The Leafs are expecting to see some major improvements in their bottom six forwards over last yearâ€™s starting roster. Last yearâ€™s group failed to consistently provide any of the criteria intrinsic to bottom-six role players. Improvements to this group, as energy providers, momentum shifters, penalty killers and a source of secondary scoring, is key to the Leafsâ€™ playoff hopes in 2011-12. Though the PK made strides in front of Reimer in late season 2010-11, the thirdÂ and fourthÂ lines were very often limited to a defensive role that saw them on their heels most nights, relying on a few heart and soul players to lift the team with a strong individual effort.
Two players that were strong contributors among the â€œpick & axeâ€ forward group were Colby Armstrong and Mike Brown. Armstrong suffered the most injury plagued season of his career; sitting out for a combined 40% of the season. The energy and physicality of his play was highly visible when present, sorely missed when absent, and it was no surprise that Wilson was fond of pointing out the substantial difference in the teamâ€™s winning percentage with â€˜Armyâ€™ in the line-up. His strong forechecking is the definition of the role of effective energy players, and his work often resulted in scoring chances and the occasional goal. Given more talented linemates, with a similar work ethic, Armstrong would surely produce at a 15-20 goal pace and contribute to making a visit to the ACC a miserable experience for opposing players on a nightly basis.
A fourth line plugger, Brown too played well in his role. Not only did he hit hard on the forecheck and hold his own as a middleweight fighter, Brown also demonstrated surprisingly explosive speed and the capacity to generate a dangerous transition game. Unfortunately, Brown has and always will have limited finishing ability and failed to translate his many exciting opportunities into actual goals. Like Armstrong, Brown would certainly benefit from working with a more talented trigger man or rebound specialist in order to maximize his production. Otherwise, he did an admirable job within the context of his role.
With the exception of these two players, and the now-departed Tim Brent, the bottom six last season was a major disappointment and should be a wide open slugfest for jobs in 2011-12. Kadri, though the incumbent for the third line left wing position, will be pushing hard to crack the top line left wing position and force Lupul to earn that place. If he succeeds, he will have given Armstrong, in the form of Lupul, exactly what he needs to propel the third line to a dangerous new level. A Lupul/Armstrong combination would be deadly on the forecheck, tenacious in front of the net and capable of both offensive energy shifts and defensive shut down efforts. If he fails, and is forced to remain a third liner, it will impact Bozakâ€™s chances of winning the third line centre post. Bozak and Kadri both bring a similar style of play to the table. Placing them both on a checking/energy line may not make much sense.
As a result, the battle between Lombardi, Colborne, Bozak and Boyce for the bottom-six pivot positions should be among the best battles at camp and one that Leafsâ€™ fans can expect to run right through the season. The wild card of the equation is Lombardi. When healthy, Lombardi can reasonably compete for a top-six position on most teams in the league. That said, even if he is healthy, he is likely to have to contend with the kind of rust and conditioning issues that plagued Lupul for most of last season, and he may not reach peak performance levels until well into the 2012 portion of the campaign, if at all. However, Lombardiâ€™s speed, tenacity, and defensively-responsible play could be a perfect fit for Brownâ€™s game on the forth line; giving Lombardi limited ice and little pressure to produce while he finds his stride and timing. Should Bozak or Kadri falter in the early going, Lombardi could easily find himself centering the third line; a role in which he would likely excel as a partner to Armstrong and either of Kadri or Lupul. It should be noted that a Lupul/Lombardi/Armstrong line could be counted among the most dangerous third lines in the league.
Meanwhile, Bozak will hope to avoid sliding all the way down the depth chart from first line center last season to a fourth liner in 2011-12. Simply put, Bozak is too small and not physical enough to center an energy line unless both his wingers are big muck-it-up-in-the-corner types; the likes of Armstrong and Lupul.Â If Lupul holds his position on the first unit, Bozak may be destined for the fourth line and should see lots of ice during the penalty kill. His outlet passing ability could be dangerous when combined with the breakout speed of a Mike Brown and the net presence of Jay Rosehill. Bozak is not yet a great rebounder, but he does possess the speed and hands necessary to take occasional advantage of Brownâ€™s fairly regular lone-rush rebounds.
Just exactly what Colborne will bring to camp is a hard to predict. What does seem clear is that management has him scheduled for more seasoning in the AHL. Itâ€™s possible that â€˜Big Joeâ€™ could surprise and contend for a starting job, especially if Lombardi isnâ€™t ready to start the season, but either Boyce or Dupuis are more likely candidates for an early season job or injury stop-gap; giving Colborne the chance to see a lot more five on five and special teams ice-time with the Marlies.
Finally, both Boyce and Crabb have signed two-way contracts for another season and could make noise at camp. The coaching staff know them, their strong work ethic, and their willingness to sacrifice to win. Tim Brent broke through last year by bringing that same attitude to the table and both of the above players will be doing what it takes to demonstrate that they have learned from the Brent example.
It all comes down to Lombardi. If heâ€™s healthy, completely or partially, the training camp picture becomes as blurred as the visibility on the 401 in a January blizzard. My guess is heâ€™ll start on the LTIR and make a mid-season appearance to send a pressurized push through the line-up. Since Colborne is better off in the AHL to start, Boyce has got a decent shot at the four hole to start the season, though itâ€™s highly unlikely he holds onto it to the end, barring a trade that opens up some room down the middle. Kadriâ€™s too small to replace Lupul on the top unit but did look to be on the verge of a breakout at the end of last season. Look for him to start on the wing on the third unit and be the first in line to jump up and take advantage of injuries and slumps. Colton Orr, meanwhile, will be in it tough against Rosehill and Joey Crabb to win the final fourth line wing position.