In today’s lexicon of hockey, forwards fit into one of 2 groups; top-6, and bottom-6. The days of ‘first line’ and ‘checking line’ seem to have faded as game after game, injuries and the search for chemistry sees players juggled from one set to another. Yet as a general rule, scorers and playmakers are top-6, grinders and checkers make the bottom-6.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, in the midst of another rebuild, have shown noted improvement over the 2009-10 season. That is due in part to the work of the 15 or so players who have spent time on what are the 3rd and 4th lines. And while concerns about the top lines are well-documented, the composition of the bottom-6 group will also need to be sorted to help this team progress.
Two players who began the season with Toronto definitely will not be back, as Kris Versteeg and John Mitchell were traded. Versteeg had been pegged by management as a potential top-6, though he seemed better suited to a 3rd line role. His 14 goals and 35 points were shipped out for 2 draft picks, plus cap space. Mitchell’s game seemed to regress significantly, collecting only 3 points in 23 games before management sent him packing.
Four players saw short call-up stints from the Marlies. Mike Zigomanis, Christian Hanson, Luca Caputi and Marcel Mueller each played less than 10 games, Zigo the only one to record a point. Ten more players have spent varying amounts of time on the 3rd and 4th lines this season. Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown, Colton Orr, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Darryl Boyce, Jay Rosehill, Tim Brent, Joey Crabb and Fred Sjostrom have all seen duty as checkers and grinders. The question is, who has solidified a job for next season, who can be expected back? The answer is something of a patchwork of contracts, performance, and projections.
According to capgeek.com, Toronto has 13 players under contract for just under $37M at the NHL level for the 2011-12 season. It projects to about $22.5M in space available, if the cap does not rise. Mind that there are definitely priorities for Burke to use that money… specifically re-signing RFAs Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, James Reimer and Clarke MacArthur, as well as finding a veteran goalie and the top-flight centre this team has lacked for ages. It won’t leave all that much in the coffers if Burke is able to accomplish all of those goals.
But when it comes to filling out that bottom-6, some of the work is already done. Armstrong, Brown and Orr have seen significant injury time this season, each missing at least 25 games. However, all three are under contract for a combined $4.75M per year until the end of 2012-13. They have combined for 13 goals, but it’s the sandpaper and toughness they bring that is most highly-prized. Armstrong is a classic agitator, a potential 15 goal scorer, and the Leafs have a better record with Army in the lineup than not. Both Brown and Orr play tough guy roles, serving as energy players, potting the rare goal and mixing it up. Barring injury, it’s a lock they’ll form a major part of the bottom-6 going forward. That would suggest the job there is half done, with the hope that having these 3 players for 80 games versus 50 will be an improvement in and of itself.
We can remove 2 players in the fold from the bottom-6 picture, Kadri and Mueller. Kadri is the Leafs’ most recent first-round pick, a small, skilled forward, and Mueller was touted as possibly the best player in the German leagues and a developing power forward. While they develop, they may see time on the 3rd and 4th lines. But, the projection for them both is to contribute to the offense, not to be long-term checkers. As such, they will be expected to compete for top-line positions or be sent back to the AHL next season.
So, what is Brian Burke to do to fill in the rest of his roster? Bozak, Boyce, Rosehill, Caputi and Hanson are RFAs at season’s end. Of these, Bozak will be brought back. At some point, fans were given the idea Bozak was ready to start feeding Phil Kessel soft passes all night long. Once the hype died down, it became clear that he is developing into a very decent 2-way forward at the NHL level. His +/- still needs a lot of help, but he’s scored 13 goals being shuffled from line to line. Signing Bozak will even save the Leafs cap money, as his entry-level contract with bonuses carried a hit of $3.725M, but will assuredly come down, perhaps by half. His faceoff work has improved, and he’s showing that he can perform some spot top-6 duty. Burke can afford to show confidence in this player by inking him to a shorter term deal and watching his continued progression.
At age 26, Boyce may have played his way onto an NHL roster finally. He’s filled in well, playing over 40 NHL games and contributing with some strong play, splitting time as a grinder as well as getting a few shifts with Kessel. At $527,500 this season, a modest raise would likely keep Boyce in the fold. He’s the type of player who isn’t difficult to replace, but familiarity and his RFA status may help get him re-signed. Similarly, Jay Rosehill has filled in for Brown and Orr, and is a player Burke will attempt to keep as Marlie tough guy ready for spot duty with the Leafs. That leaves Caputi and Hanson, 2 interesting cases. Both are big-body players, brought in by Burke to help form a young core. Neither has really grabbed the brass ring to solidify a regular job with the Leafs. Caputi seemed the better prospect, younger and amassing 92 points in 120 games with Wilkes-Barre Scranton before coming to Toronto. However, Luca has been beset by injury this season, scoring only 5 points in a total of 20 NHL and AHL games. Hanson, though, has played almost 60 games, and is 5th in Marlie scoring. Burke will have to determine whether either is ready to make a push to be an NHL player in 2011-12. It seems Hanson may have the inside track. Other RFAs in the system include Fabian Brunnstrom and Brayden Irwin, though neither has seen NHL time. If re-signed it is likely they would have to work very hard to impress during the next training camp.
Finally, there are 4 UFAs in the system that decisions need to be made on. Of these, Tim Brent seems the one to be brought back. Generally playing with Brown and Orr, Brent has surprised with 8 goals, 20 points and a -2 rating in 75 games. He’s been a shot-blocker, energy forward. At 27, he’s played in the Anaheim, Pittsburgh and Chicago organizations, all recent Stanley Cup winners. And, he comes cheap at $575,000 this season, so even a healthy raise still keeps him affordable. Mike Zigomanis is regarded by some as the best face-off man in the Leaf organization. If brought back, it’s likely the vet understands his role will be to mentor with the Marlies. He spent most of this season playing with Kadri, and currently leads the Marlies in scoring, but it will depend on whether Mike is willing to accept that role full-time. Joey Crabb is a player on the bubble. A little older, he was slated to be a contributor with the Marlies. He’s netted 14 points in 42 Leaf games, but like Boyce, is not irreplaceable. However unlike Boyce, his UFA status means no compensation would be owed if another team signs him, meaning he could attract interest. Finally, Fred Sjostrom was a part of the Phaneuf deal, but one rarely mentioned. That’s a big part of the problem. Supposed to be a penalty kill specialist, Sjostrom makes $750,000, has played 65 games, and managed 2 goals and a -5 rating. That is not a huge contribution, and the Leaf penalty kill remains in the bottom 5 in the league. Surely that’s not all Fred’s fault, but it’s an indication that keeping him should not be a priority.
It’s well known that Brian Burke is loyal to his players. By and large he tends to keep as many of his group as he feels he can. Looking at the Leaf roster, we know 5 of 6 spots on the top lines are sewn up (provided MacArthur is brought back). The push for a top centreman means competition will be fierce and will involve Kadri, while prospects Joe Colborne and Tyler Brenner will also hope to grab a spot. Burke will do what he can to secure an established NHLer, by free agency or trade. With Armstrong, Brown and Orr signed, Burke will probably go the route of re-signing Tim Brent and Tyler Bozak, and then trying to hang on to Hanson, Caputi and Boyce with 2-way deals, with incentive to win jobs coming out of the next training camp. Competition will be just as fierce for those final spots as some of these young players will try to complete the dream of being a full-time NHL forward. High turnover on the 3rd and 4th lines in the last season or 2, but with the hope for better results in 2011-12.