Friday, January 23, 2009

Do The Leafs Have Three Solid Forward Lines?

As the Leafs' continue to slump and suck, we head into the dark days of a meaningless All-Star break with nothing to celebrate except our relative proximity to 29th place. Somehow though, I feel I've maybe inherited a small duty to try to find and express any positives for loyal Leaf fans, and to serve them up as a distraction until things actually are getting better. Well, with that in mind...

... don't look now, but the Leafs might actually have three solid scoring lines. With the return of Nikolai Kulemin to the line-up, Coach Wilson is now able to roll out three distinct units that should provide a consistent and balanced attack. If they can avoid injuries, these units should stay together from now until the trade deadline. While the results have been disappointing lately, the Leafs haven't really been able put out their best line-up, having to mix and match linemates with little success. Hopefully now, with their top 9 forwards healthy and focused, and comfortable and familiar with their roles and their linemates, the Leafs can build on the natural chemistry that already seems to be there within this group. At the very least, they should challenge and motivate one another to see who can be the Leafs' most dangerous forward line.


This is the line that should be the Leafs' top scoring line but lately they've been struggling. Since returning to the line-up from his infamous soccer-ball-to-the-eye injury, Stajan initially picked up a goal and an assist in his first 2 games back but has now been held pointless in his last five. Antropov has been contributing with assists, 5 over his last 10 games to lead the team, but he's also riding a streak of 15 games without a goal. The last goal for the Lanky Kazakh was over a month ago, on December 20th, the seventh Leaf goal in a 7-3 win over Pittsburgh. Ponikarovsky, meanwhile, shares the team lead in goals at 14 with the surging Jason Blake. However, because of - or is it leading to? - Antropov's inability to put the puck in the net, the Poni-Express has not registered an assist in ten games.

This line has the talent to be the team's top unit, but confidence is a key issue here. Before the San Jose game on December 2nd, this line had been in a groove. Since then, they've fallen into a funk with the rest of the team, and Stajan's injury and recovery have seemingly dragged that out. Look for this line to feel the heat from Wilson if they don't get back on track soon after the All-Star break. There's a lot at stake for the Leafs between now and the trade deadline and a lot of it depends on the performance of these three.


It was nice to see the Man-Grabs-Lemon line reunited against Boston. Although they didn't contribute on the scoresheet, they did seem to add some zip, while their positioning is so sound that the play just seems to flow towards them. I like the way Kulemin finishes his checks and hustles on the back check, and I like the way Grabovski makes every rush look dangerous. Hagman's steady poise and composure is the perfect fit for balancing the skills of these two young players. On most nights, even when they're not scoring, this line is exciting to watch, making them a popular trio. Time and patience is all they need, but it will be worth the wait when they blossom.


With Kulemin and Stajan back with their usual linemates, Stempniak has found himself bumped down (up?) to the hottest line the Leafs have at the moment. Jason Blake and Dominic Moore seem to have found some chemistry with one another and have been the Leafs' most dangerous duo for some time now. Over the last 10 games, those two spirited 3rd-liners have combined for a total of 8 goals and 8 assists, and have contributed either a goal or an assist on 13 of the Leafs last 21 goals. They're leading the way offensively at the moment, and Blake is remarkably earning his place as the highest paid forward on the team.

Adding Stempniak to this pair had an immediate success on Wednesday night against the Bruins. All 3 players picked up 2 points a piece and were all plus 1 against the best team in the Eastern Conference. The line produced the first 2 Toronto goals, the second one on the powerplay, and they looked dangerous all night until the Leafs got bogged down into penalty trouble in the 3rd. Blake and Stempniak both continued to impress when they each scored in the shootout. Stempniak's skills, and his style of play, seems to fit well here with Moore and Blake, and I hope Wilson keeps them together for a while and gives them the ice-time they deserve. By no means should this line be carrying the team, but if the top 2 lines can get on a roll, this trio's contribution becomes much more valuable, giving the Leafs a balanced, steady, and dynamic attack.

So, who does that leave us with? What spare parts and plugs are left on the bench to make up the 4th line and grab 4 to 9 minutes of ice time?

They are: Mitchell, Williams, Mayers, Tlusty, Hollweg, May, and Deveaux.

You can mix and match wingers with Mitchell for all sorts of different combinations, but the most obvious to me seems to be the 3M line of Mitchell, Mayers, and May. We saw this group together against Boston, and they also had a strong game for 2 periods, with May scoring the Leafs' 3rd goal of the game, his first of the year. Mayers doesn't add much but I liked the way he took on Kostopoulos, so I'd leave him in there for now. Williams seems like a good plug if there's an injury or the line-up needs a shakeup, but I'm not totally sold on him as an everyday player. Tlusty has already been sent down again, despite picking up 4 assists in 2 games, his first points as a Leaf this year. Now that we have May, I really don't see much point in having Hollweg in the line-up, and as long as we're healthy I don't see any reason to have Andre Deveaux helpin' out anymore either. Deveaux seemed like a good guy who did help us by giving us a little extra punch when we needed it. There's maybe not much more he can offer us now, but we'll always appreciate his 75 minutes of pugilism.

The Leafs top 3 lines look like they should be solid enough for Wilson to roll with them from now until the trade deadline. After that, this might be a very different team, but until them, as long as they can avoid injuries, I like the way this line up looks. I think it actually has some skill and character and is only really lacking in confidence. The third line is hot right now, but we've seen Man-Grabs-Lemon look terrific at times, and we've seen Stajan-Antro-Poni tearing it up earlier in the season as well. There's some good pieces here right now - they just have to put it all together at the same time and get on a roll.

With any luck, games will be more exciting, trade values will go up, and Vesa's crappy play will continue to keep us on pace for 29th place.


I've just learned that Kulemin has been reassingned yet again to the Marlies. I'm pretty disappointed with this move, and I don't really get it. Ah well, ...screw this post!


Okay, maybe "screw this post" was a little harsh. After some reflection and consideration, I think this move is simply meant to keep Kulemin in the game while the rest of the team and the coaching staff enjoy a mini-vacation during the All-Star break. Nikolai has only just returned from injury so it's a good idea to keep him skating. The Marlies play in Syracuse tonight and then return home for a game in Toronto on Saturday. Expect to see Kulemin return to the big club by Tuesday when the Leafs return to action against Minnesota. Glove tap to the ever-wise Archimedies for the updates and the Four-One-One.


blurr1974 said...

Beyond the second line, I'm not getting too attached to any combinations.

I love the look of the third line, which is a highly skilled unit compared to most other third lines/checking units.

It's nice to see Blake producing again (or should that say "finally?")

Pseudonym said...

Sure you point out how some fowards have played well for a portion of the schedule. But to be a top 6 forward you need to play well consistently. Twelve good games does not make for a solid season let alone a career. I would say that only Moore has played well consistently this season. Blake after a poor start has been playing well. After these two, consistency is not a term that would apply to any other Leaf foward.

puckbuddy said...

Hmm, the first line looks like a really good third line or at least contain some good third line type players. The second line seems to need something, whether its a certain player or experience, I don't know. The current third and forth line are basically spare parts.

general borschevsky said...

Cheers, blurr! It seems Blake is playing his best hockey as a Maple Leaf right now. We'll see how long it lasts.

Hi Pseudonym! Consitency has definitely been a problem with this team. So has been having a healthy line-up.

three distinct units that should provide a consistent and balanced attack

The emphasis is on should. We'll see.

Hey puckbuddy! The first line does look like a pretty good 3rd line and that's about all at the moment. Earlier in the year they seemed okay but maybe they were overachieving. The 2nd line just needs experience. I'm hoping that Blake and Stempniak are more then just spare parts. Blake has 10 points in the last 10 games, and Stempniak cost us two spare parts to acquire, so I hope he has a bigger role then that.