Maple Leafs’ Bottom Six Forwards


A mess, but an opportunity for improvement

When a team bottoms out the way the Maple Leafs did, naturally there is going to be a lot of anger directed towards the team and its players. Next, factor in the manner in which the team failed to make the playoffs — giving up the most shots ever over an 82-game season and plummeting during to an eight-game losing streak in March, prior to which they were ninth place in the entire league. Then, have it all take place in the tempestuous Toronto hockey market. It goes without saying there is going to be a lot of noise and irrational things said. 

It has been my contention over the last few weeks that there are more than a few good pieces in place and that this team isn’t as bad as it seems on the whole. They still sorely lack a real horse at center and their defense needs work, to which I am not oblivious, but if we look at the rest of the Leafs roster and the pieces in place there are quite a few quality players here and even some nice tradable assets. Knowing that,  there are some low-fruit-hanging options for management to pick that, if done correctly, will get them back to the playoffs for next season. 

Over the next few weeks (because these pieces take a lot of time), I plan on exploring a few of them with the hope of: 

  1. Highlighting what should be relatively easy weaknesses to correct.
  2. Show that this team isn’t nearly as far off as many appear to believe.
  3. Provide an offseason view/perspective on this team to keep in mind throughout the summer.

First up is the Leafs’ depth problem. 

When the Leafs made the playoffs in the shortened season, their 7-8-9 forwards according to total raw ice time alone (and excluding Lupul because he didn’t play enough) were Jay McClement, Clarke MacArthur and Leo Komarov, with Matt Frattin just on the outside looking in (he, too, missed a lot of time).

The production the Leafs got from these players was, in retrospect, very underrated. Prorating what they posted over 82 games, this is the kind of production the Leafs received from their 7-8-9 forwards during the truncated 2012-13 season:

Jay McClement141529
Clarke MacArthur162541
Leo Komarov81018

Compare that to the 82-game prorated totals of the Leafs’ 7-8-9 forwards in 2013-14:

Jay McClement4610
David Clarkson7815
Nikolai Kulemin111223

Having felt they lost depth last summer, I asked Scott Gordon about these issues in our summer interview series: 


AP: Upfront you added Bolland Clarkson, and subtracted Grabovski, MacArthur, Frattin and Komarov. Are you concerned about losing depth?

SG: Well I think with adding Bolland and Clarkson those two players are probably guys that are going to fit our style of play more consistently, with the exception of Komarov. Komarov was a guy we would have loved to have back but obviously he got a good deal in Russia and has to do what’s best for him. But the style of play of Bolland and Clarkson play fits our team identity and we’re excited about them.[/quote_box_center]

Of course, points don’t tell the whole story. Originally, Raymond was supposed to be a third liner on the Leafs but Raymond stepped up and played well when Clarkson was suspended for the first 10 games. There was a legitimate hope that when Clarkson returned it would create the kind of depth good teams possess; Clarkson was supposed to be a top six forward and that would have pushed the productive Raymond down the line-up.

Alas, Clarkson was an unmitigated disaster. There’s no other way to put it. He was leapfrogged by Raymond and in turn became a third liner on the team. 

Beyond that, Dave Bolland got injured. Without question, he would have helped the Leafs if he was healthy all season, but depth isn’t depth if it relies on one player.

Bozak was the top six forward that missed the most amount of hockey last season for the Leafs and he only missed 29% of the schedule. The season prior, by comparison, the Leafs top six forward that missed the most time was Joffrey Lupul, who was out for 67% of the year. If Lupul was healthy in 2013 that would have pushed Grabovski out of the top six for the season; he put up a 27 point pace in 2012-13, which would have made the Leafs depth scoring look even better on the whole. That’s the kind of depth the Leafs had a season ago.

Beyond goals-assists-points, the Leafs’ received depth contributions in other areas last season. Jay McClement was a big part of a successful PK, which this season got run over. When McClement was scoring at a good clip and killing penalties, it was justifiable to play him as much as they did; this past season, he did not help the PK nor score much and that significant drop off should have bumped him down the line-up. And yet, he remained a top 9 staple and it hurt their bottom line.

Leo Komarov was able to play a regular shift up and down the line-up, contribute a little offensively, and provide a physical spark. He was also a key contributor on the penalty kill and was able to draw penalties. Komarov was second on the team in penalties drawn in 2013 and drew six more penalties than he took that season. Comparably, Clarkson was fourth on the team in penalties drawn in 2013-14, but he took so many that he was actually a -10 in that category. Add that to the fact that Clarkson didn’t contribute at all on any special team units and the Leafs clearly downgraded here last season, too.  

To give you a look at how the Leafs 7-8-9 forwards compared league wide this past season, and without prorating point totals, I charted below the 7-8-9 forwards of every team in the league. 

**Note: Raw total ice time was my main indicator of ranking forwards. Ultimately, line combinations and roles dictate how a player does in their ice time, but the total number of ice time is ultimately indicative of a player’s contribution to a game and rank in their forward group. I generally tried to use at least a 40-game cut off to indicate a 7-8-9 forward. I didn’t include deadline pick-ups who played 20 some odd games with a team, but would include them on their original team as a general indicator of what a team was using over the course of the majority of their season (Tuomo Ruutu is with Carolina, for example). I’m sure someone will argue me about one or two of these players, but some of these decisions were tough and I tried to use my best judgement at the end of the day.

TeamsPlayersTOIGamesGoalsAssistsPointsTotal PPG
New JerseyRyder15:46:00821816340.34
San JoseNieto14:04:00661014240.35
St. LouisTarasenko15:10:00642122430.5

By my calculations, the Leafs had the lowest PPG in the league between their 7-8-9 forwards. The combined 41 points they contributed was beat by single individuals on good teams and, by this study, the Leafs had depth worse than that of the lottery teams they ultimately finished in the standings surrounded by.

To put it into perspective, the Sabres had a combined 202 games from their regular 7-8-9 forwards and they combined for 15 goals. The Leafs had a combined 211 games and netted 18 goals. One of those Sabres three forwards, Ville Leino, didn’t score a goal all season. 

Circling back to the Scott Gordon interview from the summer, Gordon also stated:

[quote_box_center]SG: Yeah. The makeup of the team is a little bit different. Last year we had what would probably be considered three lines of scoring, maybe not as much depth on each line as far as scoring numbers. Whereas this year our top six is all guys who have had pretty good track records of scoring goals so hopefully that has the same effect as it did last year.[/quote_box_center]

In the summer, the Leafs sacrificed offense in an attempt to get better defensively. The problem was, with Bolland out, they not only didn’t get better defensively, they got worse offensively, too. 

I highlighted how the Leafs roster construction is flawed in an end-of-year Notebook. Their top two lines can’t play defense, and their 7-8-9 forwards aren’t nearly good enough defensively to handle the tough minutes. As much as this is an indictment on the 7-8-9 forwards, it should also serve notice of how a team badly needs to receive good two-way play out of at least one of their top two lines to make life easier on the depth forwards when trying to work the match-up game.

This, of course, speaks nothing of what the Leafs were doing with their fourth line.

Three players played over 15 games in a fourth line role and did not contribute a single point (54 games for Orr, 27 for McLaren, 18 for Smithson). D’Amigo and Ashton combined for 54 games and 4 points. Holland (11 in 43), Bodie (10 in 47) and Smith (9 in 27) were at least reasonable contributors. To say nothing of the 12 in 23 Bolland gave the Leafs in his limited time here. 

Looking at the Leafs through this prism really confirms what was pretty evident all season: They lived and died by their top forwards, and if they didn’t score the Leafs weren’t going to win. By that token, some of the criticism the top players are receiving is unfair when they definitely played too many minutes and had pretty well the worst support cast in the entire league (no depth scoring, no help on the PK, weren’t good defensively). 

With the entire bottom six open for change and new additions, the Leafs have a big opportunity to remake the bottom of their line-up with players that either contribute offensively, defensively, or hopefully even both. Last year, they weren’t getting that from pretty well anyone in the bottom of their line-up and as the season wore on the top players were continuously gassed before they finally crumbled with nothing left to give.

The Leafs aren’t a bottom six away from contending –- still a need a top six 6 C and a top 4  D — but when we look at the scope of what they got from their bottom lines compared to the rest of the league it really paints a picture of how bad their bottom six was in 2013-14, and how making some smart, cheap signings to properly fill out their roster could really elevate this team. 

In fact, this will be a nice segue into the second piece of low-hanging fruit on the tree of improvement: The Marlies

  • Great Dane

    Anthony – excellent piece.

    Simply putting numbers on a catastrophe of a season from management and coaching staff. I will not even start talking about the 4th line and how awful that was to watch.
    Leafs need a retooling behind the bench and on the ice. If Nonis stays RC needs to go. On the ice get Komorov back asap play more of the Marlies.
    Move some previous core pieces including Phaneuf, Lupul, Franson and Reimer.  Draft twice in Top 10 this year.

    If possible get Stastny and J Staal so Kadri could be put on the third line.

  • jon

    I was hoping you were going to Segway into the marlies.lookin forward to our depth being bolstered by the boys there Holland damigo ashton, later leivo carrick broll mckegg kozun macwilliam grannberg percy, and the future(brown, finn). obviouoslly not all wil make it but many will compete, so at least there is decent depth being groomed

  • jon

    how could I forget andreas Johnson and carter vrheaege had a nice year as well

  • Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs

    Nice write up and yet with lines such as “the Leafs had the worst supporting cast” Carlyle is seen as the problem on here. I have been saying all the time, Elbow grease does not polish turds to make diamonds. Bring Babcock in and he will scratch his head and wonder what the F*ck hes supposed to do with these clowns.
    The measure of the Leafs is the lack of real talent and this has sod all to do with the coach and is the sole responsibility of the GM.
    Carlyle stays

  • Great Dane

    @jon GIve those kids a chance some will take it, some won’t.  They will play with fire and passion, something the Leafs really need.

  • Great Dane

    Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs Don’t agree RC played Orr, McLaren and Smithson not Nonis.

    however we do agree that Nonis should never ever have given him the opportunity to use those players.

  • Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs

    Great Dane  
    G – Bringing kids in if versed in teh Toronto way of playing is always a good idea and great for the fan base BUT when the team is full of inexperienced winners (losers in other words) who have never had guidance themselves added to the fact Toronto has no style of play imparted on them by our farmer team (Marlies)(reason why Shanni was brought in) then bringing these kids in, wet behind the ears we will see them struggle and make very little impact.
    Consider Detroit. Do you think Jurco Tatar and co areany more skilled than our youngsters. I think they are on a par BUT they play the Detroit way. When things dont go right for them or things are a little slow they press reboot and start up knowing the core ideas of Wings hockey and dont panic. Our boys return to the bench completely lost and all they can get from the coach (not his fault as he is talking Carlyle hockey to Wilsons men) is more instructions that they cant get to grips with as the senior players are also not the players and dont lead by example.

  • Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs

    Great Dane Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs 
    And the option was who?
    It takes a very brave coach to break out of a slump without tried and tested players – those that can bring energy to a game.
    Think in terms european soccer. Which manager when having difficulty beating oppositions leaves his strikers on the bench or his tough takling midfielder.
    Win and its a master stroke. Lose and your necks on the block as well as demoralising the youngster.
    I have to say the youngsters at Toronto are poorly versed in how to play hockey in the style of Carlyle before making the big team and also not exactly world beaters to boot. I doubt they would make much of an impact. And even though you mention Orr he played a couple of minutes a night – if that. What could any youngster do in a couple of minutes. Unless youre saying take time away from a Kadri or Lupul or maybe even Kessel.

  • Great Dane

    Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs Couple of comments. 
    1) Yes – starting taking some ice time away from Kessel and the first line. They are not good at playing 20+ minutes.
    2) European soccer and my favorite example is Ajax Amsterdam Since Rinus Michel (late 60’ties early 70’ties – Cruyff era) they have played the same system – never changed. They buy players to fit the system and they hire coaches that fits/plays that system.
    3) We have Wilson “players” fast and puck moving and then Burke hires Carlyle !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!     What a mistake.
    If you trade for Kessel you don’t get a coach like Carlyle. Chiarelli figured that out and traded Kessel. It was a great deal for Boston and an even better for Leafs.
    But for crying out laud – don’t try to to play Boston hockey with Kessel, Bozak, Kadri etc.

  • WendelGilmour

    That’s completely backwards. The Maries have a system which all players are made to play, if you don’t Spott sits them. The problem is the Leafs have the same system but RC let’s some do as they please with no consequences, and in fact gives some of these same players a ton of ice time. Very bad message to the team.

  • Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs

    Great Dane Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs 
    Cant disagree with anything you write there other than the fact you would have to be a very brave coach to reduce Kessels minutes and give more to an Ashton or Holland and take away your pugilist. How would people react if we then went on to lose that game with Kessel playing only 16 minutes.
    Like I said yesterday if the reason for sacking Carlyle is not making the play offs and giving minutes to guys he would otherwise not give minutes to then I think its unfair as Nonis is the culprit. BUT if Shanny decides Carlyles style of hockey is not what he envisages then Im fine with it.
    But why did we throw out Wilson then?
    And now we have some Carlyle playersin place how would they fair with Wilson 2.0
    We cant keep making changes, we have to say this is it and stick with it. The coach should get sacked for not doing his job, not because hes hired as a carpenter and told to fix motors for a living.

  • Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs

    Im not sure Carlyle is letting them do as they please but maybe there is no point muddying the waters and over coaching some players who obviously dont fit his plan on how hockey is played.
    Now if Carlyle isnt the way we want to play the hockey I can accept that. If we are going to take a new direction and stick with that as the Toronto Maple Leafs ethos then Im good. But Nonis picks the players. Nonis was present and had input when Carlyle was hired AND has had two years to change Carlyle if it wasnt what Nonis wanted in the first place. No matter how you cut it, all blame leads back to Nonis.

  • Reversethecurse13

    Wow, write-up really opened my eyes. Probably because i stopped playing fantasy hockey many years ago. But, holy shit.
    4 stages of reading this article:
    1. Unless you have elite management, and even they make mistakes, you will deal with errors which the team can improve upon: it’s something to be optimistic about for next year.
    2. Some surprises around the league: Leino 0 goals (are you serious?!), players like Kopecky, Ruutu, having down years; players like R. Smith, Soderberg, Perrault (and many others), having big years; missing out on Colborne’s production (in light of Smithson, for instance).
    3. “This, of course, speaks nothing of what the Leafs were doing with their fourth line.” baahahaha, i am seriously in stitches, laughing my ass off about this. Because it’s so hilariously tragic! Which is why…
    4. Not only do we need to Fire Carlyle, but i’m thinking Nonis needs the boot just as badly.

  • maple1967leafs

    This whole 3rd line thing would have been completely different had Clarkson lived up to expectations and Bolland stayed healthy

  • Reversethecurse13

    maple1967leafs  i think you’re missing the point. It’s the 3rd line thing and the 4th line thing. Kulemin 20 points? McClement 10 points?
    yea, let’s blame Clarkson…

  • maple1967leafs

    Reversethecurse13 maple1967leafs  im not blaming anyone just stating a fact,had Clarkson lived up to expectations and Bolland stayed healthy we would have had a pretty good 3rd line

  • Reversethecurse13

    CanuckUKinToronto  Surely if we gave Ashton 7-8-9 minutes we could expect him to produce Kulemin’s 20 points (and #7 ice/g).
    It just would have been nice to have moved Kulemin for something in return. (Does his agent really think he’s going to get more opportunity from another team that will be any good?)

  • The_Polish_Cannon

    Nonis went all in on Carlyle last year and it set this team back a lot

  • Burtonboy

    Fuck me what a god dam mess that team was . Only a moron refuses to play his rookies when you have these kind of issues . Make no wonder we collapsed the way we did . It was a perfect storm waiting to happen . So yeah lets trade Kessel and Dion . That’s sure to fix the problem .

  • Reversethecurse13

    maple1967leafs Reversethecurse13  No, but injuries happen, and even if Clarkson put up 30 points, I sincerely doubt it would have made much of any difference with Bolland still out.

  • Uncle Otis

    Love your write ups Anthony,but bottom six stats aside, but from a coach’s eye perspective I will simply ask:
    Do you believe the core of this team has what it takes to win it all?
    We are linked long term to Dion and Kess with large numbers committed,and to a lesser extent, Bozie,Lups and Clarkson and JVR
    Now unless we think this group can be slightly altered and complimented in short order to suddenly transform themselves, it appears to me that its time to cut bait. 
    I think after watching the best teams play PLAYOFF hockey that we aren’t as close as your numbers/beliefs wish to convey
    I also believe this is why we faltered down the stretch..after a marathon stretch of mediocre effort,teams begin to bear down the last 20 games to make the push..and we wilt with this group. 
    I think you are accurate in saying with additions/subtraction this core could make the playoffs next year…but win it all?
    Not a chance..any team in the West would eat this team alive 
    Aiming to be 16th out of a 30 team league is no great accomplishment with the clock ticking on our core.
    Lets shake this core up enough to go after Ekblad and Bennett
    The alternative is several years of mediocrity..only to start over again.

  • Reversethecurse13

    CanuckUKinToronto  Kulemin went from “definitely keep” to “gotta let him go” in a year or less. From 23 points in 48 games to 20 point in 70 games…and to think we almost had mike richards for kaberle and kuly

  • The_Irv

    Great article. This teams bottom six was one of the biggest issues. The top line was being relied on far too much for all the production.
    Sure we need some crucial pieces (center, and D) but the role players on this team need to be more defined. Maybe that comes from UFA or some of the rookies with the Marlies

  • Leafbites

    Uncle Otis  Time to nuke, Uncle O–this core is rotten and play with less gumption than my kids in the driveway.

  • Leafbites

    Uncle Otis  Thanks AP, great work as usual.

  • Uncle Otis

    Keeping them ensures more of the same..until they too are spent
    I don’t blame Nonis for locking them up like he let the assets walk for nothing would be unthinkable
    But they are ASSETS BB
    How often have you heard a team willing to deal the top pick for a high paid scorer?
    This is a unique opportunity to right the listing boat with a future #1 Stud
    Dare to be different and take chances

  • Uncle Otis

    Leafbites Uncle Otis
    I watch the dogged pursuit of the western teams four lines all over the ice and simply watch in awe.
    We aren’t even in their league
    Is this all/simply coaching?
    Says here no way.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Great analysis Anthony, but I cannot accept the Leafs are anywhere close from mattering.  Improving the centre position and find8ing a top flight Dman (or 2) is just too daunting a task. 
    But you are asbsolutely right that the Marlies need to be the source of the bottom 6.  The Leafs lack of effort speaks to the need to have young hungry players out there  – players who not only can be molded and trained to play a two way game, but inspire (or embarrass) the top half of the roster to push themselves.
    I’m all for a systematic rebiuld, starting with a jettison of Raymond, Kulimen, Franson, Reimer, Bolland and maybe Gunnarsson.  Trade Kessel for Florida’s first round pick.  Put Lupul on the first line – on right wing – (will you play right wing on the first line pleae Joffrey??).  If he does well, unload Lupul at the trade deadline. Get a good pick next year.  3 top 10 first round picks in 2 years (including the 1st overall this year) would rejuvenate the franchise IMHO.  Build around thoe picks, the current stable of prospects, Bernier, Kadri, Rielly, Gardiner, JVR.  And yes, Phaneuf.

  • ShiftyD

    I don’t disagree that we have some good players at all but they aren’t good together. We have a horrible mix in all the wrong places. We have total creative freedom to reshape the entire bottom 6 due to all of the spots being free of contracts. The top 6 is a bad mix and they are all under contract, 5 of the 6 for multiple years. To correct it is a huge job and when mixed with all of the spots in the bottom that should be changed, whew boy, that is a lot of work.

    Not convinced this management group has what it takes to a) do it b) do it right.

  • Burtonboy

    Uncle Otis Burtonboy Its also a time when knee jerk reactions can set you back yrs and yrs. Don’t have a lot of time to discuss this because I have to drive to Moncton this morning for a Doctors appointment so lets just agree to disagree ……..for now .

  • MaxwellHowe

    Good for him.  Read the other day how Subban, after being a six round pick by Belleville in the OHL draft, promised he would make the team.  Noone took him seriously.  And here we are.

  • Burtonboy

    CanuckUKinToronto  Love his attitude but how realistic this is remains to be seen

  • Uncle Otis

    Burtonboy Uncle Otis
    Let me simply ask you this before the long drive;
    What would you rather build a team around;
    A) a #1 stud D (albeit potentially..but great potential)
    B) A prolific high scoring winger
    This is an opportunity I cant see letting slip through our fingers BB
    Hope Shanny sees it the same

  • MaxwellHowe

    Wish you and I could have Shanny’s ear for 5 minutes.

  • Uncle Otis

    I think he’s smart enough to see what we see
    Only question is will Tallon deal “in division” or will we be beat on an offer
    If his wish list is as outlined,Kessel is very attractive bait

  • Uncle Otis

    Great plan Max…all in

  • Uncle Otis

    We need convincing
    Starts soon

  • MaxwellHowe

    Watch out for the Flyers – lots of assets and desperately in need of a defensive upgrade.  Holmgren could offer a lot for a shot at Ekblad.

  • mcloki

    Great read AP. Morning gents.

  • Uncle Otis

    Good point Max..Flyers would LOVE an EK
    Kids already as big/bigger than Dion and skates far better.
    Often likened to a young Shea Weber by temperament.
    I saw him play a lot,and while I didn’t see young Dion/Shea..this kid is a sure bet imo.
    Flyers don’t have a Kessel..or a Randy
    Tallon can have them both :)

  • Uncle Otis

    Morning Loki…waiting on the author :)
    Tough watch/listen last night..from the ice to the three amigos

  • Mind Bomb

    Morning Folks, and thanks Anthony, Fire Gordon ! lol

  • Uncle Otis

    Mind Bomb
    Morning MB 
    #where’s the bat man

  • Burtonboy

    Uncle Otis Burtonboy I think we already have out # 1 dman in Reilly . In fact in the not too dictant future our d corp should be in pretty decent shape with Percy ,Finn ,Granberg and McWillian waiting in the wings . We need a centerman more then anything else and like Anthony said in his article we need a complete retool of our botton six . Trading Kessel leaves another huge hole to fill . Anyway I’m off to see the Doc

  • Uncle Otis

    Burtonboy Uncle Otis
    Don’t text and drive :)
    Good luck with the quack

  • Uncle Otis

    Possible Methods to get Ekblad in preferred order
    1) Kess
    2) Gards and Lups
    3) JVR
    4) #8 and ______________

  • Leafbites

    Uncle Otis  And then dangle Dion to Edm for #3 and get our centre the way all other top flight teams get their franchise centre.

  • Great Dane

    Uncle Otis Move Phaneuf for 1st overall + kulikov

  • Mind Bomb

    Uncle Otis MaxwellHowe  

    Sign Statsney 

    Trade our 8 for a top D man ( OEL would be nice )

    Re-sign Kulie

    Play a 3rd line Centered by Kadri, flanked by two hungry kids, Ashton at least, Kadri needs to lead a line, be the Man, on a Line, not defering to Lupul

    Have a 4rth line centered by Holland, flanked by wingers who can Play, D’amigo maybe

    Roll 4 lines, depth scoring.

    MTL is doing it with Depth scoring, and Goaltending.

    We can do better then that !

  • Cameron19

    Burtonboy CanuckUKinToronto  Sadly, commentary like this will just become joke material for this board if he doesn’t deliver….which he likely won’t.