Toronto Maple Leafs Live and Die by the Top Line
If last night’s 5-2 comeback victory over the New York Islanders proved anything, it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs’ overall dependence on the offensive production of their first line.
In itself, of course, this doesn’t really mean anything significant: almost every team in the NHL relies heavily on the output of their top lines. That’s why they’re called top lines. What makes the Leafs’ case special, however, is the virtual absence of their second line to start the new season.
This absence has put added pressure on Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak to keep the Leafs competitive, but when these three players can’t find the back of the net, the Leafs often find themselves in the loss column. Proof of this can be found in the team’s two loses to the Detroit Red Wings last week: Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Bozak were effectively shutout of both games and the Leafs had no counterpunch.
The second line of Daniel Winnik, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri is still looking to find its offensive groove – they’ve combined for seven points (four goals, three assists) versus a combined 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) for the top line – while the third line of David Clarkson, Leo Komarov and Mike Santorelli has been a pleasant surprise, registering a combined 12 points (three goals, nine assists).
(There’s little point in discussing the fourth line – head coach Randy Carlyle has essentially shelved it, playing with 11 forwards and seven defencemen last night. Lupul and Peter Holland found themselves moving between lines as Richard Panik sat on the bench keeping it warm for everyone else. Matt Frattin was a healthy scratch.)
Toronto’s current reliance on their top line means a number of things, but it’s not all bad. For one, they have plenty of room to improve. Once Lupul and Kadri begin contributing closer to their career numbers, the Leafs will benefit from a more balanced attack and see their overall offensive numbers increase. Meanwhile, the third line has done an admirable job picking up the slack for the second line and if they can continue contributing at such a high level, it could give the Leafs three solid lines to roll down the road.
Lost in all this, however, is the fourth line, which has been a huge disappointment to start the new season. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren play in the NHL or the AHL – the fourth line is still a black hole on the Leafs. Another downside is the fact other team’s can easily silence the Leafs by shutting down the top line.
Detroit has written the early book on this. As Leafs fans, we can only hope the rest of the league doesn’t take notice until Kadri and Lupul find their legs on the second line. This would help offset the loss in production.
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