The Maple Leafs bolstered their core of forwards in the opening days of free agency by acquiring Kris Versteeg from the Chicago Blackhawks and signing Colby Armstrong to a three year contract. Brian Burke and Co. also re-signed restricted free agent Nikolai Kulemin and inked John Mitchell to a new one-year deal. German forward Marcel Mueller was also signed to a two-year contract, with expectations that he’ll play for the Toronto Marlies this fall.
Rumors continue to swirl around the hockey world regarding the status of veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle and whether he’ll be shipped out in exchange for a top-six forward. At least six teams have tabled offers to the Leafs, but no significant progress has been made on moving him. With that in mind, here are potential line combinations for the Leafs forwards heading into training camp.
Pending a trade to bring in a number one centre, Tyler Bozak will slot into the role as the Leafs first line centre, alongside Phil Kessel on his right wing and Kris Versteeg on his left. Bozak made large strides in his first NHL season, where he posted 27 points in 34 games. Bozak’s speed and playmaking abilities will fit nicely alongside the speedy Kessel.
I’ve pencilled Versteeg in as the first line left winger by default because the Leafs have yet to acquire another top-six winger (although I predict they will). Versteeg and Bozak are both shifty, agile players who will complement one another. Versteeg would drop to the second line if Brian Burke acquires another forward.
Mikhail Grabovski will anchor the second line in between Nikolai Kulemin and Colby Armstrong. Grabovski and Kulemin have built chemistry after playing as linemates on several occasions over the past three seasons.
Nazem Kadri is expected to make the Leafs in training camp, but yours truly thinks he needs to start the season in the AHL (similar to Tyler Bozak last season) and earn a callup midway through the season. He has worked hard to build muscle this summer, but he needs to adjust to the physical rigors of professional hockey. On the other hand, Grabovski is returning from injury and is capable of scoring over 50 points if he remains healthy.
With two skilled players in Grabovski and Kulemin, Colby Armstrong will provide a physical presence with scoring upside. He wasn’t signed as a top six forward, but if the Leafs are unable to acquire another forward via trade, Armstrong will get bumped up by default. Rounding out the top six includes a nice combination of skill and grit, although there is obvious concern that the Leafs don’t have enough experience.
Brian Burke continues to shape the bottom six for the short and long term by acquiring Mike Brown from the Anaheim Ducks and drafting agitator Bradley Ross in the second round (43th overall) of the Entry Draft.
The third line of Fredrik Sjostrom, Christian Hanson and Luca Caputi will serve as the Leafs primary checking line, although there are a number of candidates to assume roles on the checking line in the future.
Marcel Mueller, Brayden Irwin and Bradley Ross are all future considerations to play in the bottom six. Hanson had an up-and-down first season in the NHL, but his size and checking will bode well for his chances of making the team. Sjostrom will anchor the penalty kill by blocking shots and backchecking, while Caputi will provide size and scoring.
John Mitchell will centre the fourth line, playing in between Mike Brown and Colton Orr. Brown and Orr will stir-it-up in the corners and forecheck the opposition. Both of them can drop the gloves and get under the skin of the opposition. John Mitchell brings a different element of size and speed to compliment toughness of Brown and Orr. There are interchangeable parts on the fourth line in the event of injury. AHLers Marcel Mueller, Brayden Irwin, Mike Zigomanis and Joey Crabb are all candidates to be called up from the minor leagues.
The Leafs forward core has seen a major turnover in the last year, with many players shuffling in and out in hopes of changing the culture of the team. The additions of Versteeg and Armstrong make the team more competitive in the short term, but there are missing parts up front. The expectation that Kaberle will be traded for a top six forward is not a forgone conclusion, but highly likely. Any move to bring in another winger will surely alter the depth chart and the lines that I’ve proposed.
Chime in with your thoughts on the lineup in the comment section and share your proposed lines. These lines will probably look somewhat different when the team hits the ice in October, but the debate has only begun.