For the first time in a long time, the Leafs are going into the season with a well-set forward group. The top six is all but guaranteed to be Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, JVR, Nazem Kadri and David Clarkson, comprising a fairly established and proficient group.
The bottom six forwards will feature Dave Bolland, Jay McClement, Nikolai Kulemin, and at least one enforcer for sure. Joe Colborne would probably have to be horrific in camp for him not to make the opening twelve at this point, which really leaves just one spot up for grabs between a host of players.
Of course, things rarely ever go exactly as planned and there are always surprises. Without further ado, here is a look at the forward group by line, with a few thoughts on each.
Expected top line: JVR-Bozak-Kessel
Analysis: Once the top line settled in, they got into a groove and played some excellent hockey. Kessel is obviously an offensive stud (tied with St. Louis for most points by a winger over the last two years). No matter what, this line is going to produce at a high level because there is an elite player on it. JVR proved to be a machine in front of the net last year, and was excellent defensively as well; if he can push for 30 goals this season, the Leafs will have a very good top line regardless of who their center is.
Potential change(s): There’s always a chance the Leafs put Lupul on this line instead of JVR. Other than that, Kessel is obviously a top line player, and the Leafs love Bozak on this line. Lupul had great chemistry with Kadri on the second line, and JVR complemented Kessel very well. Plus, JvR adds a left-hander to this line (handedness isn’t a big deal, but it’s a nice touch if you can add different dynamics). It doesn’t make much sense to break them up.
Conclusion: This line was a bit of a rollercoaster last season. Sometimes they were dominant, other times they played firewagon hockey and got hemmed in their own end. A full year together should mean more familiarity as JVR rounds into his prime, Kessel enjoys his, and Bozak chips in once and awhile. It would be a huge boost if Bozak can be a guy who plays around a 60-point pace as opposed to a 50-ish point pace. They will probably get easy defensive zone starts because of Bozak’s faceoff ability, plus ample power play time.
Expected scoring line: Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson
Analysis: This line should force teams to basically pick their poison as to whether or not they are going to put their best checkers on this trio or Kessel’s line. Kadri will probably regress a bit from last year (he was on a 75-point pace), but if Lupul actually stays healthy it will offset Kadri’s drop. Clarkson will be a force down low, in front of the net, do a lot of the dirty work, and add a new element to the top six. If I had to simplify this line, I’d say think of it this way: Kadri will skate it up ice, Clarkson will battle behind the net and in the slot, and Lupul will bury. Don’t underestimate the abilities of Kadri and Clarkson to get under the opposition’s skin, either.
Potential change(s): Unless the Leafs decide to put Lupul on the first line or Kadri defies the Bozak-Kessel friendship and steals the 1C spot, this line will be intact to start the year. If the Leafs really want Lupul on the top line, JVR could drop down to this unit and make it a very good two-way line.
Conclusion: This is going to be a very good scoring line, and the trio will eat teams up if it receives soft minutes all year long. What will be interesting to see is whether or not they get an increased role defensively as the season goes on. Toward the end of last year, Kadri started seeing match-ups against top lines defensively and competed fairly well. Plus, Clarkson is an effective two-way guy. This line will be awesome if it provides the Kessel unit with softer looks defensively; they will be whatever is better than awesome if they start playing strong two-way hockey and winning out against top lines. I expect tough offensive zone starts and lots of offense to start the year.
Expected shutdown line: McClement-Bolland-Kulemin
Analysis: Provided a move isn’t made and injuries don’t hit, it’s safe to say Bolland and Kulemin will start the season as 2/3rds of the Leafs’ shutdown line. Who the third player is on this line remains to be seen. The safe money is on Jay McClement, who played with Kulemin on this type of line for large chunks last year. Meanwhile, Scott Gordon told us they envision Colborne as a center. We know their role will be to go up against the opposition’s best all night, take defensive zone faceoffs, and be tough SOBs to play against.
Potential change(s): D’Amigo has played a shutdown role in the AHL for a few years and has been groomed for this role; he will get a look if he shows well in camp. Carter Ashton is another guy who has seen ample PK time in the AHL and might be able to stick. At this point, both D’Amigo and Ashton are a little older, physically developed, and can play against men. There’s also a chance Colborne looks so good in camp/preseason that they don’t want to leave him out of the top nine, thus throwing him on this line to get more ice time and add some offensive punch.
There’s also the complete wildcard in Mason Raymond. The first concern is whether or not they can even afford him (see: CapGeek). The second is whether he fits into the line-up. The truth is that Raymond is probably best served on the scoring line, but the Leafs are paying Lupul and Clarkson (who are both better) to score and you know Raymond isn’t going to displace them. Raymond is a good penalty killer, however, so maybe that translates well into a shutdown role; having an offensive threat on the shutdown line also isn’t a bad idea. Plus, Raymond is added scoring depth for whenever someone in the top six eventually gets hurt. For now, all we can do is guess on Raymond.
Conclusion: This is going to be a good shutdown line if Bolland can stay healthy (70+ games). But that’s a big if, because Bolland has been relatively healthy only once in the last four seasons. Beyond Bolland, we already know Kulemin is an excellent two-way player and McClement is safe and reliable. If he were to make it, Raymond could add some offensive push back to the unit and a whole different speed dynamic. I’d consider D’Amigo to be the true wildcard. D’Amigo’s been very good in the AHL, and he will be excellent in this role if his play translates to the NHL. I don’t expect this line to be suffocating defensively and negate all scoring chances, but they have the ability to prevent goals against consistently; this is a fancy way of saying they’re going to give up chances but they won’t care provided they don’t get scored on too often. If Bolland is healthy, he and Kulemin will provide some quick offense going back the other way. They will also be physical with a bit of a pest element. This could be a fun line to watch.
Expected energy line: McLaren-Colborne-Orr
Analysis: The fourth line is what it is with Carlyle: they play under 10 minutes a night, they fight, and once every so often they might chip in a goal. Colborne is a bit of an X-factor on the fourth line, and playing between McLaren and Orr would give the Leafs a massive unit that’s hopefully capable of cycling the puck a little bit. This line doesn’t have much speed, and will get exposed in open ice, but they might be able to hold their own if they keep things simple, forecheck, throw everything on net, and win battles. Contrary to popular belief, Orr and McLaren didn’t cost the Leafs much in terms of goals against, but the question is whether they can become a decent enough line to push for even 8 minutes a night. It’s one thing having a fourth line play around five minutes a night in a 48 game season. It’s another thing to do that over 82 games.
Potential change(s): Odds are McLaren and Orr start the year on the Leafs fourth line, but the Leafs did sign Troy Bodie, who can fight and play a little, plus they have David Broll turning pro. Maybe Broll emerges quickly in camp and gives the Leafs no choice but to keep him up. What Broll can do is bring energy and excitement on the forecheck as he outworks opponents and causes turnovers. That kind of skillset usually shows well in a short set of games like preseason.
Trevor Smith could also be an intriguing option as he is on a cap friendly deal (550K), and is a proven scorer in the AHL (315 points in 421 games) with a lethal shot and some size (6’1).
There’s an outside chance one of the aforementioned AHL grinders (D’Amigo, Ashton) steals a spot on the fourth line, but an additional transaction would probably be needed to facilitate that since they both have cap hits over a million and the Leafs are up tight against the cap.
Failing any of the above scenarios, the only other way the fourth line changes is if someone such as Mason Raymond wins a spot on the third line in camp, bumping McClement down to the fourth line to play with (most likely) Colborne and Orr while pushing McLaren to the press box.
Conclusion: This line will get limited minutes and lots of easy offensive zone starts as is, but if Raymond proves worthy of a spot and bumps McClement down to the fourth line (or if D’Amigo/Ashton steal a spot) the fourth line will be reasonably decent and perhaps able to push for 10 minutes a night. That said, I expect two enforcers every night because that’s what the Leafs do.
Expected Penalty Killers: Jay McClement, Nikolai Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Tyler Bozak
The only regular penalty killer not returning from last year’s excellent unit is Leo Komarov, and the Leafs reasonably replaced him with Dave Bolland. Last season, the Leafs started pretty well every penalty with Bozak and McClement on for the faceoff, and then got Kulemin on with McClement whenever possible. It’s possible that they try to limit Bozak’s minutes and put Bolland-McClement out to start penalties instead. As long as McClement and Kulemin are around, this will be a good unit as both the aforementioned are elite penalty killers. Bozak and Bolland are serviceable as actual penalty killers, but are nothing special in this regard.
Other Options: JVR, Kadri, D’Amigo, Ashton, Raymond
Carlyle subtly threw out Kadri and JVR towards the end of PKs as the season progressed (usually with under 30 seconds left, or something along those lines). I’d expect that to continue to some degree.
If any of D’Amigo, Ashton or Raymond make the team, all three can penalty kill reasonably well. Oddly enough, although none of these guys are slated to make the team as of this second, I think any of them could bump off one of core penalty killers from regular duty.
Expected Power Play Units:
Unit One: Kessel-Bozak-JVR
The Leafs power play was in the top half of the league last year (14th), as Kessel controlled the half wall, JVR was the net presence, and Bozak was an outlet/decoy that hung around the high slot. They could ultimately decide to put Lupul on this line instead of JVR as there might be a little more firepower if they do.
In the playoffs last year, the Leafs had Kessel, JVR and Lupul all on the power play together when Bozak was hurt. They looked excellent together. It seems unlikely that they’d throw out a unit without a true center on it, though.
Unit Two: Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson
Unlike the first unit, this power play will probably see Kadri along the wall, with Clarkson in front and the difference of Lupul being down low/near the net instead of up high like Bozak on unit one. Kadri and Lupul are just so skilled offensively and Clarkson causes so much havoc in front of the net that something would seriously have to go wrong for them not to produce results with the man advantage.
Others fighting for power play time: Bolland, Colborne, Kulemin, Raymond
The Leafs have said repeatedly that they picture Bolland in a bigger role, and they bring up his junior numbers all the time, so he could see some power play time if/when others falter. Colborne is a skilled guy with size in front and soft hands down low, and is worth considering if he plays well. Raymond has scored at a top six rate a few times in his career, so if he makes the team he’s eventually going to get some time on the power play. Kulemin is an all-around horse; even though they’ve turned him into a defensive stalwart, I’d love to see him get rewarded offensively once and awhile.
Final Thoughts: The X-Factor at forward will be how the shutdown line performs. If they are able to mitigate opposition’s top lines and allow the Leafs top six forwards to simply worry about scoring, the Leafs are going to be extremely tough to beat. The Leafs won’t be nearly as formidable if they struggle and the Leafs are forced to constantly move forwards around in hopes of either balancing the lines or using their best players in shutdown roles.
The bottom line is that the Leafs can score, and they have good goaltending. If the defense takes positives steps forward and is better at advancing the puck this season, the Leafs will be in business.