Youthful Top Lines Welcome in Toronto

Mark MakuchCorrespondent IAugust 27, 2008

The latest interview with Cliff Fletcher in the Toronto media indicates that Maple Leaf fans will be treated to some young legs on the top two lines come October. With the non-return of Sundin almost certain coupled with the departure of Tucker, the top two lines of the Toronto Maple leafs will be a very interesting experiment to watch.

Not a winning experiment, but interesting for true fans of the blue and white. Given the deep defense corp. that Fletcher has put together, with Kubina, Kaberle, Frogren, Finger, Colaiaccovo, Stralman, White, and potentially Van Ryn, the forwards will have an opportunity to make mistakes.

Which is exactly what young forwards with lots of talent but not much experience will do. However, they will learn. That is the only way to get better. Unfortunately, since the lockout, the Leafs have stocked the forward lines with older veterans - Sundin, Tucker, Jeff O'Neill, Blake (who at least as speed), and remember the failed Lindros, Allison, and Owen Nolan experiments?

The results were disastrous - the leafs went form poor playoff runs to missing the playoffs entirely due in part to a dearth of young, emerging talent. Talent they threw away because they were too impatient to let it develop. Finally, the Leafs are going to let the kids play.

With very low expectations from management in terms of winning, and the only forwards born before 1980 being Jason Blake (who at least has good speed) and the rugged Jamal Mayers, the top lines will be laden with youngsters.

Kulemin, Tlusty, Grabovsky, along with the still young Steen, Stajan, Antropov, Ponikarovsky, and Hagman will likely battle for time on the top two lines. Mark Bell may even be in that mix, as may Robby Earle. This group is nowhere near the talent that playoff teams have in their top lines - at least not this year. But given time to grow and mature, and the ice time they need to learn by their mistakes, we may be pleasantly surprised at the talent that emerges from this group in the years to come.

The best case scenario for 2008-2009 is something like this: a team that makes a lot of mistakes early on, but clearly get better as the year progresses - to the point that fans have something to look forward to the following season. A record that is absolutely horrible in the first half, and then dramatically improves in the second half, but only to the point where they can still grab one of the top two picks.

The following season, the new GM will have 1) a defensive system solidly in place with a deep defense corp. 2) a franchise goalie 3) a slew of good young forwards with a year of extended playing time under their belts 4) a good sense of which of those youngsters are worth keeping 5) a great cap situation for free agents 6) a potential franchise player from the draft.
What could be a better setup for a serious run at the cup?

As painful as this season may be from a wins and losses perspective, the real story is going to be in the play of the young forwards, and how they develop over the course of the year. Fletcher has clearly indicated that they will be given the ice time they need, and will have the patience of management. Amen.