Training Camp Battles: Part 4 – Top 6 Forwards
The Leafs‘ top-six forwards of 2010-11 were a mix of pleasant surprises and bitter disappointments. Most notable among the surprises was the emergence of a not-so-second line consisting of Grabovski, Kulemin, and MacArthur. This line produced at a clip well above last yearâ€™s expectations and will now be expected to repeat that success in 2011-12. The teamâ€™s best line in 2010-11 almost certainly will be held together, barring a complete collapse, and should see much stronger support from other forward lines, and the defence core, in terms of secondary scoring and a spreading out of opposing defensive specialists. Though the skill of this line has somehow managed to slip under the radar of media analysts around the league, the statistics put this trio among the more dangerous units in the league and opposing coaches have definitely noticed.
The not-so-first line also appears to be relatively settled going into the 2011-12 campaign, though there are a few battles to watch for as the season progresses. Tim Connolly, if he is able to remain healthy, could prove to be an ideal stop-gap for Torontoâ€™s top line center/Phil Kessel‘s pivot man dilemma. He is not, however, the final solution. The ideal solution will come in the form of a trade or the development of one of the Leafs two premier prospects at that position. Should Lombardi fully recover and find his peak form, he could rise to the challenge and become the player Nashville believed he could be when they signed him. It would be interesting to see how dangerous the two could be at pushing the pace if Lombardi’s world-class speed were paired with that of Kessel. Connollyâ€™s history of injuries could, at the very least, provide challengers for the top pivot role a chance to demonstrate their ability to perform at that level.
Clarke MacArthur is the real deal… but if he isnâ€™t, Nazem Kadri will slip into that role like butter on cob. In my opinion, Matt Frattin will one day be a top-six power forward, but wonâ€™t jump into it out of the gate. As a result, thereâ€™s very little chance that anyone will surprise at camp in the top six. As the season progresses, injuries, slumps, and the pressure of strong developing players down on the farm will push changes. Watch Colborne, Frattin, Kadri and Lombardi as players that will step in or change roles on the team as the season progresses; reshaping both the top and bottom six forward groups in positive ways. A near-sure thing about the top six for 2011-12 is that the opening day line-up will probably not be the same group that the Leafs end the season/enter the playoffs with. Even if none of the Leafsâ€™ prospects make huge strides, Burke has enough depth in every position, with a mix of proven veterans and up-and-coming youth, to pull off a blockbuster mid-season/trade deadline move.
As a final note, Matt Frattin is my pick for training camp surprise and wildcard. In his one and only NHL appearance, he was very possibly the best Maple Leaf on the ice. While one NHL game is a poor gauge of any playerâ€™s potential, the unanimous consensus was that Frattin looked both comfortable and dangerous. The college senior is coming off a stellar season that saw him score 36 goals and record 60 points in just 43 games. For collegiate play, these stats represent a dominant season in a league of men, rather than juniors. Looking past his extraordinary numbers last year, Frattin, by all accounts, led his team all the way to the frozen four by shear force of will; carrying the team on his back. This is indicative of Frattinâ€™s persona; a young man who has had to overcome many personal demons on his road to a contract with the Leafs. He has size, coupled with the will to use it, a nose for the puck, and a scoring touch. He was named as a Hobey Baker award finalist this past year, is a pitt-bull on the ice, and is destined to be Leaf – and a fan favourite – before long. I project him as a top-six scorer/power forward hybrid, but expect heâ€™ll have to serve time in the bottom six and/or AHL before he gets his shot at a top unit. In an ideal world, Frattin would realize his potential early, pushing Lupul to the third line with Bozak/Lombardi and Armstrong by taking over a top-six LW power forward position before the trade deadline. The depth such a move would provide, assuming Frattinâ€™s performance warranted it, would give the Leafs the ability to roll three very dangerous lines and still have the resources to put together a blockbuster trade without seriously depleting the rosterâ€™s core or prospect ranks.