The Biggest Question for Each Toronto Maple Leafs Line in 2014-15
The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team that confounds many. There are some talented forwards in Hogtown, but in terms of puck-possession numbers, the team was dominated for long stretches in 2013-14. It finished dead last in five-on-five Corsi percentage.
The team continues to lack a dominant No. 1 centre, but the top line was the least of head coach Randy Carlyle's worries last season where the forward corps was concerned.
General manager Dave Nonis had to upgrade the club's bottom-six group during the offseason, and he appears to have done just that by bringing in Leo Komarov, Petri Kontiola, Daniel Winnik, Matt Frattin and Mike Santorelli.
Let's take a look at the biggest question for each Toronto Maple Leafs line in 2014-15.
Line 1: Can This Trio Become a Dominant Line in the East?
This trio will likely remain comprised of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak.
It was easily the Leafs' most consistent line last season. On the nights when the Leafs were successful, this top unit provided most of the offensive spark.
These three skaters produced 190 points, with Kessel putting up 80. The 26-year-old has developed into one of the most consistent offensive players in the game.
While JVR could play a more physical brand of hockey, he's become a dominant power forward who uses his speed and skill to great advantage.
Bozak remains an X-factor in many ways—he's a "tweener" in that he's not really a No. 1 centre, but playing with these two talented Americans has made him something more than a No. 2 pivot.
If he can put up production similar to what he managed last year and stay healthy, Bozak could end up in the 70-point range. That would put him in the NHL's top 10 among centres, based on last year's totals.
If the line produces more than 200 points collectively and begins to tilt puck possession more in its favour, it will unquestionably become one of the best units in the Eastern Conference.
Line 2: Can This Line Approach Top-Line Output?
This line is likely to be made up of Joffrey Lupul, David Booth and Nazem Kadri. If healthy, this could be a group that gives opposing second- and third-pairing defenders fits.
Lupul is a world-class goal scorer in that he does not need a lot of time and space to finish. He's primarily a north-south player that plays a straightforward game.
Booth should bring honest play and a defensive conscience to the group. He'll be looked at as a replacement for Mason Raymond, who signed with his hometown Calgary Flames in the offseason.
Kadri can be a difference-maker on this line. He was the third-leading scorer for the club last season (50 points in 78 games), and there are indicators that he could add at least 10 or 15 points to that total if Carlyle can up his minutes at even strength and with the man advantage.
He has to improve his play away from the puck, but he's certainly the most creative centre on the Toronto roster.
It will take some time for this line to build some chemistry, but it will be expected to produce offensively on a nightly basis—something the second unit couldn't do last season.
Line 3: Will This Line Be Counted Upon for Tough Minutes?
The Leafs need to get some offensive production out of their third line. Additionally, the group needs to play some tough minutes in matchups against other teams' top units for extended stretches.
It's difficult to say who will be on this line, exactly, but it is likely to include Komarov, Kontiola and David Clarkson. Mike Santorelli could also see some time on this line.
This group has to be mobile, hard-nosed and chip in offensively more than occasionally.
Clarkson doesn't have to be a 40-point man, but he does need to score more than the Leafs' sixth-best defender. With 11 points in 60 games last season, Clarkson couldn't match any of the Leafs' six regular starting defensemen.
Posting 30 points, a positive plus/minus rating and a Corsi percentage of 50 would be great for the former New Jersey Devil. He was minus-14 and registered a Corsi percentage of 42.4 in 2013-14.
Komarov and Kontiola don't have to be outstanding in any one area, but they do need to earn Carlyle's trust. On too many nights last season, the Toronto coaching staff could rely on just two lines to be consistent.
Line 4: Can This Group Be Something More Than Awful?
A fourth line featuring players who cannot skate at the NHL level, score or defend will not work again in 2014-15.
This line is far from set at this stage, but likely candidates are Frattin, Santorelli, Winnik, Carter Ashton, Peter Holland, Troy Bodie, Josh Leivo and Colton Orr.
Obviously, only four or five of these players will be on the opening-day roster, but injuries and potential trades could change this mix in the early part of the season.
Carlyle took some unwarranted criticism last season for not rolling four lines on many nights. He had little choice given the dearth of talent on the Leafs' fourth line.
This group appears much more promising than last year's.
There's a mix of grizzled veterans and energetic youngsters here. The NHL's better teams can count on their fourth lines to play between eight and 12 minutes on a nightly basis.
If Toronto's fourth-line group can approach that ice time, the Leafs might be able to challenge for a playoff spot in 2014-15.