NHL Offseason 2012: Fixing the Toronto Maple Leafs, Part 3: Bottom 9 Forwards

Torrin Batchelor@TdawgBatchelorContributor IIIMay 11, 2012

NHL Offseason 2012: Fixing the Toronto Maple Leafs, Part 3: Bottom 9 Forwards

0 of 10

    It seems so long ago that the Leafs held down first place in the Eastern Conference and the entire NHL. Then something, or several things went wrong.

    The small problems, like occasionally suspect goaltending and lacking defensive coverage, were magnified immensely for the Leafs as teams around the league battened down their game to prepare for the playoffs.

    The free-flowing offence and rush attack that had made the Leafs so successful in the first half of the season suddenly became the team's biggest flaw, as it constantly led to odd-man rushes which the D and embattled goalies simply couldn't deal with.

    Secondary scoring dried up, the leadership core was tested and failed to help the team rise above their struggles and "The Leafs blew up." "They collapsed." "Ran a tractor trailer off a cliff." Insert other often-used cliches in here.

    The Toronto Maple Leafs let what was assuredly going to be their first postseason berth in what seems like half a century (note: seems like it, but it has only been seven long years) slip away. 

    What seemed to be a simple shopping list of adding a few pieces to a core group bound for the 2012 NHL playoffs only a month or two ago has rapidly grown to missing players at almost every position. Leadership, veteran presence, scoring, defence, goaltending—all of it went straight down the tube.

    This article is Part 3 of a series dissecting what I think is wrong with the current Maple Leaf roster, suggesting players (and their cost) that might be able to right the ship and get the Leafs into their first playoff spot since the lockout. The series as a whole is an in-depth breakdown of the four biggest problems the Leafs faced last year during the 2011-12 NHL season:

    1. Lack of a True No. 1 Center
    2. Good Goaltending
    3. Secondary Scoring and Character/Leadership in the Bottom Nine
    4. Size and Snarl on the Blue line 

    This article will focus on Lack of Secondary Scoring and Character/Leadership in the Bottom Nine Forwards.  

    As always, feel free to comment below and tell me how wrong I am or how much you'd like to see a certain player in a Leafs' jersey. Maybe I left someone off my lists that should be there. I'd love to hear your arguments for Player "X." I always try to respond, and I love a good hockey debate.

Current Forward Core: What's Up with It?

1 of 10

    Let's start by looking at the current Leaf's forward group and finding the weaknesses:







    Every Leaf fan knows about the lack of a true No. 1 center, and I take a look at solving that problem here. 

    Lupul and Kessel worked well together, and with the addition of a No. 1 center, they should be even more dominant. So I'll be focusing on the second, third and fourth lines here.

    The Mac-Grabo-Kulie line more or less dropped off the map after leading the Leafs as the No. 1 line last year. Some of that was the rise of Lupul and the more ice time that the Lupul/Kessel line got. Some of it was Kulemin's wicked shot (netting him 30 goals and 57 points), which disappeared this year, resulting in only seven goals and 28 points.

    Whatever the reason(s), the line just didn't work. The Leafs have to try to improve it as they can't afford the risk of relying solely on the group regaining their scoring touch again.

    Matt Frattin was given a long look, and once he was moved over to the left wing, he showed some flashes of top-six NHL talent and a scoring touch. 

    The third line was a third offensive line under Ron Wilson, which miserably failed. Then it was turned into a checking line under Randy Carlyle and anchored by David Steckel between Kulemin and Connolly.

    This was an incredibly effective line for about three games until Kulemin was injured and lost for the last bit of the season. Joey Crabb stepped into the role, and the line just never got back on track.

    A fourth line is supposed to provide energy, an aggressive fore check, some veteran leadership, hard hits and solid defensive play.

    The Leafs, due to injuries and available manpower, did not ice a true fourth line for most of the season. Besides Mike Brown (thank the heavens for him), the rotating cast of players on the fourth line miserably failed to provide any of that. 

Secondary Scoring: The Second Line

2 of 10

    One of the biggest things stopping the Leafs from being an offensive dynamo team was a complete lack of secondary scoring, especially down the stretch.

    Last year the Leafs' second line consisted of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, and they produced 62, 58 and 57 points respectively, 80 goals combined.

    This year that same trio struggled dramatically, dropping to 43, 51 and 28 points for a combined 50 goals. That is a full 30 goals missing in action. Kulemin, whose powerfully accurate shot completely abandoned him this year, suffered the steepest drop off, which partially explains Mac's lack of assists (he's only got one less goal than last year).

    But as a whole, this line just never clicked like they did last season. As such, Wilson, then Carlyle had to mix and match the lineup to find people who would click.

    The top five scorers drop off dramatically after Kessel: Kessel 82, Lupul 67, Grabovski 51, Bozak 47 and Phaneuf 44 points, respectively. Now obviously, Lupul got injured late season and that affected the numbers of the entire top line.

    But for comparison's sake, let's look at two teams in the playoffs who play a similar game to what the Leafs want to play—Ottawa and Philadelphia—and their top five scorers.

    • Ottawa: Spezza 84, Karlsson 78, Michalek 60, Alfredsson 59, Foglino 47
    • Philly: Giroux 93, Hartnell 67, Jagr 54,  Simmonds 49, Voracek 49

    The top five scorers for the Senators and Flyers are not significantly higher than the Leafs', but it adds up over the course of a season. Ottawa has nine double-digit goal scorers and Philly has 11 compared to Toronto's eight (with only two of those eight seeing significant time on the second line in Grabovski and MacArthur).

    Injuries obviously have played a large part in the decline in numbers, specifically for the second line, but realistically, the Leafs' top six is too small.

    After Kulemin's shot completely disappeared and MacArthur reverted to a third-line grind-it-out forward (his true playing ability), Grabovski was left on an island. He often played with not-yet-ready prospects such as Carter Ashton (two-to-three years away) and Kadri (next year).

    Frattin and Grabo seemed to click late in the year (after Kulemin's injury and after Carlyle decided Frattin was better suited to use his raw power game off the left wing side boards instead of the right). Those two should probably stay together to form the nucleus of the second line next year.

    In summary: Mac is not a viable option on the second line anymore. Kulemin has proven he's more suited to the third line, but "30 goal scorers" just don't grow on trees so there is certainly enough potential for him to regain his touch.

    Frattin should get first crack on the left wing, and Grabovski is the real deal. Grabovski provides speed and determination which, combined with Frattin's size and power game creates two-thirds of a potentially dangerous second line.

    They need someone on the right wing to either bring more size and power or more speed and finesse.

Honourable Mentions and Players in the System for Second-Line Duty

3 of 10

    Honorable Mentions

    Dustin Brown

    With the way the Kings are playing in the playoffs, they'd be fools to trade him.


    Zach Parise

    He's gonna be a Red Wing, Wild, Ranger or Devil come free agency, He wants a shot to win a cup in the next three years, the Leafs aren't in that scope and therefore won't be a viable option for him.


    Alexander Semin

    Doesn't provide anything that the Leafs are really looking for. His questionable work ethic and disappearing act in the playoffs also are no-nos for Leafs brass.


    Players in the System that Could Be Ready to Fill the Role

    Nazem Kadri

    Stats: 6'0", 188 lbs, NHL 21GP, 5G, 7PTS, +2 / AHL 47GP, 18G, 38PTS, +2

    The much talked-about "Wizard of Naz" has sublime hands that simply weave magic with the puck. With his tricky shot, good speed and strength on the puck, he is probably worth having on the roster purely for his powerplay and shootout creativity—something the Leafs were sorely lacking.

    HockeysFuture.com evaluates him:

    Kadri is a highly skilled forward who can make plays at a whim in the offensive zone. He’s fearless on the ice which compensates for his small frame.  While there are questions surrounding his game-to-game compete level and some of his decision making, his positives outweigh those negatives.

    If he is still with the Leafs by training camp (read: has not been packaged off in some dramatic franchise saving trade), then he deserves a shot to see if he's got what it takes in a top-six role in the NHL.

    With Wilson, he was never given the chance, always relegated to third- or fourth-line duty. Carlyle showed a little more faith in him, but Carlyle demands defensive accountability, and that is definitely a weakness at times with Kadri.

    A line of Frattin (size and underrated playmaking), Grabovski (fearless, fast and quick hands) and Kadri (a wizard with the puck) would certainly be able to fly down the ice and be creative with the puck, hopefully allowing Kadri to capitalize on his talents.


    Ryan Hamilton

    Stats: 6'2", 219 lbs, NHL 2GP, 0G, 1PTS, -1 / AHL 72GP, 25G, 51PTS, +7

    If Frattin is moved and the second line is in need of size, look no further than the Toronto Marlies' Captain. The guy is one of those character warriors who will do anything for his team, including going to the dirty areas, playing the body and dropping the gloves.

    He might not have the greatest hands in the world, but in his two-game call up, he looked good next to Grabovski and Kadri and provided much needed space for the other two puck magicians.

    He wouldn't be my first pick for second line duty (he's got more of a future as a fringe third-line guy or excellent energy-line guy in the NHL).

    But he brings an element that seemed to be seriously lacking for the last four months of the Leafs' season: He's got heart and he holds himself accountable (*cough*Phaneuf*cough*).

    If nothing else, the guy is better than Joey Crabb. 


    Jerry D'Amigo

    Stats: 5'11", 213 lbs, AHL 74GP, 15G, 41PTS, +15

    Jerry was a sixth-round pick for the Leafs back in 2009 and, after a rocky developmental start, has finally started to find his way under Dallas Eakins with the Marlies. He's got breakneck speed and sports an all-around "jack of all trades master of none" type game.

    He's a fierce competitor and leaves everything on the ice every shift. He's like a lesser version of Grabovski.

    On top of his decent regular season, D'Amigo is tearing up the AHL playoffs for the Marlies right now with eight points in seven games and leads the AHL playoffs in goals with six.

    D'Amigo doesn't have the height the Leafs need in the top six, but his lower body is Crosby-like. His speedy north-south game, chippy offensive game, solid two-way play, great fore-checking abilities and an ability to raise his level of play in clutch situations makes him an ideal third-line checking forward, capable of filling in on the second line if needed.

    Using advanced stats formulas like NHLequivilancy (NHLe), we can project D'Amigo's NHL production and it bodes well for a role as a checking line forward: D'Amigo's NHLe is 21.5 over the entire AHL season (regular season plus playoffs so far).

    It's only a guideline, but it's proven to be pretty accurate over the years, which bodes well for D'Amigo's future.


    Brad Ross

    Stats: 6'1", 183 lbs, WHL 68GP, 42G, 82PTS, +15

    Brad Ross had a career year with the Winterhawks and looks to have more of an offensive upside than first thought. He still has a very Darcy Tucker-like style of game, and his bread and butter is still very much getting under opponents' skin.

    He plays a solid two-way game, and with 21 points (12 goals) in only 19 playoff games, he is a clutch, high stakes player as well.

    We won't know until training camp if his two additional seasons in junior have been enough to ready him for the NHL, and he might need some time in the AHL first, but he's closer to making an impact than most pundits thought he'd be.

    His NHLe is about 29.66 points, which is pretty good for a second/third-line agitator guy.

Trade Fixes for the Second Line

4 of 10

    Rick Nash

    Stats: 6'4", 219 lbs, 82GP, 30G, 59PTS, -19

    No offseason analysis could be complete without mention of Nash...so here he is. He's essentially everything that Brian Burke wants in his players.

    There has been enough dissecting of Nash to understand why he'd be a great, almost perfect, fit. He can play PP, PK and lots of EV strength ice time. He's been used in shutdown (Team Canada WHC and Olympics) and scoring roles and could slot in besides Kessel or Grabovski.

    That would effectively give Carlyle his shutdown checking forward unit and free up the third line for secondary scoring, maybe giving some kids a chance without the added responsibilities of being completely defensively responsible.

    Nash is a stand-up all-around guy and leader, although his leadership can be slightly questioned based on Columbus's success with him as captain (then again, what the hell has Columbus ever done right since drafting Nash?).

    He's not worth the monstrous sum of parts that Columbus is supposedly asking as he is not a god-sent saviour for the Leafs. But he is an excellent player who would go a long way to making the Leafs a cup contender (that's right not just playoffs but CUP!) and as such he will probably cost a significant part of our future.

    Probable cost: asking price of two or more young impact NHL players, one or more elite prospects and two or more first-round picks

    What Burke's best offer will be: Colbourne, Kadri, Gunnarsson, first 2013, second 2012, second 2013.


    Brendan Morrow

    Stats: 6'0", 205 lbs, 57GP, 11G, 26PTS, +1

    Toronto has a few things working in its favour when it comes to acquiring the career Dallas Star and captain of that franchise.

    One, Joe Nieuwendyk is a friend of Burke's and was a special adviser to him for two years, learning the GM trade before accepting the Dallas gig.

    Two, Morrow's injury-plagued season lowered his value.

    Three, With all the young guns chomping at the bit throughout Dallas' system, Morrow is being pushed out. He's a big-bodied, veteran leader (can I stress how useful and valuable that alone makes him to the Leafs?). He can still chip in offensively (although he is definitely closer to the end of his career than the beginning), and he's defensively responsible.

    He'd be a great addition to such a young core, and he'd take a lot of pressure off of Phaneuf as a leader as well as being a fantastic mentor for everyone else. 

    Probable cost: second 2012, Brad Ross, Stuart Percy


    Ryane Clowe

    Stats: 6'2", 225 lbs, 76GP, 17G, 45PTS, -5

    Bouncing between the second and third lines all season, he put up a respectable 45 points. Clowe's game has never been about points, though. He's going to grind, hit, fight and battle you into submission.

    He's Burke's kind of player—he's reportedly made an attempt to get Clowe every year since 2007, back when he was still with the Ducks. He'd add some definitive "beef" to the Leafs' top six, and compared to other players,he wouldn't cost the Leafs an arm and a leg.

    After bombing out of the playoffs in the first round, the Sharks need to blow up the current core (Thornton, Marleau, Havlat, Pavelski, Couture, Clowe, Burns, Boyle, Niemi) as they've been given a really long leash but have continually fallen short and haven't produced that coveted Stanley Cup.

    Where players like Marleau and Thornton are almost impossible to get fair value back on (see: original Heatley trade between Ottawa and San Jose, also Hossa trade from Atlanta to Pittsburgh), second-tier players like Clowe, Pavelski and Havlat are much easier to recoup value for.

    Probable cost: second 2012, Holzner


    Joe Pavelski

    5'11", 195 lbs, 82GP, 31G, 61PTS, +18

    Same points as Clowe, except that with such a career year and a (so far in his short career anyways) penchant for clutch scoring and showing up when it matters - something other SJ stars have been constantly criticized for a lack of - he might be someone that the Sharks decide to build around instead of Thornton and Marleau.

    Also a bonus is the fact that he plays centre and right wing, so he gives Carlyle some flexibility with the lineup, especially if whoever the Leafs grab for first-line centre duty doesn't pan out.

    Probable cost: first 2012, or first 2013, Gunnarsson and D'Amigo


    Mason Raymond

    Stats: 6'0", 185 lbs, 55GP, 10G, 20PTS, +4

    Buried on a deep Canucks roster, and missing the start of the season after the horrible back injury he suffered in the Cup finals against the Bruins last year, Raymond still has a borderline elite offensive upside.

    He plays bigger than his size, with wicked speed, a decent shot and a fearless style of game similar to Grabovski's. He fits right in on the second line.

    Because of his massive injury and the fact that he's been playing on the third or fourth line for most of the year, his price tag would be significantly lowered. However, there is also the risk that the injury derailed his career to the point where, even if he's given more responsibility, he is a 30-point ceiling kind of guy.

    Probable cost: second 2012, sixth 2012, Mueller


    Ryan Malone

    Stats: 6'4", 219 lbs, 68GP, 20G, 48PTS, -11

    He's big, he hits, he stands in front of the net and screens the hell out of the goalie and he's a solid two way guy. Only downside is his massive contract (4.5 million cap hit for three years, although his actual salary is significantly lower) and the rumours that the only place he'd accept a trade to is Pittsburgh.

    Probable cost: Franson, second 2012, second 2013


    Jarome Iginla

    Stats: 6'1", 210 lbs, 82GP, 32G, 67PTS, -10

    Iginla is the prototypical power forward in the NHL. He hits, he scores (11 seasons of 30-plus goals) and he plays the game the "Canadian way."

    He is looked at as one of the best captains in the NHL and would go a very long way to fixing two of Toronto's top four problems: lack of veteran leadership and size in the top-six forward group.

    The Flames have been a limp franchise trapped in hockey purgatory—not good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to get a good pick—for too long. This, combined with their history of trading away top picks, has left the Flames reeling in no man's land with a veteran core and a bare prospect cupboard.

    If the Flames finally realize that they need to re-build and re-tool, then the only way to do so is by getting value for their veteran assets, like Iginla. They won't get as much for him as they would've last year (cue Matts Sundin situation similarities), but he'll still command a big rerun package.

    Probable cost: Swap of first picks 2012, second 2012, Blacker, Colbourne

Breaking Down the Third Line

5 of 10

    This was originally going to be a massive undertaking for Burke, but since Randy Carlyle took over the bench boss duties for the Leafs, he changed up the lineup and actually used players effectively.

    Carlyle loves to employ a shutdown/checking line against the opposition's top line. He took a liking to David Steckel as his center on that line, and Steckel thrived with increased ice time and responsibility.

    Originally Nikolai Kulemin was employed on the RW and Tim Connolly on the LW. Both seemed to grow into their roles in the few games that they were together before Kulemin was injured and replaced with Joey Crabb.

    Let's face it, with 4.75M left on one more year of his deal, the Leafs are likely stuck with Tim Connolly's monstrously bad contract. He plays well enough defensively and certainly helped the PK a bit (not that the overall numbers really show it), but offensively he just choked on a massive scale with only 36 points ($131,944.44 per point).

    Anyway, you're stuck with that contract, and he actually played well in a reduced and more defined role on the checking line.

    Kulemin, even with his MIA offence, was a revelation on the checking line as his solid two-way play and physicality didn't go the way of his wrist shot. Because he had such a drop off performance this year compared to last year, he will most likely be an affordable RFA signing in the $2-2.5 million range.

    With the upside of being a 30-goal scorer and his very solid two-way play, Kulemin should definitely be brought back to play the wing for Steckel.

    Joey Crabb can't be back, however. Brought in for character, occasional scoring and a physical presence, he employed those traits in small samples only and for much of his season simply "half-assed it."

    His stats are slightly misleading compared to the on-ice results as he did score 26 points and make 101 hits, but they were the soft kind of hits that often get credited but shouldn't be. He did have some beauty goals (11 of them on the season), but he was invisible on the ice in all the wrong ways most nights.

    The Leafs need an incredibly physical presence that is defensibly responsible, can log big minutes (around the 20-minute mark) and occasionally chip in offensively to play the opposite wing to Kulemin to start off next year, preferably with a veteran presence to help with the Leafs lack of a veteran leadership core.

    Or, the Buds need to bring in a Darcy Tucker-type shift-disturber that can skate like the wind and chip in offensively, while being able to grind it out along the boards and in the corners.

Players in System

6 of 10

    Marcel Mueller

    Stats: 6'3", 220 lbs, AHL 57GP, 14G, 32PTS, +3

    The AHL doesn't keep statistics on hits, but Mueller is often described as "hits anything that moves," which can only bode well for the Leafs.

    He's not a flashy guy but has the size and mean streak that Carlyle likes in his bottom-six crew. He's solid defensively and has had his game grow by leaps and bounds since coming over from the DEL (the top German elite league) and playing for Dallas Eakins and his defensive system with the Toronto Marlies.

    He is probably more suited to a fourth-line energy role but certainly has all the necessary tools to fill the Leafs' physical needs on a checking line.


    Other Options

    Also, Brad Ross, Jerry D'Amigo or Ryan Hamilton could work here (see Slide 4).

    Of the four guys, D'Amigo and Ross make the most sense to plug in on the thirrd line.

Trade and Free Agent Options for the Third Line

7 of 10

    Players to Trade For

    Steve Ott

    Stats: 6'1", 190 lbs, 74GP, 11G, 39PTS, +5, 278 Hits

    He hits, scores, fights, blocks shots and, most importantly, brings something to the table that the Leafs haven't had since Darcy Tucker played for the Blue n' White: a regular shift-disturbing, rat-attack attitude that lets him get under players' skins and off of their game.

    Probable cost: second 2012, sixth 2012, Bozak


    Jason Chimera

    Stats: 6'3", 213 lbs, 82GP, 20G, 39PTS, +4, 132 Hits

    Size, great speed, good hands, fierce competitor, physical edge.... did I mention he's a 20-goal scorer?

    Jason Chimera is one of the greatest third-line checking players in the league in my opinion. He does everything a coach could ask for a player in his role to do, and with his great speed and decent hands, he's constantly forcing the other teams' best players to play in their own zone instead of wreaking havoc in his.  

    Probable cost: second 2012, sixth 2012, Bozak


    Free Agents that Might Be Worth Signing:

    Chris Kelly (UFA)

    Stats: 6'0", 198 lbs, 82GP, 20G, 39PTS, +33, 79 Hits

    He has blossomed into one of the best role players in the game in the Bruins system. He has a cup (Boston last year) and is already used to playing against the top guns of the North East division because of playing his entire career in Ottawa and Boston.

    As an added bonus (yes, Don Cherry, this one is for you), his hometown is in fact Toronto (mind blowingly that means that he's an Ontario boy and therefore instantly means the Leafs will be cup contenders.... oh Don, what would we do without your guidance...).

    He grinds, he hits, he blocks shots and takes the puck away, all the while frustrating the opposition with his in-your-face aggressive attack. He's a great team player and has all those intangibles that come to the forefront to win team playoff games.

    He is everything the Leafs and Carlyle are looking for on their 3rd line.

    Probable cost: $2.5-3 million for three to five years)


    Travis Moen (UFA)

    Stats: 6'2", 215 lbs, 48GP, 9G, 16PTS, -3, 75 Hits

    Solid, reliable role player that every coach loves to have on his bench. He plays a simple but hard game and does his best work down low, in the corners.

    Moen throws bombs and is a more than capable fighter and shift-disturber, and although he doesn't throw a ton of hits, the ones he does throw hurt.

    He won a cup in a fourth-line energy role with Carlyle and the Ducks in 2007 but was often bounced up into the third-line checking unit (Todd Marchant, Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermeyer) whenever Carlyle felt he needed more beef against the opposition's top units.

    He's another guy that might be better suited to a fourth-line role, but again he's got all the tools (and a cup ring) to be able to play in a checking role (as he's done for the Canadiens for most of this season). 

    Probable cost: $1.8-2.1 million for two to three years


    Blake Comeau (RFA)

    Stats: 6'0", 195 lbs, 7GP, 5G, 15PTS, -11, 144 Hits

    This is a guy that has been a proven scorer and played a responsible defensive game for both the Islanders and the Flames. With the Islanders, he was forced out of a scoring role by the influx of high end young guns (Tavares, Okposo, Moulson, etc.) but never really clicked into a third-line energy role.

    When he moved to the Flames, he played a really solid defensive game and really seemed to thrive in a shutdown role under Brent Sutter.

    In Toronto, Comeau would bring scoring potential, fearless character and a fierce competitive personality. Combined with a physical tool set and defensive responsibility, he would be another guy that Carlyle would be able to mold into his need for a checking line. 

    Probable cost: Offer sheet—$2.2-2.5 million for two to three years; trade—Bozak, fifth 2012 or just a second 2012


    Joey Crabb (UFA)

    Stats: 6'1", 190 lbs, 67GP, 11G, 26PTS, +1, 101 Hits

    I've said how he doesn't work for the Leafs above, but he isn't the worst player ever and he can at least fill the spot. When he plays his game and actually shows up to play it well, he can be a very effective player in Carlyle's checking-line role, and he has all the intangibles to make it work if Toronto can't get someone better. 

    Probable cost: $900K for one-year, two-way deal


    Matthieu Darche (UFA)

    Stats: 6'1", 215lbs, 61GP, 5G, 12PTS, -4, 79 Hits

    Solid, reliable role player that every coach loves to have on his bench. He plays a simple but hard game and does his best work down low, in the corners. He'd be cheap and adds some serious veteran presence and character to the Buds.

    Probable cost: $725-800K for one year


    Matt Martin (RFA)

    Stats: 6'3", 210lbs, 80GP, 7G, 14PTS, -17, 374 Hits

    Here's a young guy that led the league in hits this year while occasionally chipping in offensively. He's got decent speed, great compete level and brings a really moldable defensive shutdown game that Randy Carlyle can run with.

    He brings size, snarl and some real physical power to the Buds' bottom six.

    Probable cost: Offer sheet—1.5M for three years; trade—third 2013 or Mark Fraser, sixth 2012

Fourth Line: Needs More Character and Leadership

8 of 10

    The fourth line is a different story.

    Mike Brown was amazing when he was healthy and provided the Leafs with an able fighter who was incredibly effective on the fore check and could provide energy on a shift-to-shift basis.

    Whether with a fight, a big hit, the occasional goal or just a really good offensive zone fore check, he was a team-first guy the whole season and exactly the kind of character individual that the Leafs need more of throughout the lineup.

    Randy Carlyle is a fan of having a big-time fighter patrolling the fourth line, as well as a face-off specialist that can chip in on the PK, and finally a chippy and aggressive winger who can start and maintain the fore check.

    Mike Brown clearly fills the chippy winger needs and, by adding an actual "enforcer," will hopefully take some strain off his body so he can play most of the season injury-free.

    Clearly, Matthew Lombardi, Joey Crabb, and Armstrong (purely because of contract size and he just can't stay healthy) don't fit into this puzzle. Colton Orr may have a chance to redeem himself under Carlyle, though.

    Let's take a look at some guys that could bring energy, character and some physicality to the Leafs' fourth line.

Guys That Could Help Fix the 4th Line

9 of 10

    Players in System that Could Work:

    Mike Zigomanis

    Stats: 6'0", 200 lbs, AHL 68GP, 19G, 61PTS, +11

    That's right, I'm talking about Don Cherry's second favourite son (Kadri being the first). He goes to the dirty areas, he blocks shots, he is dominant on the face-off dot and he's a team-first, "warrior" type player that will pay any price for his team.

    Though he's not overtly physical and has hands of stone, in a fourth-line role, he could probably contribute north of 10 points and help out the beleaguered penalty kill. You have to think there is a reason he hasn't stuck in the NHL up until now... but as a fallback option, the Leafs could do a lot worse *cough*Lombardi*cough*


    Other Options

    Ryan Hamilton (see Slide 4) and Marcel Mueller (see Slide 7)


    Players Burke could Bring in via Free Agency:

    George Parros (UFA)

    Stats: 6'5", 228 lbs, 46GP, 1G, 4PTS, +1, 57 Hits

    Hockeyfights.com has him fighting 11 times and clearly winning seven of them. He's a class act and an amazing teammate. A clear and favoured heavyweight in the NHL fighting circuit, he's actually a decent skater for an enforcer, as well, which helps his value on the fourth line.

    He plays well defensively and isn't a liability defensively (career plus-10), which is a nice plus. At 33 years old and with a cup ring, Parros brings the kind of intangibles to serve Toronto favourably as the 13th forward and a veteran voice in the dressing room.

    Probable cost: $910-925K for two to three years


    Other Options

    Travis Moen, Matthieu Darche and Matt Martin (see Slide 8).


    Players Burke Could Trade For

    Matt Stajan

    Stats: 6'1", 192 lbs, 61GP, 8G, 18PTS, -3, 49 Hits, 33 Blocked Shots

    Now here's a trade and a name that I'm sure a lot of you are shaking your head at, but hear me out. Matt Stajan was born and raised in Missisauga, right in the heart of the GTA. He was drafted and developed by the Leafs and bled the Blue N' White for his tenure here.

    He brings the kind of character and passion for the logo on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back that the Leafs need more of. He plays a solid two-way game, has decent hands so he can jump into a top-six role if there is an injury, iswilling to pay the physical price for the team and is just an all-around nice guy.

    You don't often shed tears when you're traded from a franchise, but Stajan did. That speaks volumes about this kid.

    Now you're all probably thinking, "well, that's great but I don't want his $3.5 million for two more years on our books, we've got too many of those kind of contracts already."

    Well, Lombardi's best years were as a Flame; Matt Stajan's best years were as a Leaf. Both have $3.5million per year for two more years remaining, and both could clearly use a change of scenery. Calgary could use more speed in its forwards; Toronto could use more grit, heart and two-way play.  Win-win.

    Probable cost: Lombardi, fifth 2012


    Tim Brent

    Stats: 6'0", 188lbs, 79GP, 12G, 24PTS, -8

    I swear this isn't just about bringing back old Leafs that the team let slip away.... but Tim Brent is everything the Leafs are looking for in a fourth-line center.

    He blocks shots like a crazy man (33), lays out big hit (64), is one of the best at killing time-off penalties single handedly in the other team's end and can score (7 PP points, 1SHG). Only thing he's lacking is a little bit of size, but the man has guts and heart and character and you can't teach that.

    Probable cost: third 2013 or fifth and seventh 2012


    Eric Belanger

    Stats: 5'11", 185 lbs, 78GP, 4G, 16PTS, -13, 36 Hits, 41 Blocked Shots

    Belanger had a down year with the Oilers, logging mostly the toughest defensive assignments due to the team's youth. He's solid on the face-off dot and has a 10-goals, 27-points career average over 13 seasons, so clearly he can chip in on the attack as well.

    He's a bit on the smaller side but plays a solid defensive game, and because of his 13 seasons in the league, he has the veteran savvy to help guide some of the Leafs youngsters.

    The Oilers are at the roster limit of 50 contracts, so they will definitely be looking to move some out. Belanger was mostly ineffective in his first year with Edmonton, and they have an up-and-comer in Lennart Pettrell that they'd love to have in Belanger's spot.

    Probable cost: fifth 2012

Recap: My Picks for the Second, Third and Fourth Lines

10 of 10

    Just as a quick recap of where the Leafs roster stands, with the changes in personnel I think would suit the Leafs best: 

    Frattin - Grabovski - Kadri

    Kulemin - Steckel - D'Amigo

    Brown - Stajan - Darche


    The Frattin-Grabovski-Kadri line has speed and intense amounts of offensive creativity with the puck, allowing for quick offensive pressure off the rush, while still being able to grind it out in the corners and create off the half-boards.

    The Kulemin-Steckel-D'Amigo line has size and speed and is built for not only shutting down the opposition's top lines but for keeping them pinned in their own zone with a relentless forecheck. With Kulemin and D'Amigo, the line also has serious potential to chip in offensively.

    The Brown-Stajan-Darche line can all hit, skate and occasionally (okay, really just Stajan) chip in on the offensive side. This line is all about the forecheck, just like Randy Carlyle likes it.

    With George Parros as the 13th forward, Carlyle can trot out the "tough" factor against big bad teams like Boston and Ottawa. As a further bonus, unlike with Colton Orr, Coach Carlyle doesn't have to worry about Parros being a defensive liability.

    One of the best things about this roster is the amount of line flexibility it provides Carlyle. Almost every player is capable of jumping up the depth chart if needed due to injury or just because Carlyle needs to line juggle to inject something new.

    It's got size, additional veteran presence, speed, scoring ability, defensive accountability and at least on paper—very key to note the emphasis, on paper—a better team that is hopefully capable of making the 2013 playoffs a reality.

    Here's what the roster looks like right now,  with the goaltending and No. 1 center situations solved based on the prices outlined in my other articles.

    The roster is over the cap right now but I haven't touched the defence yet. That is coming up next, in Part 4 of this series.

    Brian Burke has finally gotten the Leafs to the enviable position of being able to plug holes in the roster internally with players from the system. This is evidenced by D'Amigo, Frattin and Kadri being ready to make the jump. They are cheap, talented and have speed to burn.

    This allows Burke both salary cap and roster flexibility, as well as letting him spend his cap space and assets on "game breaking" positions like No. 1 center and goalie.

    This is, of course, just my speculation, and there are dozens of options at the second-, third- and fourth-line positions. Many of them will be in Brian Burke's sights come draft, free agent and trade deadline days.

    I'd say there were no wrong answers, but Burke's recent free agent track record and the fact the roster spots need fixing in the first place indicates otherwise.

    Let me know if you think I missed someone or if I've laid out the best options. Or maybe you hated every word of this that you read and are even now seething and slipping into an uncontrollable rage, at which point you grow 10 times your normal size and turn green...

    I love a good hockey debate, and whether you think I'm right or wrong, doesn't matter—let me know. I always reply.

    Watch for Part 4, "Fixing The Blue Line" later this week.