Can we all agree right from the top that the hiring of Randy Carlyle signals the Leafs are back to following the top six, bottom six formula Brian Burke originally told us he would put into place?
Can we also all agree that it’s nice our General Manager and Head Coach are now on the same page, philosophically speaking?
So what exactly is a top six, bottom six mold? A few years ago Pension Plan Puppets ran this piece, which explains how each line in this system is utilized. Essentially you have a top line, a shutdown line, a scoring line and an energy line.
The one point I’ll disagree with from the article is that the 06-07 Ducks were NOT a top six, bottom six team. Nowhere has Brian Burke ever said that his model is predicated on ice-time allocation. He’s simply said that he has a top six forward group of skilled players (in Anaheim’s case McDonald, Selanne, Kunitz, Getzlaf, Perry Penner) and a bottom six group full of “plumbers” and grinders (Pahlsson, Niedermayer, Moen, Thornton, Parros, Marchant). There were six forwards who leaned more to the skill side of things, and six forwards who were more physical and defensive. Burke never said the top six sees all the ice-time and the bottom six sees it sporadically.
Those are just semantics though. The article does a nice job explaining the important parts of this model which are, again, a top line, a shutdown line, a scoring line and an energy line.
So where does that leave the Leafs as we see them right now?
Really, who becomes the shutdown line will tell us everything.
When Randy Carlyle got here he had Dave Steckel, Joey Crabb and a revolving door of players such as Nikolai Kulemin and Tim Connolly together as a shutdown line.
Now I don’t want to get into “player X is the new Pahlsson” or any other comparisons because that’s simply a foolish game.
Instead we’ll say this; if Joey Crabb is re-signed, he and Steckel did a nice job defensively and that could theoretically be two-thirds of their shutdown line right there.
More realistically, Mikhail Grabovski will be the shutdown center. We’ve arguably seen him play his best hockey when matched up against other elite players such as Evgeny Malkin and John Tavares, so it’s not a crazy idea by any means.
And frankly, just my opinion, I don’t think Steckel can keep up with the elite players in the East – the Malkin’s, Giroux’s, Backstrom’s and so on – but Grabovski has the speed and ability to play with and against those players.
Now people will say, “hold on, we just gave Grabovski $5.5 million per season and we’re going to make him a checker?” Well, if he’s playing 18-20 minutes per night against the oppositions best players, generally speaking neutralizing them, and still putting up 45-60 points, that’s a pretty damn good use of a $5.5 million player.
So let’s roll with the idea that Grabovski becomes the central figure of a shutdown line. Naturally, provided he is re-signed, Nikolai Kulemin is one of his wingers in this model. In fact, pretty well no matter what Kulemin will/should be apart of the shutdown line. He’s the teams best defensive forward.
Who goes on the other side of those two is anyone’s guess. Clarke MacArthur is obviously the incumbent and Brian Burke refused to trade him at the deadline, and said they had their second line in place at the end of season press conference. But, if we’re going to take Burke on his word at something like that I think we’d all be crazy.
Maybe more noteworthy when it comes to MacArthur is that Carlyle played him a lot once he became coach. As in, MacArthur played less than 17 minutes only once in the 16 games he played under Carlyle, and he played over 19 minutes eight times.
So maybe that’s the shutdown line right there. Or maybe they bring in someone bigger and tougher to add some grit to that shutdown unit to play with Grabovski and Kulemin? Could that be UFA Travis Moen? Or someone brought in via trade? Or even someone promoted from within? Jerry D’Amigo? Leo Komarov? Maybe even Frattin or Crabb, both of whom saw time playing with Grabovski and Kulemin?
Another benefit of Grabovski and Kulemin acting as the shutdown unit is they can score. Sami Pahlsson had 26 points the year the Ducks won the Cup (although he did have 12 points in the 21 playoff games), and Grabovski could reasonably stand to double that number, meaning that takes a lot of scoring pressure off of the labeled scoring line.
It should be noted, however, that Grabovski-Kulemin aren’t really the “plumbers” that Burke seeks for a checking line. But what else are they going to do with Grabovski? If he isn’t part of the shutdown line, then he has to be part of the top line with Kessel, which is something we’ve scarcely seen in three years together. You aren’t going to pay Grabovski $5.5 million to play, maybe, 15-17 minutes on the scoring line which is essentially the third line ice-time wise. And they certainly aren’t going to make Grabovski the top line and drop Kessel to that scoring line. Thus, reinforcing the point just made, you have to think there’s a good chance Burke looks to bring in a bit more of a “grinder” type to round out the Grabovski-Kulemin shutdown unit.
The scoring line essentially acts as the running third third line, because they’ll get the third most ice-time of any line, and they play against the oppositions third best line to try and exploit the match-up offensively speaking.
This is where current Marlies come into play.
Last season the Leafs tried to go into the year with a third “scoring” line of Nazem Kadri-Tyler Bozak-Colby Armstrong. Depending on what happens over the summer we could see something similar at the beginning of camp next year, but more along the lines of Kadri-Bozak-Frattin. Or if Bozak is traded as part of some deal to bring in a top line center, we could even see Joe Colborne in that role (this is how the Ducks groomed Getzlaf, not that I’m comparing the two).
The “scoring” line also figures to be the dumping ground for any bad contract Burke fails to move. Tim Connolly, Matt Lombardi, Colby Armstrong, take your pick. If Burke can’t move them out, and refuses to send them down on waivers – not that I’m saying either will happen, just that they are possibilities – then we know where they will end up.
Which brings us to the fourth line. The energy line. One thing we know for sure, maybe more than anything else on this roster, is that Mike Brown is the fourth line right winger. Provided Dave Steckel isn’t used in the shutdown role, he obviously stands to be the center in the role of “technically the fourth line center, but not really a fourth liner” because he will probably play more than 8-10 minutes a game.
Now the fourth line left wing spot is where it gets mildly interesting (I mean, it’s a fourth line, chances are this isn’t the key to the season). Leo Komarov seems to be the player most people are assuming will play there, but do we honestly believe Burke’s “energy” line is going to consist of a 5’11 middle-weight in Brown, a 6’6 center who doesn’t really hit in Steckel – and I know his hit count, don’t bring it up, he doesn’t hit with force out there and that’s what is important – and a 5’10 player who doesn’t really hit or fight but is a pest in Komarov?
I just don’t see it.
I don’t think that’s the kind of fourth line Burke will like. Mike Brown works extremely hard and everyone knows that, but you’d have to think Burke is going to compliment him with some size on the other wing. Not Leo Komarov or Jerry D’Amigo. Or Greg Scott.
At the very least, Ryan Hamilton is 6’2 and 220 pounds. Perhaps they gave him a look there. He played two games this season with the Leafs and didn’t look completely out of place. He laid out Brandon Prust one shift, too (around 2:05). But can he bring that energy consistently? That’s not really his game, but we’ve seen guys like Hamilton, who are a little on the older side to be breaking into the league, do whatever it takes to stay in the league.
The important thing to remember with the energy line is that it’s exactly that — an energy line. This line is deployed to change the pace of a game. So on that random Tuesday game in November when everybody is kind of sluggish, you use this line to wake everybody up and get the emotions running behind the bench. It’s not a “see a regular shift” line.
Ron Wilson liked to roll his lines and use all four of them. The top six, bottom six mold that Burke and Carlyle does not do that. The fourth line wingers for the Ducks, Thornton and May, averaged 8:26 and 9:49 per game respectively the season Anaheim won the Cup. It’s also worth noting that in this formula, Todd Marchant averaged over 15 minutes a night during the season and playoffs that year, so Dave Steckel should still figure to see quite a bit of ice-time.
This should also mean guys like Jordin Tootoo, who you have to figure will make well over a million bucks per year on the open market, maybe shouldn’t be on Burke’s wishlist if they aren’t even going to play 10 minutes a night.
Not to mention that it would be a complete waste of time for Jerry D’Amigo, or any other prospect, to be playing less than 10 minutes a night on the fourth line unless he’s going to be quickly promoted up the lineup.
And from the fourth line we go to the top line. A line that we really don’t know much about to be honest. Phil Kessel is the right winger, and that’s pretty much all we can say with certainty here. Joffrey Lupul had a great season with him, but do any of us honestly think Burke wouldn’t upgrade over Lupul in a second (Rick Nash? Not that I want to start a Nash conversation). The center position is something we have seemingly been talking about since Mats Sundin left and, well, there isn’t really much to say about it until something happens.
So what are we looking at here, right now, with what we have?
Top Line-> Joffrey Lupul-__________-Phil Kessel
Shutdown Line-> _________-Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin
Scoring Line-> Nazem Kadri-_____________-Matt Frattin
Energy Line-> __________-Dave Steckel-Mike Brown
That much we can almost say with certainty – baring a blockbuster trade of course – and we could also reasonably assume things like Tyler Bozak might be that scoring line center, or Clarke MacArthur being the other piece to the shutdown line.
One thing is for sure though, there is a clear absence of size/toughness/grit with what is laid out at the moment and I think it’s safe for all of us to think that Burke is going to bring some in, one way or another.
But it’s still only May and there’s a lot of time for things to happen. As the Leafs off-season begins to unfold, and it couldn’t come soon enough at this point, we will continue to go back and rework this model: Top line, shutdown line, scoring line, energy line.
We know what the picture of the puzzle looks like here, we just have no idea what some of the pieces are at the moment.