Toronto Maple Leafs' Forward Dilemma: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

Josh LewisSenior Analyst IJuly 21, 2008

With the commotion of early summer player movement all but over, hockey fans are entering what is known as the no-man's-land of the sports world—the time of year when nothing is happening.

From mid-July to the beginning of training camps in September, very little tends to take place in the hockey world. Aside from a few contract extensions and coaching changes, it's pretty dull.

Sure, a few second- and third-tier free agents will find new homes, and that will satisfy our craving for hockey news for about 15 minutes. But that's not enough to tide over our ravenous hockey appetites.

Despite all this, the Toronto Maple Leafs clearly are not finished. They can't be, because they've got far too many forwards and defensemen on their roster. Unless they want to risk losing several NHL-caliber players on waivers and take roster spots away from young prospects, the Leafs need to move a few players out.

Today we'll look at the logjam up front, examining the role of each forward and deciding which ones should be shipped out. Tomorrow, we'll tackle the blueline.

Assuming Mats Sundin doesn't return, I've sorted Toronto's forwards into five categories:


Guaranteed top six

Nik Antropov, Jason Blake, Alex Steen, Jiri Tlusty

These are the players who will undoubtedly be penciled into offensive roles, due to their production, experience, or sheer talent.

Antropov finds himself in uncharted territory—if Sundin is gone, Nik will be the leader of the Leafs' offense. That scares some people, but it could be exactly the kind of environment he'll thrive in.

Antropov has been mentored by Sundin for a long time, and has picked up a lot of his habits. With Mats gone, Antro could step it up in his absence. He obviously plays much better at pivot, and his playmaking ability plays well to the role of first-line centre.

Blake is a wild card. Whether it was due to the effects of cancer, a fishbowl atmosphere, or simply age, he clearly struggled last season. His 52 points still rank second among returning forwards, but most of those were assists. With Antropov setting him up, Blake could pot 25-30 goals this season.

Steen, meanwhile, is an intriguing case. With Paul Maurice casting him in a defensive role the last two seasons, many have forgotten about his offensive ability.

The checking experiment worked, as Steen is arguably the Leafs' best two-way player and penalty killer—but it's time to let him unleash his offensive potential. Whether it's on the first or second line, Steen could flirt with the 60-point mark this season.

On the other hand, Tlusty is not a lock for top-six minutes, though he's pretty close. He didn't exactly impress last year, with 16 points in 58 games—but he did that on 11 minutes a game.

If given more ice time and decent linemates, the Czech is a good bet to approach the 35-40 point range this year. With his shot, 20 goals is not out of the question.

I'd like to see him play with fast players like Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, but we'll see how it plays out.


Versatile speedsters

Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman, Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Stajan

This group is comprised of young, fast players with offensive ability who could be slotted anywhere from the first line to the third. The grit and defensive ability of the latter three means that they could fit in just about anywhere.

The word on Grabovski is that he has to play on the top two lines to be effective. A very fast player with great hands and lots of skill, Grabby has just 27 NHL games under his belt.

He tends to be knocked off the puck easily, so his contribution to the Leafs this season remains to be seen. But if he can find a home on the second line with some fast, big linemates, he could put up around 35 points.

Hagman defines the word versatile. Another fast player with lots of grit who is smart defensively, he's basically a poor man's Jere Lehtinen (with less finish).

Hagman's coming off a 27-goal season, which means he could play on the first line. But it's more likely he forms part of a two-way checking unit with offensive ability. Look for the Finn to see lots of time on the PK as well.

Kulemin comes to the NHL with a decorated Russian resumé and a reputation as a very balanced player. A speedy sniper who loves to hit, he can also take care of his own end and kill penalties.

The second line seems like the most probable fit for Kulemin, though his gritty side could land him on the third unit. Or, if he has a good camp, he might even find himself taking passes from Antropov on the first line.

Oh, Matt Stajan, how I love thee. Equally praised and maligned by Leafs fans, Stajan has established himself as one of the team's best defensive forwards and penalty killers, and he isn't devoid of scoring ability either.

He's done quite well as the third-line centre and will probably start there this season, but depending on training camp, there's a chance he could leapfrog guys like Grabovski and Kulemin on the depth chart. Consistency and a better shot seem to be all that's holding Stajan back from becoming an offensive threat.


Guaranteed role players

Jamal Mayers, Dominic Moore

Mayers' acquisition from St. Louis at the draft is an instant infusion of leadership, grit, and accountability. He is the consummate grinder, and it's safe to say he will be a fixture on the Leafs' third line all season long.

With a career high of 27 points (last year), Mayers knows his role and knows it well. Players like Stajan and Kulemin could learn a lot from him.

Moore, meanwhile, turned a lot of heads with his smart, heads-up play after being plucked off waivers at midseason. He showed a bit of offensive skill too, posting 14 points in 38 games.

Moore is a steady checking centre who could play the third line if Toronto didn't have so many centres, but will likely find himself centering the fourth unit.


Fighting for jobs

Mark Bell, Boyd Devereaux, Ryan Hollweg, Alexei Ponikarovsky

It's strange to see Poni fighting for a roster spot after spending some time on the top line the past couple of years, but he simply hasn't improved to the point where he deserves a top-six spot. And with the abundance of youngsters and grinders in the Leafs' forward corps, he may be squeezed out of the bottom six too.

It's not a question of whether Ponikarovsky can make the team in a fourth-line role; that shouldn't be a problem. The question is whether it's worth it for the Leafs to have him play seven or eight minutes a game.

He'd fetch the highest return of all the excess forwards (probably a third rounder), and at $2.24 million, he also makes the most money. And playing him on the fourth line takes away a roster spot from a young player like Robbie Earl or Jeremy Williams.

Bell's time in prison will be finished by the time camp rolls around, but he wasn't exactly impressive last season, other than his hits on Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher in Game 81. He's likely to spend a lot of time in the press box to make way for a younger player, since it's hard to see anyone wanting him at $2 million per season.

Devereaux, meanwhile, has a decent chance at sticking on the fourth line because of his speed and grit. He's a very good energy player who can score the odd goal as well. He's found chemistry with Steen and Stajan in the past—but unless he blows management away at training camp, he's not likely to play higher than the fourth line.

Hollweg was brought in to tick off opposing players and to act as a partial enforcer. I say partial because he's not a very good fighter. He'll split his time between playing four minutes a game and sitting in the press box. He'll likely dress for about 50 games.


Marlies with a very small window of opportunity

Robbie Earl, John Mitchell, Jeremy Williams

You've gotta feel for these young players. They've patiently awaited their chance to play on the big club for years, getting the odd call-up here and there—but always getting stuck in the numbers game.

Now that the parent club is rebuilding, they'll get their shot, right? Wrong, apparently.

Unless at least two or three players are moved, none of these guys have a realistic shot at regular ice time, even on the fourth line. And that's assuming Sundin doesn't come back.

Earl, who is quite possibly as fast as the speed of light, saw nine games in a late-season cameo with the Leafs. He put up just one assist, but his energy and aggressiveness around the net impressed observers. He also showed a very strong chemistry with Dominic Moore.

But even if a few vets are moved, Earl would have to outshine both Mitchell and Williams to get a spot. He's spent two seasons in the AHL and one more shouldn't hurt him, especially since he'll get first-line minutes.

Mitchell hasn't played at the NHL level yet, but he had an outstanding training camp last year, showcasing his size, defensive game and face-off ability. He's played three seasons in the AHL, posting 51 points last year.

This is a player who deserves the chance to show what he can do—but again, he's stuck in a numbers crunch unless a few guys are traded.

Williams, meanwhile, has been pushing for regular playing time for quite a while—he's had several cups of coffee with the big club recently. The right winger scored goals in each of his first three NHL games—which were played in three separate seasons.

In an 18-game stint with Toronto late last season, he potted just two goals, but that was done on seven minutes a game. If he does make the team, this will be Williams' make-or-break season. If he can't display a scoring touch on a consistent basis, the Leafs may decide to part ways with him.

Last week, Cliff Fletcher said that both Mitchell and Williams were in the team's plans, and both were introduced at a press conference announcing a ticket giveaway.

Whether that means they will play this season or at some point in the future, we don't know—what we do know is that Williams has to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL, and there would likely be several claims.


Who should go?

As outlined above, Ponikarovsky would fetch the most return of the players on the bubble, and he carries the biggest salary. He'd go for at least a third-round pick and open up a spot for Williams or Mitchell at the same time.

Moving out one forward won't be enough, though. Next would be Bell, though it's hard to imagine any team taking him on at $2 million a season. That gives Toronto three options:

  1. Sit him in the press box as the 13th or 14th forward.  
  2. Send him to the AHL and let him try to rediscover his game with the Marlies 
  3. Send him down and bring him back up on re-entry waivers, hoping someone would take him for one year at $1 million.

The last option isn't too far-fetched, since he does have a lot of grit and wouldn't be much of a gamble for a team with some cap space.

If Bell can't be moved, Devereaux would be the next guy on the list. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, though, because Devo wouldn't fetch a whole lot in a trade and he's a useful energy player. It's never a bad thing to have someone with speed these days.


Ideal lineup:





Spares: Devereaux, Hollweg


Easy as pie!

Check in tomorrow as Josh pares down the Leafs' blueline.