As training camps opened yesterday, it’s time to measure the speculation of my article projecting the Maple Leaf ‘bottom-6’ against what Brian Burke has done over the summer.
As last season ended we already knew half the make-up of this group. Colby Armstrong, Colton Orr and Mike Brown represent Burke’s liking for truculence and toughness, although each of these guys missed 30 games or more last season due to various injuries and suspensions. This is true of Orr especially, as he suffered a concussion, and events over the summer have made many question the role of concussions, depression and any link to the enforcer role. For his part, Orr himself says he enjoys his role, and is eager to play this season. Armstrong, Brown and Orr are veterans, and almost guaranteed spots on the roster, though Brown or Orr could see the odd game in the press box depending on the opponent. These 3 could count as many as 20 goals combined should they play the whole season.
As predicted by many, Burke resigned Tyler Bozak to a contract with a significantly reduced cap hit (formerly $3.725M, now $1.5M). His 27 points in 37 games (playing significant time with Phil Kessel) raised expectations for this young centre in 2009-10. Last season’s 32 points and minus 29 in 82 games seemed a disappointment by comparison. In fact, the 25-year-old is developing into a decent faceoff man and defensive forward (despite that big minus), which was really his predicted potential.
Bozak should make the lineup, though the addition of Matthew Lombardi in an offseason trade complicates things a bit. Lombardi is a 29-year-old veteran of over 400 NHL games who missed 80 games last season due to a concussion but had 19 goals and 53 points for Phoenix in 2009-10. The speedy vet has recently said he’s not quite 100%, and probably won’t be in training camp. Management won’t rush him, but his experience, and $3.5M cap hit, almost guarantee he is expected to take a regular shift. Lombardi is a significant upgrade to the skill level and speed of the bottom-6.
That’s not meant to disrespect Mike Zigomanis, Darryl Boyce or Joey Crabb. These players combined to play just over 100 Leaf games last season, and all re-signed with the Leafs as free agents. But, all are nearing or at 30 years of age, and project as AHL caliber players. They’ll staff the Marlie roster, tabbed as call-ups should injuries with the parent club dictate. Also re-signed was Jay Rosehill, who will serve as a call-up should Orr or Brown be out for any length of time.
Burke and coach Ron Wilson have essentially admitted there is a single spot in the bottom-6 available. The smart money says the competition should come down to youngsters Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin and free agent signing Philippe Dupuis. Kadri should have the inside track. The 7th overall 2010 pick got into 29 NHL games and posted only 12 points. Like last season, Kadri will start with the Marlies if he does not outplay Colborne or Frattin, the next 2 highest ranked forward prospects with Toronto. While neither may quite be the offensive talent Kadri is, both have size over him, and against NHL competition that can count for quite a bit. The addition of Dupuis out of Colorado muddies things further. Though on a two-way contract, Dupuis had a respectable rookie-campaign in 2010-11 with 17 points in 74 games. Rick Dudley intimated Dupuis was brought in specifically to compete with the other prospects for this spot, his skating and versatility are what made him an attractive signing. With Lombardi out for a bit, it is possibly 2 of these guys could break camp with the NHL team.
Tim Brent, Fred Sjostrom, Christian Hanson and Fabiann Brunnstrom have moved on, Of these, Brent was thought to be a player brought back to Toronto, as he had 20 points and played 79 games as an energy/defensive forward last season. He’s lost to Carolina on a 2-year deal. But as the rookie tournament showed, there’s now no shortage of prospects hoping to make the leap into the NHL. OHL prospect Greg McKegg and local walk-on Mitchell Heard both had a very good tournament. Frattin showed fairly well, so did youngsters like Jamie Devane, Kenny Ryan and Sondre Olden. Likely, McKegg, Devane, Ryan and Olden, as well as Brad Ross, Josh Nicholls and the like would have to have absolutely incredible training camps to make the NHL squad. Burke and Wilson have made no secret they intend to bring the younger players along slowly, sharpening their skills either in junior or in the AHL.
Of course there’s the outside chances that some of the ‘older’ prospects could make a run also, like a Luca Caputi or Brayden Irwin. Caputi suffered through an injury-filled season last year, so he may be ready to make a charge. Word around is neither of these guys are great skaters, but both are big-body players, and we know the Leaf braintrust has a liking for size. That could work for one of them, should none of the others (Kadri, Colborne, etc.) really lay claim to the final roster spot.
Certainly, the deal with Nashville which included Lombardi was geared towards significantly upgrading the bottom-6. Nothing is set in stone, and anything could happen for Toronto. If things don’t quite click with the projected ‘top lines’ (Kessel-Connolly-Lupul, Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur), Wilson may not hesitate to shuffle things such that we see a top-9, bottom-3 scenario. But, if things go more ‘as planned’, then Leaf fans may be happily surprised by the third and fourth lines which will be stronger than what we’ve seen in the recent past.