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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Assessing Toronto Maple Leafs Forwards after 20 Games

Toronto Maple Leafs Showing Signs of
Responding to Ron Wilson's Coaching
We have lots of stats to throw at you.  The forwards are working hard and providing good defensive play.  Second line is providing top performance and delivering first line results with second line playing time.  The first line needs to score more goals.  But, the two key players on it are 20 and 23 years old.  Lots of upside for the line.  Third line needs more size and scoring.  But, will it come at the expense of defensive play?  Fourth line is tough, aggressive and provides adequate scoring.

Overall Stats

Goals against per game has improved to 10th in the NHL compared to 29th last season.  Being 4th in shots against per game compared to 13th last season has helped reduce goals against.  Fewer penalties is another big contributer.  Toronto is now 6th in penalties per game compared to 19th last season.  As a group, the forwards have shown strong disciplined defensive play.

Penalty killing has only seen marginal improvement where Toronto ranks 27th in the NHL compared to last the previous season.

The power play is another recent improvement.  Toronto has the 15th best power play compared to the worst last season.  This improvement came with the addition of Nazem Kadri and Kris Versteeg to the first power play.

Information Used to Assess Lines and Players

There are 3 players to a line and 30 teams in the NHL.  As a result, one can set performance thresholds for each line by looking at the goal scoring league wide in segments of 90 players.  Within these segments, you can designate a playoff and non-playoff echelon based on 16 teams making the playoffs.

Reviewing last season's statistics shows a player must score 21 goals to be in the top 90 NHL goal scorers.  In other words, scoring at least 21 goals is first-line quality scoring.  Scoring at least 25 goals is playoff quality first line performance.  Furthermore, 32 or more goals will place you at the top 16 goal scorer level in the league.

Second line quality scoring is 14 to 21 goals where the playoff echelon is 17 to 21 goals.  Third line quality is 9 to 14 goals with 11 to 14 goals as the range for the playoff echelon.  Fourth line quality is 4 to 9 goals with 6 to 9 goals for the playoff echelon.

You may have your own criteria for assessing goal scoring performance.  However, most people are satisfied with benchmarking against the league.

Age is another factor.  Ages 24 to 26 are typically a player's peak scoring years.  You can assume players younger than 24 will improve as they get older.  After the age of 30, players tend to decline.  The ones who excelled before the age of 24 tend to take longer to decline versus the others.  In other words, they can sustain good performance into their 30s.

Scoring percentage is another consideration when evaluating players.  For me, a player must have at least a 10% scoring percentage to get regular ice time.  You can make exceptions for exceptional play makers.  Otherwise, the player should be slotted for fourth line duty.

First line  Very young.  Potential not yet fully realized.  Kessel's line mates need to pick up their scoring.  Nazem Kadri is an excellent addition.  His "magic hands", as Don Cherry calls them, are finding ways to setup Phil Kessel.

Phil Kessel   RW   GP - 20   G - 9   A - 4   Pts - 13   Pct - 13.4%

Age 23.  6'0" 202 lbs.  Presently on pace to score 36 goals.  Expect his pace to pick up as the season progresses.  People say, when Kessel scores more goals, Leafs win more games.  Tied for 4th in NHL with 3 game winning goals.  Last season, NHL leader had 9 game winning goals.

Tyler Bozak   C   GP - 20   G - 3   A - 3   Pts - 6   Pct - 7.7%

Age 24.  6'1" 195 lbs.  A trying season both personally and professionally.  He is delivering disappointing results while entering the peak of his playing career.  Went through a nine game stretch with only scoring one point after a friend and past team mate, Jesse Martin, suffered a tragic spinal injury while playing college hockey.  55.9% on faceoffs.  Will be given opportunities to work through his issues as long as no alternatives exist.

Nazem Kadri   LW   GP - 5   G - 0   A - 4   Pts - 4   Pct - 0.0%

Age 20.  6'0" 188 lbs.  Called up sooner than planned to help team address scoring problem.  Helped trigger the power play.  Has uncanny ability to find players on the ice with his passing.  Might become first line centre within the season.  Getting assists at a pace of an elite play-maker.

With Kessel and Kadri, this line is one elite player away from being a force.  Ideally, you want to add someone within their age range so they can grow together.  If Burke can't acquire a player, he will need Jerry D'Amigo to develop rapidly which is very possible with his high ceiling of talent.

Second Line  Outstanding in every way.  One of the best second lines in the league.  Being called teams first line.  Delivering first line results with second line playing time.  All three players are playing to their full potential.

Clarke MacArthur   LW   GP - 20   G - 7   A - 11   Pts - 18   Pct - 16.3%

Age 25.  6'0" 190 lbs.  Need a full season to evaluate him.  History of slumping in second half after fast start.  However, he should get 180 shots if he maintains his playing time.  This can translate into 27 goals with his career 15% scoring pct.  MacArthur knows how to trail the play in order to pick up rebounds.  A rare skill on the Leafs for the past few years.

Nikolai Kulemin   LW/RW   GP - 20   G - 7   A - 6   Pts - 13   Pct - 17.1%

Age 24.  6'1 225 lbs.  Biggest skill forward.  Uses his speed to burst through holes.  Good shot.  Strong on skates.  Hard to knock from puck.  Needs to shoot more.  Sure potential 20 goal scorer.  Solid top six player.  Be prepared for him to crack the 25 goal mark.

Mikhail Grabovski - Age 26.  GP - 20   G - 5   A - 11   Pts - 16   Pct - 11.4%

Age 26.  5'11" 183 lbs.  Must be the biggest surprise this season after experiencing a drop in scoring last season.  One of the few players on the team who plays well down low on the power play.

Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have an interesting dilemma on their hands.  There are two other prospects with the potential of becoming top six forwards within another season plus Kris Versteeg on the third line.  Do they graduate Kulemin or MacArthur to the first line to make room on the second line for any of these players?  Perhaps, try Kris Versteeg with Kessel and Kadri when they feel Kadri can handle playing centre.  Or, do they package two or three of the players in a trade for a top three forward?

Third Line  Doing the job defensively.  Hitting and blocking shots.  Weak scoring.  Scoring threat will be adequate when Colby Armstrong returns.

Kris Versteeg    RW/LW   GP - 19   G - 6   A - 6   Pts - 12   Pct - 13.0%

Age 24.  5'10"  182 lbs.  Leading forwards in blocked shots.  Established 20-goal scorer.  Might not have much upside.  25 goals is most he has ever scored in a season in junior, AHL, and NHL.  Yet, he is on a 25 goal pace in spite of his slow start.  Most importantly, Versteeg has pole-vaulted the teams power-play.  Tied for 8th NHL 4 PP goals.

Colby Armstrong   RW/LW    GP - 8   G - 1   A - 0   Pts - 1   Pct - 20.0%

Age 28.  6'2"  195 lbs.  Size, toughness, aggressiveness, and an NHL shot.  Nothing more needs to be said.

Tim Brent   C   GP - 20   G - 2   A - 1   Pts - 3   Pct - 11.8%

Age 26.  6'0" 188 lbs.  Is doing almost everything asked of him.  Hits, blocks shots, and scores.  Needs to improve on 48.3% face-off pct.  Team will want a bigger version of Tim Brent.

Fred Sjostrom   LW   GP - 20   G - 1   A - 1   Pts - 2   Pct - 4.3%

Age 27.  6'1" 218 lbs.  Leading forwards in hits.  Good hard skater.  Scoring pct is too far below 10% to play on the third line.  It will be interesting to see where he is placed when Armstrong returns.

The third line needs to get big players with NHL shots for Toronto to be more competitive.  Presently, only Colby Armstrong meets the requirements.  The team's fate depends on the development of Brayden Irwin, Christian Hanson, Luca Caputi, and Marcel Mueller.

Fourth Line  Teams no longer run Leafs out of the rink.

Colton Orr   RW   GP - 20   G - 2   A - 0   Pts - 2   Pct - 33.3%

Age 28.  6'3" 222 lbs.  Nobody runs Toronto out of the rink when Colton Orr is on the bench.  A big difference from two years ago when other teams were running Mike Van Ryn through the glass.

Mike Brown   LW/RW   GP - 20   G - 1   A - 1   Pts - 2   Pct - 4.5%

Age 25.  5'11" 205 lbs.  Hitting, blocking shots, skating, and fighting.  What more can you ask for from a $537k cap salary fourth liner?

John Mitchell   C/LW   GP - 11   G - 0   A - 1   Pts - 1   Pct - 0.0%

Age 25.  6'1" 204 lbs.  One-way contract means losing John Mitchell for the season if you waive him to the minors.  He must clear re-entry waivers to get recalled.  Speed and above average face-off performance.  Yet, hard to trust in key situations.  53.8% faceoff pct.  Job in jeapordy when face-off performance drops.  Must focus on improving the small parts (faceoffs and shot blocking) of his game.  Must win Ron Wilson's trust to play him in key situations to remain long term.

Toronto needs a clutch face-off centre on the fourth line to be competitive.  Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson may be destined for this role.


Luca Caputi   LW   GP - 6   G - 0   A - 0   Pts - 0   Pct - 0.0%

Age 22.  6'3"  200 lbs.  Should be able to play in NHL at age 22 if a true top six player.  He will have a problem with waiver rules by next season.  Needs to block shots and kills penalties to be a third line player.  Must use time in AHL to rediscover his scoring touch.

Christian Hanson   C   GP - 3   G - 0   A - 0   Pts - 0   Pct - 0.0%

Age 24.  6'4" 228 lbs.  Big.  Strong on face-offs.  Not an NHL scoring threat.  Must find scoring touch in AHL to be considered third line potential.

Mike Zigomannis   C   GP - 8   G - 0   A - 1   Pts - 1   Pct - 0.0%

Age 29.  6'0"  200 lbs.  Versatile.  $500k cap salary will guarantee him a spot as the spare forward when Leafs get close to the cap after making a big trade.  Doesn't need to clear re-entry waivers when recalled from AHL.

Jerry D'Amigo   LW/RW   GP - 21   G - 3   A - 4   Pts - 7   Pct - 10.7%   (AHL)

Age 19.  5'11" 208 lbs.  Scored six points in his last nine games after a slow start to the season.  Watch his development.  Has potential to develop fast.

Matt Frattin   RW   GP - 14   G - 12   A - 3   Pts - 15   Pct - 25.0%   (Univ of North Dakota)

Age 22.  5'11" 187 lbs.  Currently leads WCHA in goals scored.  Final year in University hockey.  Will be ready to turn pro this spring.  Toronto's fourth round draft pick in 2007 Entry Draft.

Brayden Irwin   C   GP - 20   G - 3   A - 6   Pts - 9   Pct - 11.1%   (AHL)

Age 23.  6'5" 215 lbs.  Key development year for him.  Already has NHL shot.  Needs to work on his skating.

Conclusion  Brian Burke is in a strong position from a player management/development perspective.  He can improve the team by simply letting the young players (up to the ages of 24) develop by getting experience.  He also has cap space, prospects, a wealth of top six forwards, and position in the standings to invite trade offers and hold his ground in trade negotiations.

Ultimately, improving the first line provides him with the greatest chance for improving the team's goal scoring.  Expecting more from the second line may not be realistic.  The third line can use some more goal scoring.  But, how much do you want to risk a decline in defensive play to squeeze out ten more goals from this line.  The fourth line should be strictly for role players as long as six goals is within their reach.  Sacrificing team toughness or a face-off man for a couple of more goals does not make sense.

If Burke acquires a top 3 players within the year, it will be ideal if the player's age is within the range of Kadri and Kessel.

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