a very good Anaheim squad. Booth has had a nice career. Kontiola and Santorelli are by all accounts players with skill.
But is there a surefire second line forward in the bunch? Or are we back to having (albeit a better group overall than a few years ago) a lot of third and fourth line guys?
I’m not talking goaltending or defense today, just the forwards. And I guess my point in all this is: for all the little tweaks and the under-the-radar signings (which are often the best ones), is our skill level at the forward position that much better than last season?
It’s important that the Leafs have identified the need to be stronger throughout the lineup, and perhaps they have indeed succeeded in fielding a team that will be better defensively and harder to play against.
Maybe this is just the reality of the cap era NHL. Teams have a select few players who are bona fide stars—skill guys like Kessel who will light the lamp and be offensive difference makers. You need balance throughout the lineup, and maybe the Leafs have that heading into the new season.
Which side of the fence are you on: is this a better overall forward group, with more balance, or still a roster with uncertainty when it comes to the forward lines?