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As the Maple Leafs rebuild their “bottom nine”, what’s the realistic ceiling for these players?

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?


  1. I happen to like what Bozak brings to the table as a top 6 forward and think he really can settle into the top 6, despite those who think he would thrive on the 3rd line (and I was one of those 2 years ago). I believe he may still have a little more 'ceiling' to his game (coming out of the college ranks skews his NHL development to an older framework all around). I believe he still has room to 'top out' over the next few years and he also seems like the kind of player with the potential for a fairly long stay at a good level. Given our mix of players, I don't mind him on the top line, but would not hesitate to try others if they raise their level (or become available).

    Of course, his linemates are easily top 6 players, so we are left with Kadri, who I believe will round into a more consistent member of the club, and we hope to see a better mix with Lupul having a better season, too. It may be worth trying a Lupul switch with JVR (for 5 on 5 at least). It wouldn't hurt Kessel and it may help Kadri to try that out.

    Of course, it is at this point that the real question marks arise... Clarkson will thrive with the right conditions, but I see him as a wonderful(-ly overpaid) 3rd liner. In answer to your question, "Could he play effectively on the team’s second line?" I would say, only in the right situation that doesn't include our current 2nd line players.

    Kontiola intrigues me as I wait to see what he can do back in the North America and Booth has potential, if his concussive past has 'settled down' and his synapses begin firing on all cylinders.

    Nylander is another potential protected scoring line guy, if his game translates to North America, though I think we should expect some AHL time providing the transitional opportunity, but he does seem to have the talent to be cast in a top 6 role.

    Who knows if Holland, Frattin or even Ashton can put it together as a top 6'er...

    So much wait and see, though I like that the depth seems to be on the upswing... nevertheless, the proof is in the pudding!

    I think that the '3rd line' may have a more significant defensive/checking role against the other teams' top scoring lines, so in that sense Komarov and Clarkson could well be viewed as an important part of 6 players, just not in the traditional sense of a line with some scoring potential. It is this part of the team's makeup (and potential deployment) that seems to create the most confusion on the subject in my estimation.

    I do think there is more potential for balance, but the uncertainty regarding the mix (not to mention whether some of these guys will 'recover' the game they were once 'known for') seems to be the overarching question that lies at the forefront of this season's reserved 'observational' approach to the team. I'll be as happy as any Leaf fan if it all comes together (of course, then we'll have a lot of work to do, keeping all those proven spare parts :)

    1. Good to get your thoughts as always, InTimeFor62. Lots of question marks, but some possibilities, too!

  2. Great and thoughtful Micheal. I have always been of the opinion that the Leafs have 1.5 really great second lines. I have always thought Kessel a first liner but never seen him as a guy that makes his line mates or team all that much better. For the Leafs to have a great first line they need a Gilmour, Sakic or Stevie Y kinda guy that inspires, drags, cajoles or whatever the the rest of the team to greater performance and ACCOUNTABILITY. Kessel has a wicked shot but no one listens to him. JVR is a legit first liner but he too inspires few.

    As to the second line, a couple of years ago I thought we were set. Lupul, Kadri, and Grabo. What happened? I still like Lupul and Kadri and think there is upside on the line really no matter who plays with them if.... Lupul stays healthy and Kadri works his game harder than his ego. Dont get me wrong i like his confidence but he needs to stow it a bit in favor of greater modesty.

    As for the rest, i think the upgrades are either shuffling the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic or we could be modestly surprised as we were with Mason (not sure why we let him go?). I dont like the way the bottom six have been coached. The younger players are not given the chance to play in a stable context for an extended period (i.e., not shuffled around and given decent ice time). I could be wrong here cause i am too busy to check the stats! Holland for example needs a decent and long look at 3rd centre....

    Finally, I must say i am not sure what the profile of the bottom six is going to look like. Seems like they have a mixed bag,.... are we going to grit and shutdown or a bit more talent.... it almost seems like the Leafs are going to wait and see who emerges and then fit a strategy to match....

    Overall, I dont think there been much of a change up front. It is my contention that we need a true offensive leader and not just a couple of guys that get lots of points on a team that probably wont make the playoffs (and if they do its because of awesome goal tending.....)

    1. I was nodding along throughout your right on the mark post, Anon. Thanks for chiming in today.

    2. Spot on, with your list of past giants of the game, that not only played important first-line roles, but also had enough sandpaper that those around them didn't dare take a night off either. Gilmour, Sakic and Stevie all had that intangible beyond their God given talents, which was a work ethic that probably put a lot of lesser players around them in awe. Not exactly easy to coast on a shift as a third-liner, when Dougie is waiting at the bench, toothless, injured (usually) and out performing the vast majority of players in the league. The Leafs' current roster doesn't appear to have "that guy" on any of their four lines, an unstoppable workhorse that doesn't always stuff a bunch of pucks in, but elevates everyone from pure work ethic. Think of the Kings, Bruins and Hawks, and for each of those teams it's not to difficult to make a short list of "that guy".

      Getting to your actual list, I'd like to see what Peter Holland has in him, with more minutes, and a nightly spot on the roster. He's a 15th overall pick that the Leafs didn't give up a boatload for, so treat him like he was YOUR 1st round pick, and see what the 23 year old has in him, with a slightly heavier workload. Sadly, Carlyle really worries me, as he seems to completely make up his mind on players during introductory handshakes, and many youngsters don't seem to thrive under him. Just being a perpetual hard-ass, with no constructive criticism is the stuff of the past.

    3. @anonymous I agree with you about Lupul and Kadri, but disagree totally about Kessel. Lupul played at a 1.01 point a game pace 3 seasons ago playing primarily with Kessel and has dropped to .77 a game since. JVR was .50 before coming to the Leafs and has been .72 PG with, again playing mostly with Kessel. Kessel is not only one of the highest scoring players over the past few seasons, he makes the other players on his line better, as well.

  3. Some of the most compelling top 6 players might not be with the team...yet.

    Last, year Josh Leivo scored 23 goal in 59 games in his first AHL season, before he was even 21.

    23 goals for a young AHL rookie is rather impressive. He is up to 6'2" now and could fill out to 210-215 lbs. That combination of size, skill and ability to work a corner could easily make him a bonafide second line right winger.

    At left wing we have Andreas Johnson, just 19 years old. At the IIHF World Junior Championships, Johnson was voted one of Sweden’s Best Players selected by tournament coaches. He then went on to earn the Swedish Hockey leagues rookie of the year. The Swedish league is quite difficult and he was playing against full grown men, so he is much father along than people might think. Currently playing in the Champions Hockey League, (again against men) he has 11 points, second in the tournament. He will play for the Marlies next year and probably the Leafs a year after that.

    Finally, I think William Nylander has the raw talent to be a number 1 or 2 center. I am thinking he plays for the Marlies this year and if he does well, they will sneak him up for a look.

    These three could change the high end talent of the Leafs rather quickly. Leivo is right on track...and you don't play for Sweden in international competition without being a high end talent.

    1. I always appreciate your input, DP, in part because you are looking ahead and provide a glimpse into a hopeful future!

  4. Hi Michael,

    we do not have a lot of second line guys, of course not.

    But let's move first to the additions of last season: Bolland, a third line player who has only played 15 healthy games here in a fashion you could not have expected him to repeat.
    Raymond, not more than a third line player too, who managed to score 19 goals. He had a 1 Million $ contract. And than Clarkson who gets more than 5 Million for another 6 years ( god help us ) who is 30 now and will get worse every year.
    The Leafs really thought Bolland and Clarkson would turn the world upside down.
    This will haunt us for years as well as other bad contract decissions. Let's hope they will be smarter with the decissions ahead.

    No we do not have alot of second line guys, because we have upgraded our bottom six for cheap money. You have to pay real second line players if you want some. But the Leafs choose to pay a bottom six guy over 5 Million.

    We have a lot of third and fourth line guys now, at last. But not again, because only having three lines with two lines playing bad and not producing enough really broke our neck.
    I do not like the word replaceable in this context because very good players a hard to replace, no matter on which line they play.

    We have three real top six forwards: Kessel, Lupul and JVR. And we have a very big problem at center.
    Which of the bottom six turn out to be high end remains to be seen, because we do not know what they will bring. Komarov playing on the fourth line will be high end.

    We lack quality at center but our bottom six are way, way better than last year.

    Bozak is by no means a first line center although I do like him, but the first line has to be far more of a threat and the reason they are not is the center. It would be wise to change the lines completely
    this year.

    Kadri is not a second line center in the moment, as well as Bozak not a first liner, and it is not about his 50 Points.

    No, Clarkson is not more than a third line winger but on wich line someone plays has a lot to do with, if he fits there and not if he belongs there by birthright.

    The Frattin trade raised my eyebrowes. I like him and he was not bad when he played here but I did not really understand. They said he could play the second line because of the chemistry with Kadri but I am with you, it sounds like a stretch. I do not even have him in my top tweleve.

    I trust the Leafs are better know with their young players than they were a few years ago. If they decide he can stay with the leafs there will be no reasonable doubt. If there are doubts they will send him back to Sweden where he can develop while playing against men in a very good league. Or he will stay with the Marlies, but only if they think he can step in if needed.
    I do not think they will risk the Kadri yo-yoing again. Not while Shanahan is at the helm.

    Booth has had a not so nice career, that is why he is so cheap. But he has potential.

    At least now we have a lot of third and fourth line guys, some thing we really missed last year. You make it sound like it is a bad thing to have third and fourth line guys. But today you need to roll four lines and you need it to bring new guys from the Marlies in. Watch the teams that develop their talents well. They introduce them first on their bottom two lines and if they are good enough they can play higher in the lineup. But you can only do that if your third and fourth line functions, there is no good way to introduce young players in an environment like they had last year.

    But there is one top six guy in that bunch. It is difficult to say how this things really play out and the Leafs had so much of bad luck with their transactions in the past years that I do not dare to say it, but I watched enough games of Kontiola now that I can say he has it all. He can skate, he can score, he has a terriffic pass, he sees the ice well he can win a faceoff and he can conduct a line on the olympic level, that says enough.

    Of course the skill level on our bottom six is better!!! Much, much better! Is that a question?


  5. But there is one top six guy in that bunch. It is difficult to say how this things really play out and the Leafs had so much of bad luck with their transactions in the past years that I do not dare to say it, but I watched enough games of Kontiola now that I can say he has it all. He can skate, he can score, he has a terriffic pass, he sees the ice well he can win a faceoff and he can conduct a line on the olympic level, that says enough.

    Of course the skill level on our bottom six is better!!! Much, much better! Is that a question?

    The reality of the cap NHL is: you have a few bona fide stars and then you have your well developed guys from the minors stepping in on your bottom six that complement a few proven pieces. That is the way to win. But you have to draft and develop well.

    1. Hi Marcus- I do like the idea of a strong bottom-six forward group, for sure. I guess I'll still have my doubts that they are a strong bottom-six until I see them in action against good teams in the regular season!

  6. I'm not too worried about the top six. For a few years now scoring goals has been the least of the Leafs' problems. With plenty of goals and great goaltending, the only thing the team really needs to become a contender is the ability to shut down the top lines of other teams. I'm optimistic about the impact acquisitions like Komarov will have.

    The Leafs might be a fair distance way from being one of those teams who is a September Cup favourite (realistically, how many teams are?), but they may not be too far from being a solid team that can win a couple of playoff rounds. And if you're one of only eight teams still standing in the spring, who knows what could happen?

    1. Fair points, Oliver. Our first two lines have indeed been able to score in recent years- offensive production is not usually an issue there. I would throw up for discussion that we also, though, need our first two lines to be very good defensively, or at least better than they sometimes have been. Really good teams typically have top players who are defensively conscientious. Thanks Oliver.

    2. Scoring is not the problem with our first two lines and they will continue to do so.
      But playing is. They don't keep the puck in the offensive zone and pressure opponents.
      They don't wear them down. They don't control the puck. They are dangerous because of speed and good passing and shooting skills. But playing better in the offensive zone makes them better defensively. It is not only their play in the defensive zone that is the problem here.

  7. I agree with your assessment of the first line - I've been a Bozak supporter all along, and he definitely works well with JvR and Kessel. After that, my crystal ball is cloudy. I didn't see much chemistry between Lupul and Kadri last year, so I'm not looking forward to seeing that pairing again. I'd rather see Holland with Lupul, if I had to pick someone. I don't see a right winger who's going to work with the Kadri/Lupul pairing, but if Frattin can find his niche, maybe he's the man. He and Kadri had some good moments a couple of years ago. We've lost 20 goals with Raymond's departure - I don't see anyone who we can expect to pick up that slack on lines 3 & 4. Perhaps it will collectively be made up by whoever's on them. (And I'm assuming we'll have four functional lines this year).
    Last year, the O'Malley glass kept varying between being half full and half empty. This year, it's about 1/3 full. The lack of a significant deal over the summer has meant that my annual rekindling of hope for the team is just embers at the moment - still glowing, to be sure, but needing the significant oxygen of improved play from the "bottom nine" to burst into flame!

  8. I think one thing we'll all be watching for at training camp, Gerund O', are the lines Carlyle throws together. Some chemistry beyond the first line would be great to see! Keep that O'Malley glass glowing, Gerund...

    1. They will at least try to break up the first line. It is most likely they won't stay together.
      And playing Lupul, who has much more playmaking skills, with Kessel is a very good idea and takes some of the burdon of Kessel while we lack a playmaking center.

  9. Hi Michael.

    I like the additions to the bottom six. The Leafs had the worst 3rd line point-wise in the league last year, an almost non-existent 4th, no true 2nd liner to play with Lupul and Kadri and an over-worked and exhausted 1st line so this is an improvement.

    A big question mark still remains for the 2nd line. The Leafs don't have that certain skilled player that naturally fits in there nor did they have that player the last two seasons, though Raymond produced well on that line.

    Nonis mentioned in an interview that the Leafs "lacked skilled players". Nonis has been with the Leafs since 2008, has he not? I'd laugh but I'm not that fond of clowns. I don't miss the two recently departed.

    Funny that it doesn't occur to Dave that he continues to point a finger directly at himself. Shanahan is smart and must be aware of it. I can not see him suffering Nonis much longer. I thought this may be an almost impossible job for Brendan Shanahan but there are people employed in this organization that are determined to make his job a whole lot easier.

    For me the biggest question still remains - Carlyle. From any of the statements I've heard recently from the head coach, he takes no responsibility for failures- leadership, lack of compete, player usage etc and rather than embrace change he seems determined to dig in his heels. I do not see Spott, in his first year as assistant, as having much influence with Carlyle so I'm hoping a more experienced Horachuk can make a difference.

    Hope-Smoke had a good post yesterday-"if it walks like a duck". I agree. A notably stubborn person pushed into a corner does not suddenly change his views, he turns and puts up a fight. I think a "goalie controversy" must take 2nd place to what may go on behind the bench this season.

    Sorry Michael. Once again I've managed to go off topic. My head is full of kittens. ( Lovely and very sweet stray Mama and 5 wee mouths to feed (shots needed and homes to find) bedded down comfortably in our garage. Mike and sisters were strays too. Fear that I may become the local Crazy Cat Lady. How do they find me every summer? Or is it me finding them? ) Colleen

    1. I tend to agree, Colleen, that it's difficult for most people to change who and what they are. In this case, Carlyle may be getting pressure from above to modify his approach, but he no doubt believes in what has been successful for him in the past, so will he really make the adjustments Shanahan wants to see?

    2. Hi Colleen,

      don't worry. Carlyle will change. I do not know if it is all forced but a lot will change.
      And at least he can change something now. It wasn't exactly the case the last season.
      He is talking about using three offensive lines, so he is moving away from a destroy and minute eating third line. And there will be other changes. They will break up the first line and will try to get more balance throughout the lineup.

    3. I should learn to avoid reading statements from the organization, Marcus, and I'd be a happier person. Read last night -Dreger saying Nonis happy to have an analytics dept.because now "they can predict the future"!! I think they need a Gypsy dept. for that. :P

  10. Michael, enjoyed this. What about the D? could you reflect on the D for a bit? Still not sure how to get my name the posts!!! Leafs Fan in Mexico

    1. Don't worry about signing in, Anon- you will be "Leafs Fan in Mexico" going forward!

      Will aim to focus on the defense in a subsequent post.

    2. I still haven't got that far either- the name on the end works for me. Welcome Leafs Fan in Mexico.
      Wondering where Jim is, Michael. Missing his posts. Colleen

    3. For those wondering how to put your name (or chosen appellation), here are some directions:


      Just below where you 'Enter your comment...'

      There is a box beside the words 'Comment as':
      click on the down arrow beside 'select profile'
      then click on 'Name/URL'
      then click on 'Name'

      That will put the cursor in that box and you can then type in your name (or 'Leafs Fan in Mexico', etc.)

      Then press 'continue'

      You will see your name/nickname in the Reply as: box, then

      carry on with 'Preview' or 'Publish' as per normal

      Trust that will help!

  11. Michael,

    Hope everyone here at VLM has had a fine summer. In answer to Colleens' question, thank you so much for asking, sometimes Jim wonders where Jim is. I didn't go anywhere, still around, just trying to take the Leafs a little less seriously in the offseason. Signing guys like Winnick and Kontiola, don't really do much for my level of enthusiasm. I guess the team is a little deeper in the bottom of the lineup, but it seems more like a shuffling of chairs, than a true re-working. The team may have gotten more skilled, but they also got older. We were always so happy about how young and promising the team is, not as much now, I suppose.

    I feel that there are now a few more capable players for Randy to play in the bottom of the lineup. Ah Randy, will he play them becomes the question. In all honesty I don't see him changing, some do and thats fine, but I think he is what he is. It would not surprise me at all to see Colton Orr in the lineup on opening night. I actually expect him to be on the team.

    Can Clarkson rebound? Yes, inasmuch as he couldn't possibly be as incapable as he showed last season. Will he put up 30 goals, or 50 points, no. He simply won't get the opportunity to play big power play minutes, or with the most skilled players on the team. It is my thought that if he gets back to playing hockey, and forgets all the sideshow crap from last year, he should score a little, and forecheck a lot, thus helping his team.

    Currently the Leafs have some talent. It has always been my thought that every one of the players on this team, is playing one notch above where I would have them on a very good team. The possible exception is Kessel, my only reservation is that he isn't a responsible defensive player and I would be reluctant to let him play against other teams elite players. The legit top 6 forwards are Kessel, JVR, Lupul(when healthy), and Bozak, maybe Kadri. The last two are kind of with caveats, Kadri is young, hope he gets better in all areas, and I'll just continue to hold my nose about Bozaks play without the puck.

    I wonder if Leiweke has finished planning the parade route? Another corporate blowhard rides in on his white horse to save the day, gets slaughtered. Quelle surpise!

    1. Great to hear from you, Jim. Hope the summer went well. I'm sure VLM readers will appreciate your input as we have for years.

  12. Another great read Micheal. In terms of the 1st line I would like to see Lupul back on it and JVR tried with Kadri for a while. The other winger on that line would have to come out of training camp. The 3rd line could be intriguing going forward as a number of new players can play both wing and center. I like the depth we have now and I think there will be a few pleasant surprises for the new guys or someone from the Marlies. One thing that has to happen is Clarkson has to be given PP time as that is where he scored most of his goals in his career years with the Devils. One more thing is the 4th line has to play around 10 minutes a game. If that happens going down the stretch should be easier on the top line with slightly reduced ice time over the season.
    My picks:
    Dion Phanuef who was solid in the beginning of last season will be solid for all of the year.
    Kadri will be more consistant
    Riley will not slump but progress
    IF they give Clarkson PP time he will score more than 20 goals (including even strength goals)

    Chaye D
    Kiwi Leafs Fan

    1. Hi Chaye (Kiwi Leafs Fan)- good to hear from you! Carlyle will certainly have more options when it comes to his third and fourth lines. I'd like to see a real energy line, able to play significant minutes and also capable of being a bit of a momentum changer, if possible.

      I agree on Riley- hopefully he will just keep getting better and better. As I wrote here recently, he strikes me as a player that won't necessarily be hit with the "sophomore slump".