Monday, June 16, 2014

Leafs Off-Season Game Plan: Forwards

The Maple Leafs problem isn't scoring goals, it's keeping them out. But after being a top-10 team in goals scored from 2011-2013, the Leafs were middle of the pack last season suggesting defence isn't the only area in need of an upgrade.

The Leafs rely heavily on Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk and many nights live and die with their power play because apart from those two first liners they have trouble generating chances at even strength. A total revamp of the defence is the first priority this off-season but so too is creating a more balanced attack up front. Thankfully, the forwards need more of a tweak than a gut job.

Key Objectives

Get a better balance between one-dimensional scorers and two-way players

The Leafs biggest problem is their inability to play defence. That starts from the backend—which is why a major overhaul is needed there—but a distinct lack of two-way forwards also compounds the problem.

Many point to Phil Kessel's one-dimensional play as a huge problem for the team, but the reality is Kessel has a special skill set that is incredibly hard to acquire—that is, filling the net with pucks—and instead of nitpicking at his deficiencies the Leafs need to better surround him with players that can complement his weaknesses. That means a strong two-way centre, which Tyler Bozak absolutely is not. It also means creating a better balance on the subsequent lines. Both Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul are fine in a second line scoring role, but both leave much to be desired defensively. It makes more sense to keep Kadri, who is younger, cheaper, and has a higher ceiling, and seeing if trading Lupul can fill a hole elsewhere.

Improve down the middle

Fewer words were printed for War and Peace than what has been spilled outlining why Bozak is a fraud of a No. 1 centre. He doesn't really have chemistry with Kessel, his big year is not the new normal, and he's not good defensively. The Leafs are in desperate need for a No. 1 centre.

Kadri earned sky-high expectations after a breakout season following the lockout. He didn't fulfill those lofty expectations, although they were always completely unrealistic. Instead, he had a solid season befitting of the second line minutes he received. He still deserves more than a fleeting audition to play with Kessel, because he actually played pretty well on the top line in his brief stint. His name has popped up in trade rumours but he is definitely not the problem in Toronto.

Besides Kadri the Leafs could use three new centres from the ones that were on last year's opening night roster. That's crazy to expect in one off-season, so finding someone to bump Bozak down in the lineup and promoting Peter Holland is probably the easier fix.

Create a useable fourth line

The Leafs had one of the least used fourth lines in the league last season, mainly because Randy Carlyle insisted on dressing useless players like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Creating a line that can skate and chip in the odd goal, not one whose only contribution is barely clearing the line after getting filled in for two straight minutes, would have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the lineup. It would keep the top lines fresher throughout the season and could even be used for tougher defensive assignments like Chicago does with its fourth line. But that means finding players who can play, and as long as a face puncher patrols the ice the fourth line will be utterly useless.

Free agents


Dave Bolland

He's looking for both money and term. He's got a long list of injuries over his career, the most recent of which could erode his already suspect skating ability. He's never cracked 50 points in a season. I like Bolland. I really do. But everything says run away from this contract.

Troy Bodie

A nice surprise in his first season in Toronto. Bodie was a deceptively quick skater, despite looking completely ugly in the process, and was good on the forecheck. You could do worse on the fourth line, but he's probably a better 13th forward.

Nikolai Kulemin

His 30-goal season seems like a millennium ago and it altered people's perception of what Kulemin should be. He's a quality defensive forward who plays heavy and has a history of producing in a second-line role but he's not a real goal scorer. The Leafs are desperate for two-way forwards and letting Kulemin walk seems a little counter-productive when your team is a disaster defensively, but he probably can't produce enough offense at this point to justify being retained.

Jay McClement

McClement earned a reputation as a penalty killing Rainman after logging a ton of short-handed minutes last season and transforming a league worst penalty kill into one of the best. Too bad he was pretty bad at even strength, in part because he was carrying around Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Then this past season he logged his customary big penalty kill minutes and the Leafs were back near the bottom of the league. He's not good enough at even strength and if he's not really a short-handed wizard he's wasting a roster spot.

Mason Raymond

By far Nonis' best signing, Raymond was a great return on investment (45 points for $1 million). He can fit on both the second and third line pretty well and has definitely earned himself a raise. Whether the Leafs can afford that raise is entirely different. If he's willing to stay for somewhere in the $3 million range over 3 seasons he would be nice to have back.

Trevor Smith

If he wants to stick around for a little bit of money to be the 13th forward he's more than welcome to.


Spencer Abbott

Abbott scored 69 points in 64 games for the Marlies and has earned a long look in training camp at the very least. He's the antithesis of a Carlyle player, so the cards are stacked against him. In all likelihood he starts next season in the AHL but should be one of the first call ups.

Jamie Devane

Face punchers need not apply.


Peter Holland

It's painfully clear that Holland is an NHLer. He led the Marlies in playoff scoring with 15 points in 11 games and looks like he could one day be a bit of a two-way beast. He's been described as a puck possession player by Steve Spott and when given minutes and real linemates during his stint in the NHL he certainly looked like he belonged. Slotting him as the fourth line centre and entrusting that (face-puncher-less trio) with about 10 minutes a night would have a nice ripple effect throughout the lineup and make the Leafs a harder team to play against.

Jerry D'Amigo

He's never scored all that much at the AHL level, so his ceiling is not much higher than a fourth liner, but he showed he is deserving of a chance after being sent back down to the Marlies late in the year. He's good on the forecheck and has logged plenty of penalty killing minutes down in the minors. He could help fill out a cheap and productive fourth line.

Carter Ashton

Trying to make an impression on Carlyle got Ashton's nose broken a couple times last season. He's not a fighter and shouldn't have to drop the gloves to see his name pencilled in every night. He only scored three points in 32 games with the Leafs, but was only getting around 6 minutes a night, often beside a goon (or two) and Jay McClement. He scored a bit for the Marlies when he was sent back down and could hold his own on the fourth line next season.



Paul Stastny

The UFA market is barren for centres, with Stastny being the only player capable of quality first line minutes. There are a smattering of second line centres available, but most are third and fourth line players. That's not unusual as teams are loath to give up legitimate centres as it is probably the most important position on the team.

Signing Stastny would immediately transform the Toronto top-6, giving them a true playmaking centre to go with Kessel, and one with a defensive conscience to boot (not just a phony defensive reputation like the one that has somehow stuck to Bozak). It would also push Bozak further down to a line he's better suited on.

There are probably 20 other teams interested in Stastny, so to sign him it will probably take a seven-year commitment worth at least $7 million a season.

Mike Cammalleri

He's a bit of an injury risk, especially now that he's creeping past 30, but Cammalleri has been pretty productive over the past three seasons, averaging a 28-goal pace over 82 games. He also did a great job of driving play last year despite being used in a defensive role, although that can partially be explained by playing with underrated Corsi savant Mikael Backlund.

Radim Vrbata

Not including the lockout, Vrbata has averaged 51 points a season, certainly a respectable amount for a second liner. He hasn't been used in a pure defensive role in the desert, but he's handled fairly tough competition and held his own. He's the type of two-way forward that could complement Kadri well.

Daniel Winnik

Used primarily in a defensive role in Anaheim, he would make an ideal third liner. Although you wouldn't want him playing any higher in the lineup than that, he did chip in a nice amount of offence last year.


Joe Thornton

He's the dream centre to play in between Kessel and van Riemsdyk, even if he may be a bit old. Unfortunately, he's probably looking for a contender to win a Cup before he retires and barely missing out on the draft lottery doesn't really scream contender.

Ryan O'Reilly

The Avalanche need to qualify O'Reilly this off-season for $6.5 million. With Stastny a free agent and Nathan MacKinnon looking like a stud down the middle maybe the Avalanche balk at the thought and try to deal O'Reilly to plug some holes and use that money elsewhere. He's a strong defensive centre who took only one penalty all season despite facing the opposition's best players every night. He's also a pretty nifty playmaker who could look nice between Kessel and van Riemsdyk. I'm a strong advocate for keeping Jake Gardiner but if he's part of a package for a player like Reilly you certainly have to think.

James Neal

With the Penguins looking to improve their depth and clear some cap space there are rumours that James Neal is being dangled. The Maple Leafs have reportedly checked in on Neal. It's not hard to see why. He plays a strong, physical game and has scored 88 goals over the past three seasons, fifth most of any player. He's under contract for four more seasons at a very reasonable $5 million and he's been a positive possession player throughout his career (although many of those seasons have come alongside Evgeni Malkin).

Trade Bait

Tyler Bozak

If you can cash in on Bozak's big year you have to do it. It was percentages fueled and he's really the same old Bozak who has always leeched off Kessel. Unbelievably, Bozak is reportedly one of four untouchable players. I hate this team.

Joffrey Lupul

22 goals and 44 points is completely respectable for a second liner, especially in only 69 games. It felt a little disappointing after Lupul dominated in the two years prior, scoring 85 points in 82 games. Realistically, Lupul is a 25-goal, 50-point player, and there is value to that. He has some chemistry with Nazem Kadri and makes a dangerous second line, but he's pretty one-dimensional and the Leafs have a lot of those forwards. He should be dangled for defensive help. Maybe the Leafs revisit talks with Florida for Dmitry Kulikov.

Sample Roster via Capgeek

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