Kid fever is heating up lately in Toronto, so much so that some Leaf Fans have started dreaming of a lengthy Playoff run as early as this coming spring!! Though that is likely a bit premature, there is certainly a lot to get excited about this preseason, as the Leafs' latest crop of rookies are lighting the lamp and playing their way into the hearts of Leaf fans far and wide. Still, we need to keep this in perspective. The Leafs are improved, but they are at best fighting for 7th or 8th in the East with 6 other teams, and those last 2 seeds may not be decided until literally the last game of the year. There are no guarantees with this club.
Ok, there is no denying that this Leafs team is better than last year's team. Even the most maligned Leaf haters have to accept that the Defense is less porous, and the goaltending at least has the potential to be much improved this season. McDonald has been very solid thus far in the preseason, but is penciled in as the 3rd option in goal, and for good reason. Gustavsson has been exceptional in albeit limited action this preseason and rookie tournament, and I feel safe in saying he IS better than Joseph was last year, as is McDonald, so the back-up position is much more reliable regardless of Gustavsson still being unproven in the regular season. Kid is good, time will tell just how good. A healthy Toskala should be a better Toskala. How much better remains to be seen, but certainly a couple of points in the standings at the very least.
The many upgrades on Defense are well documented, and the impressive preseason play of Carl Gunnarsson has actually upped the Leafs number of NHL ready defensemen in camp to 11, with 5 guys who would be #3-4 on a lot of teams in the league vying for the #6-7 spots on the Leafs. Something has to give here and undoubtedly the Leafs will attempt to trade at least 1 of their D-men who are unprotected from waivers in order to alleviate some salary and recoup a draft pick or two. Having $7 Mil worth of blue line salary in the press box on a nightly basis just isn't good for anyone.
With that, we come to the forwards, where the majority of the excitement and all the real questions are found. Yes, Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg, and Christian Hanson, AKA the "Frat Pack" as they have regrettably been dubbed, are impressing on a nightly basis. So much so that they are causing many Leaf fans to assert they should ALL make the team, dethroning underperforming veterans from last season. So, let's take a look at just whose jobs they might take. With Kessel in the mix, the Leafs "penciled in" forward lineup probably looks something like this (and for this exercise, rookies are not "penciled in", they have to steal a job):
As I said, rookies have to steal jobs, so let's look at who's jobs they might steal.
First up, Nazem Kari. Let's slow down the excitement train right here shall we? The kid's going back to Jr. Period. Some of you will need more convincing, so here goes: yes, he is the most talented player in camp. Yes, all Leaf fans are salivating at the thought of a Kadri-Kessel duo that will certainly be lighting the lamp at the ACC for years to come. NO, it should not and will not be this season. Kadri needs more time, if for no other reason than to get bigger. He'll be the 1st line center on this team when he's ready, but he is not ready to be a legitimate 1st line center in the NHL right now. He can not physically match up against the Malkins, Staals, and Richards of the league. Not yet. Kadri will be better served playing with the Knights, gaining more confidence as a dominant player in the league, being a Major piece of yet another WJC championship, and possibly making a run at the Memorial Cup. He already knows he has the talent to play at this level; he just needs a year to put on a bit of size so he can dominate at this level. He has the skills, but he needs to grow. We can wait another year, it will be worth it. Risking injury to their most promising draft pick in years is not a worthwhile gamble for the Leafs.
Moving on. Stalberg, Bozak, Hanson, in that order, have been impressive. All are showing potential as legitimate top 6 forwards, and many Leaf fans think they should all make the team, but at whose expense? And on what Line? Let's go through it line by line:
1st Line - Stajan-Kessel-Blake
Logically this is the Leafs top line. Yes, Kessel is not available until November, but this is his spot. Until he joins the roster, let's assume Nick Hagman takes top line duties, as his impressive camp so far shows he is still more than capable. Although, I'll address Hagman's permanent spot later, and in the name of chemistry Wilson may elect to give one (or rotate all) of the kids through the open spot on the top line until Kessel returns, allowing him to evaluate how they fair against true top line talent. Still, after November, Kessel is on the 1st line, no question, so let's move on to Jason Blake.
Many Leaf fans still hate this guy because he had one bad season immediately after signing a huge contract. Ok, that sucked, but given his bounce back last year let's give him a mulligan, considering he did play 82 games after being diagnosed with cancer in 2007-2008, and still managed to set a career high in assists. He returned to his usual self potting his career average of 25 goals last season, leading the Leafs in both goals and points with 63. This is what we can and should expect from Blake - no more, no less. Blake stays on the top line this year until he plays his way off of it. His contract is still unmovable, and he has the talent and speed to produce on a nightly basis if paired with a center that can get him the puck.
And that brings us to Matt Stajan - a lot of Leaf fans are falling out of love with Stajan (or never were), but the fact is he keeps getting better every year. Is he a legitimate 1st line center in the NHL? No, I don't think anyone could make that argument. But he is the best all-round center on the Leafs at the moment, and that makes him the most reliable option in #1 spot until someone else comes along. Stajan set career highs of 40 assists and 53 points last season, his first of his career playing 1st line minutes, albeit without legitimate 1st line wingers, and he can handle the pressure associated with being the top line center on the Leafs. Stajan is solid on face-offs, strong defensively, and yes, is a decent playmaker. Having Kessel on his wing will accentuate that even more, which should increase his trade value as a potential #2 center for a team with a hole to fill. Stajan is not likely in the long term plans for the Leafs, but he's the most reliable option as top pivot until Kadri, Bozak, or someone new is ready to take the reigns. And at this point, they are not. The "Frat Pack" have been impressive, but have not shown enough to warrant being the Leafs 1st line.
2nd Line: Grabovski-Ponikarovsky-Kulemin
I don't foresee much argument with Grabovski as 2nd line center either. He had a solid year last season, with a couple of streaks of inconsistency, but overall put up good numbers and showed potential for much more. The added room created by the bigger more mobile defense should let Grabovski show a little more dangle, and in so doing increase his point totals. Grabo is a threat for 30 goals/60 points with the right linemates - enter Kulemin and Ponikarovsky. This line was easily the Leafs best after the trade deadline last season.
Kulemin has had a decent, though not exceptional camp, but the chemistry these 3 showed last season is enough to keep them intact for opening night this season. Kulemin hit 4 crossbars in his first 10 games last season. Had those gone in, his confidence level might have soared. This kid has way too much potential to give up on, so I keep him on the 2nd line.
As for Pony, yet another solid 20+ goal campaign, and yet another + in the +/- column. Some Leafers may be surprised to learn that Ponikarovsky is the only Leaf on the roster to never record a negative +/- since making the team full time, and his renewed commitment to offense and strong board play late last season was a big reason for this line's late success. If they are unable to pick up where they left off, Stalberg or Hanson may land a spot on this line later on, but the 3 Russians deserve the chance to prove the last 20 games were not a fluke.
3rd Line: Mitchell-Hagman-Stempniak
John Mitchell has had an excellent preseason, and Coach Ron Wilson just loves this kid. He has everything you want in a 3rd line center - grit, speed, good size, defensively solid, good on the PK, and a great shot which will allow him to contribute offensively. He shows potentially for more offence and is expected to continue to improve as the season goes on. Mitchell has outplayed Bozak for the 3rd line center spot thus far. I’ll repeat that, for the 3rd line spot. Bozak has actually shown 1st line potential at times, but Mitchell is a much better fit on the checking line.
Playing alongside Mitchell will be Nick Hagman, who put up a respectable 22G 42Pts while playing just 66 games due to injury. So far through training camp, Hagman is looking perfectly healthy and could arguably be in the top 6 on this team (and as mentioned could very well start there). Hagman's scoring touch coupled with excellent defensive play make him and Mitchell a great combo that could result in plenty of supplementary scoring – 40-50 combined goals is a very reasonable expectation barring injury, and I don't see a threat to either of these players for their spots.
Lee Stempniak, however, does not have the same level of confidence with holding his job from last season. We are all well aware of Stempniak's disappointing season, and he is the first to admit he needs to be better. So far in camp, he has been. The question is, has he been better than Viktor Stalberg or Christian Hanson? I'd say no, not to this point. Stempniak carries a $3.5 Mil salary this year, and if he isn't scoring, he won't be playing. He has top 6 forward potential, and has shown flashes of that skill, but they have been few and far between. Stempniak knows he is playing for his job, and he needs to step it up to keep it. He has likely played well enough to start the season with the Leafs given his salary, and the fact that Kessel is out for a few weeks gives him somewhat of a reprieve. Wilson has the opportunity to try-out Stalberg and Hanson separately either on the top line or the 3rd line until Kessel returns, which should allow him to make a much more informed decision about just how ready these kids are.
4th Line: Primeau-Orr-Mayers
Burke has made no secrets about his expectations for his bottom six, and particularly the 4th line. Primeau has good size, is great on face-offs and the PK, and is all but assured to be the 4th line center when the season opens next week. Orr, the Leafs newly minted enforcer, is clearly a lock as one of the wingers (recent injury not withstanding).
The same could have been said for Mayers as well, but Jay Rosehill is making a very solid case for himself to start the year with the big club. If Mayer’s recent knock on the noggin turns out to be a concussion, Rosehill will take his spot (if he hasn’t already) and is not likely to give it up without a fight…literally. Despite the fact that both Orr and Mayers may be sidelined by injuries to start the year, the openings here will not help the any of the 3 skilled rookies.
None of the Frat Pack have any business playing on the 4th line. Yes, the are all more skilled than the beef Burke has assembled, but skill is not what 4th lines are for. If Orr is out to start the year, Ondrus or Deveaux will fill in until he returns.
So, given the current make-up of this team, it is highly unlikely we will see more than 1 of Bozak, Stalberg, and Hanson start the season with the Leafs, and even then it may only be until Kessel makes his debut. The current crop of returning Leafs in the top 6 have all had good camps, and many took major strides last season that make them deserving of retaining their roles, at least for now. After all, these kids are close…very close. They are showing all kinds of potential to be the future of this team, and we will certainly see all at some point or another. But none of Bozak, Stalberg, or Hanson have played more than 40 games in a season the last few years, and some time in the AHL will serve them well. If some roster moves are made, they may even be re-united in the pros before the year is out.
It needs to be said, everyone will be on a short leash. For the first time in many years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a legitimate amount of depth in the forward ranks, and Burke and Wilson are sure to make the most of it, but there is no need to rush them in just yet.