Custom Search

Is the Leaf “top six” really scary, in a bad way? And avoiding the “K” word speculation

While listening to summertime sports talk radio a couple of days ago I heard the former GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Doug MacLean, talking about the Leafs.

I don’t want to misquote Doug, or take him out of context, but in speaking of the Leafs forward-line situation, he basically suggested the “top six” forward situation was “scary”—and he didn’t mean that in a good way.

Further, he didn’t sound entirely positive that the Leafs would be able to land a legitimate high-end forward in return for the defenseman whose name we should all stop mentioning until he is finally dealt (or dealt with).

Regardless, it made me stop and re-think where the Leafs are, despite all the positive (we hope positive, at least) moves Burke and company have made over the past eighteen months. There is no doubt they have shored up the goaltending situation, though all bets are off if Giguerre starts to look old again (like he did in Anaheim) and Gustavsson doesn’t take that next step that we all anticipate he will in his second NHL season.

We know they are at least relatively deep at the back end, with Phaneuf, Komisarek, Beauchemin and Gunnarsson likely eating up most of the minutes, with Schenn poised to grab more if anyone falters and Lebda available, as well.

Up front, the “scary” situation depends on how one wants to look at things.  Here is how the first two lines could look:

Kessel – He is elite offensive talent who can make players around him better. But is he a leader? Will he ever become a real two-way player?

Kulemin – He took significant strides in his second NHL season. By all reasonable expectations he should continue to grow as an all-around player. He played well for Russia at the World Championships. I think he can score 70 points a season and be a really strong two-way winger. But the nay-sayer could suggest he is the kind of decent NHL player who is typically over-rated by Toronto fans and won’t be worth his new contract.

Bozak – Considering he was a college free agent pick up, it’s hard to find fault with his signing or how he played last season as a rookie. Critics will suggest he’s not a real elite center, but he has certainly shown he can play. He can win face offs, has vision and makes plays. If he gets a little stronger, he should be a player in this league for some time to come. A true “top-six”? I guess we’ll see.

Others who are seemingly slotted in, at this moment, as prospective “top six” guys include:

Versteeg – Again, the critic would say he was a nice complementary player with the Cup-winning Hawks, but was primarily useful in a smaller role on a team loaded with high-end offensive ability. Leaf fans want to believe he is a young, improving, versatile guy with offensive upside who can play significant minutes.

Armstrong –He is seemingly thought of more as a plugger, perhaps, than a typical top-six forward. He nonetheless brings character and heart. Does he fit as a true second-line guy, or is this wishful thinking?

Kadri – We saw him for one game with the big team last season. Given that he is one of those offensive guys who needs to play in a top-six role, if he were on a very strong NHL team, he would/should start his pro career in the American Hockey League. Reports suggest he has worked on his size and speed this summer. Will that be enough to make a recent junior player an immediate second-line center with the Leafs?

Now, even bending the “rules” a bit, that would seem to be the extent of what fans could possibly consider “top six” forwards currently on the Leaf roster. And there are a lot of “shoulds” and “ifs” in the above assessment.

Beyond the above?  Yes, we have Grabovski, but I just don’t look at him that way. John Mitchell? Nice young guy with talent that peaks through on occasion. But he would have to take major strides in terms of consistency and impact to earn that kind of ice time and status. Sjostrom showed he is a solid penalty-killer and a good third-line player.

Beyond that, there are a lot of guys who will just be fighting for spots on the team, it would seem. We know Orr is locked in as a fourth-line enforcer. Caputi, Brown, Mueller and Zigomanis are all on the bubble.

The one wild card that I am mildly excited about is Christian Hanson. He earned some playing time with Team USA at the spring World Championships and it will be worth noting if he can take some strides forward this season. He showed flashes last season, for sure.

Doing the simple analysis above, MacLean is right. The situation is not exactly overwhelmingly positive, in terms of the “top-six” situation or the overall Leaf forward-line picture. Not that we didn’t know that, but laying it out on paper is sobering.

Burke keeps saying he builds from the back (go back to his days as GM in Hartford when he drafted Chris Ponger, a young stud defenseman), so the forward lines are the last domino to fall in building his kind of team, we are to believe.

We’ll see.

Of course, hopeful Leaf fans want to believe that trading the aforementioned defenseman whose name starts with a “K” in the next few days could bring in that much-desired forward.

While he is a high-end defenseman in terms of his puck moving ability, he now is in the last year of his contract. Who is going to offer a top forward with a reasonable contract in return for a guy who will be gone at the end of the season- and will likely earn a lot more money in a new contract?

As I’ve posted many times, the Leafs should either make a trade, or put an end to all this and commit to the guy so he can retire in Toronto and stop wondering if they really want him. If you want a player to be his best, he needs to really know the coaching staff and management are behind him. And that’s obviously not the case in Toronto—unless they re-sign him long-term, and tell him, and mean it, that he’s not going anywhere. Then we might see him play like he did in the Quinn years—not perfect in front of his own net, for sure, but a fine defenseman otherwise.

No comments:

Post a Comment