Maple Leafs President and GM Brian Burke made it clear immediately when he walked on to the scene in Toronto. His forwards would have two distinct categories: top six and bottom six.
He preached that he would find players acquitted to the job at hand, and that he would build a team focused on that simple principle. Six offensive-minded players and six rough, in-your-face type players.
And since that day, almost every conversation in Leaf Nation has been about the top six players and Burke's need to acquire more talent up front. Not much thought has been given to which six players would make the up the bottom half-dozen, because the Leafs were almost entirely made up of players who fit in that description.
But how the times have changed in Toronto and in just one year, Burke has transformed the offensive core into one of respectability and one that boasts some actual offensive talent; and he's most assuredly not finished.
So who, then, will make the cut in the bottom six? It doesn't sound like much of an achievement, but as seen from the last few Stanley Cup Champions, the bottom six players are the glue that can bring a team together and be the difference in a season or a playoff series.
And with the additional talent on the club, it will quickly be clear to many of the players who made it last season that it won't be so easy this time around. And that will be a good thing for the Maple Leafs.
Competition within will make the team better, something there wasn't much of last season.
So with that in mind, here are the players who could be battling for the bottom six spots on the Leafs next season.
After just getting resigned by the club, John Mitchell probably stands a good chance at locking up one of the two center spots available next year. His game was lacking in many areas last season, but Leafs brass clearly saw something there worth retaining him for. The hope is that he'll improve on the six goals and 23 points he got in 60 games.
But there will certainly be fewer leniencies this year with Mitchell if he struggles, and he could find himself in the minors if he can't find his game with any sort of consistency.
Christian Hanson will also get a legitimate shot at earning his way onto the big club. The 24-year-old played 31 games this season, recording two goals and seven points in what was a disappointing, yet promising, first NHL experience.
He'll need to have a stellar preseason and camp to work his way on the club, but Leafs brass seem to like the kid, and he's got as good a shot as any at this point.
Mikhail Grabovski is an interesting case, as the oft-time troubled center could fit in almost anywhere on the bottom three lines depending on what happens before the season begins. He's been rumoured in the occasional trade and would be a great salary to get off the Leafs' books, but could easily find himself remaining in the blue and white next season.
He recorded 10 goals and 35 points in 59 games this year while dealing with injury issues and some off-ice issues as well. If he gets his act together, he can be a great asset to the team. But as the Leafs have seen so far, that's a big if.
As for Brayden Irwin, the 23-year-old who appeared in just two games last season, the chances are slim that he's on the opening night roster in October. It was evident in the short time he was with the club that he needs more seasoning in the minors before a full-time role can be considered.
The most intriguing right winger who could fit into this scenario is newly signed Colby Armstrong, because he could literally play on any line next season. He has the ability to score —a 22-goal scorer just a year ago and 15 this year —but is mainly known for his physical presence on the ice.
Depending on who else joins the team before next season begins, Armstrong should see time shared between the second and third lines. If he falls into the bottom six, he is most certainly one guy that has a spot locked up for next season.
Mike Brown is another player who has already pretty much assured himself a spot on the club next year. Even though he hasn't even played a game with the Leafs yet, the newly acquired Brown brings a toughness and grit that the team has been looking for from someone other than Colton Orr.
His presence on the right wing will make it necessary for Coach Ron Wilson to play him on what will probably be the fourth line.
Speaking of Colton Orr, he's another right winger whose spot is simply waiting for him at this point. The instant fan favourite is one of the toughest players in the league, willing to fight anyone, and is capable of swinging the momentum in a game with a single punch.
With some toughness added around him next season, he'll surely benefit from not having to do all the heavy lifting, but you can bet that no matter who is added to the roster, Orr will be the big man on campus regardless.
Freddy Sjostrom is the most likely third line left winger at this point. His energy and speed was a needed addition to the club last year when he joined the team as a part of the trade that saw Dion Phaneuf brought to Toronto.
He played in 65 games, scoring three goals and 11 points, and has a hard-nosed style of play that has him constantly digging in the corners and battling for the puck. He was rarely talked about last year when he arrived to town, but his play for the short time he was on the Leafs was proof enough that he could be beneficial to the team.
Whether Luca Caputi makes the team next year will entirely depend on his play in training camp and the preseason. He was called upon to play in 23 games this year, and luckily for him, he'll have a good shot at the team next year due to the lack of players in this position (for now anyway).
Jay Rosehill is another player who has a shot at cracking the bottom six, though his skills are similar to those of Orr, and there is only room for so many fighters on a club. He probably won't be present on the opening night roster, but his number will surely be called more than once as a call up throughout the season.
And there you have it, the current Leaf players on the roster who will have to prove themselves early on if they plan on cracking a spot in the not-so-talked-about bottom six.
But don't think that Brian Burke is done adding these type of players to his team, because as we've seen thus far, he'll probably never be done. There is no doubt though that the team is already looking much improved since this season ended.
And we haven't even talked about the top six yet.
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