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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reviewing Toronto Maple Leafs Forwards after 41 Games

Toronto's Power Play Ranks 13th in NHL
Welcome to the second quarterly review of Toronto Maple Leafs forwards.  The 2nd line (now called 1st line by many) was the biggest surprise.  In the 20 game review, I declared the 2nd line to be one of the best in the league and proclaimed it to be unrealistic to expect more from this line.  Yet, they have increased their scoring production.  But, we still wait for increased scoring production from the first line.  Fortunately, the third line has started producing at a proper pace.

Overall Stats

Toronto has dropped to 22nd from 10th in NHL Goals Against per game.  This is a result of dropping to 10th from 4th in NHL Shots per game.  However, Toronto now leads the NHL with the fewest times shorthanded.  In addition, it's penalty killing has gone up to 26th from 27th.  Frankly, the team should rely on better goaltending instead of better defensive play from the forwards to improve on its goals against.

The power play remains strong as it has advanced to 13th from 15th.

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 forwards.  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  Getting proper line-mates for Phil Kessel has been a problem.  Nazem Kadri couldn't sustain his production from his first six games and Tyler Bozak had woeful scoring production up until Christmas.  However, Joey Crabb replaced Kadri with adequate play and Tyler Bozak scored 3 goals and 3 assists in his last 7 games.  There is upside to this line if Tyler Bozak can duplicate last season's finish.

Phil Kessel   RW   GP - 41   G - 18   A - 12   Pts - 30   Pct - 10.3%

Age 23.  6'0" 202 lbs.  Presently on pace to score 36 goals.  Expect his pace to pick up in the second half of the season because he is 23 years old.  One season away from his peak playing years.  Presently tied for 11th in NHL Goal Scoring.  Has more goals scored than any player on Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, and Ottawa.  Needs better scoring production from line-mates.

Tyler Bozak   C   GP - 41   G - 7   A - 10   Pts - 17   Pct - 10.1%

Age 24.  6'1" 195 lbs.  Has ended his scoring slump by scoring 3 goals and 3 assists in the last 7 games.  Last season, scored 7 goals and 12 assists in 21 games during February and March.  A repeat performance will give the line more upside scoring.  51.6% on faceoffs.

Joey Crabb   LW   GP - 9   G - 0   A - 5   Pts - 5   Pct - 0.0%

Age 27.  6'1" 190 lbs.  Doing spade work for the line.  Good depth player filling in an existing hole.  Unlikely to be anything more than a temporary solution.  

With the slow development of Kadri, Toronto needs a solid rebound from Tyler Bozak and a big trade to fully leverage Kessel's scoring ability.  Otherwise, Burke will have to wait until the off-season to retool this line.  Perhaps, Kadri gets recalled if he gets hot in the AHL and Crabb or Bozak cools off.

Second Line  Outstanding in every way.  Probably 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.  In the 20 game review, stated it is unrealistic to expect more scoring production from this line.  Yet, they have delivered more.

Clarke MacArthur   LW   GP - 41   G - 12   A - 22   Pts - 34  Pct - 16.4%

Age 25.  6'0" 190 lbs.  Can score 25 goals this season.  Playing very well with Grabovski and Kulemin.    Shots on goal declined because he is doing more play making.

Nikolai Kulemin   LW/RW   GP - 41   G - 16  A - 14   Pts - 30   Pct - 17.0%

Age 24.  6'1 225 lbs.  Biggest skill forward.  Strong on skates.  Hard to knock from puck.  Now shooting more.  Scored 9 goals in the last 21 games played.  Be prepared for him to crack the 30 goal mark.

Mikhail Grabovski - Age 26.  GP - 40   G - 17   A - 16   Pts - 33   Pct - 14.4%

Age 26.  5'11" 183 lbs.  Scored 12 goals in the last 20 games.  Continues to surprise everyone.  Has more goals scored than any player on Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, and Ottawa.  

Another team will have to offer something awfully good for Burke part with any of these players on his so-called second line.  All three players are in the peak years of their playing career.

Third Line  Doing the job defensively.  Hitting and blocking shots plus taking away the puck from the opposition.  Now a scoring threat with the return of Armstrong and the additions of Versteeg and Boyce.  Need more size on the line.

Kris Versteeg    RW/LW   GP - 40   G - 12   A - 19   Pts - 31   Pct - 11.3%

Age 24.  5'10"  182 lbs.  Leading forwards in blocked shots and take aways.  Established 20-goal scorer on pace for 25 goals.  25 goal pace in spite of his slow start.  Plays a big role on the team's power play.  Don't rule out Versteeg returning to 1st line play if Toronto acquires a big centre for the 1st line.

Colby Armstrong   RW/LW    GP - 25   G - 5   A - 5   Pts - 10   Pct - 17.2%

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

Darryl Boyce   C   GP - 6   G - 2   A - 2   Pts - 4   Pct - 40.0%

Age 26.  6'0" 200 lbs.  Is doing almost everything asked of him.  Hits, blocks shots, and scores.  Needs to improve on 43.6% face-off pct.  Team will want a bigger version him Darryl Boyce.  Sounds like Tim Brent at the start of the season.

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 continued development of Christian Hanson and Marcel Mueller can result in the needed size in the second half of the season..

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

Colton Orr   RW   GP - 41   G - 2   A - 0   Pts - 2   Pct - 16.7%

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 - 22   G - 1   A - 1   Pts - 2   Pct - 4.0%

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?

Tim Brent   C   GP - 40   G - 3   A - 3   Pts - 6   Pct - 10.3%

Age 26.  6'0" 188 lbs.  Is doing almost everything asked of him.  Hits, blocks shots, and scores.  Needs to improve on 49.8% face-off pct.  Team will want a bigger version of Tim Brent.

Fred Sjostrom   LW   GP - 40   G - 1   A - 4   Pts - 5   Pct - 2.6%

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.  Relegated to 4th line when Armstrong returned to active play.  It will be interesting to see what happens to Sjostrom when Mike Brown returns from his injury.  Sjostrom is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

John Mitchell   C/LW   GP - 23   G - 2   A - 1   Pts - 3   Pct - 7.1%

Age 25.  6'1" 204 lbs.  Good skating speed and above average face-off performance.  55.7% faceoff pct.  No longer can be considered a prospect.

With small players for top six forwards, Toronto needs a big tough 4th line.  Brown and Orr meet the requirements.


Nazem Kadri   LW   GP - 17   G - 0   A - 6     Pts - 6     Pct - 0.0%     (NHL)
                                GP - 18   G - 7   A - 11   Pts - 18   Pct - 14.6%   (AHL)

Age 20.  6'0" 185 lbs.  Called up sooner than planned to help team address scoring problem.  Helped trigger the power play.  However, slumped to only 2 assists in 11 games before being assigned to Marlies.  Has scored 2 goals and 2 assists in 4 games played since returning to AHL.  Don't be surprised to see him return to NHL play if he becomes hot in the AHL.

Christian Hanson   C   GP - 3     G - 0     A - 0     Pts - 0     Pct - 0.0%     (NHL)
                                    GP - 31   G - 10   A - 10   Pts - 20   Pct - 14.1%   (AHL)

Age 24.  6'4" 228 lbs.  Big.  Strong on face-offs.  Has found his scoring touch in the past two months.  Scored 7 goals and 7 assists in he last 17 AHL games played.  Expect him to be called up by the trade deadline.

Marcel Mueller   LW   GP - 39   G - 7   A - 13   Pts - 20   Pct - 9.7%   (AHL)

Age 22.  6'3" 232 lbs.  Rebounded from an extremely slow start in the first two months.  Scored 6 goals and 9 assists in the last 18 AHL games played.  Good chance of getting called up to NHL by trade deadline.  Will be the biggest forward on the Leafs if called up.  Will add much needed size to third line.

Matt Frattin   RW   GP - 23   G - 20   A - 8   Pts - 28   Pct - 21.2%   (Univ of North Dakota)

Age 22.  6'2" 205 lbs.  Currently leads WCHA in goals scored.  Almost double the number of the second best goal scorer.  Final year in US College hockey.  Certain to be a Hobey Baker trophy candidate.  Will be ready to turn pro this spring.  Toronto's fourth round draft pick in 2007 Entry Draft.  Viktor Stalberg scored 24 goals in 39 games when he was a Hobey Baker trophy candidate in his final year of college hockey.

Mike Zigomannis   C   GP - 8     G - 0   A - 1     Pts - 1     Pct - 0.0%   (NHL)
                                   GP - 33   G - 5   A - 17   Pts - 22   Pct - 6.7%   (AHL)

Age 29.  6'0"  200 lbs.  20-2-8-10  Versatile.  $500k cap salary gives team cap flexibility.  Doesn't need to clear re-entry waivers when recalled from AHL.  Scored 2 goals and 8 assists in last 20 AHL games.  Strictly a depth player.

Justin Hodgman  C   GP - 31   G - 8   A - 13   Pts - 21   Pct - 15.1%   (AHL)

Age 22.  6'1"  203 lbs.  Slowed down after fast start in AHL.  Scored 2 goals and 4 assists in last 13 AHL games played.  Not eligible for NHL play because not on Toronto's 50 Active Player roster.

Brayden Irwin   C   GP - 39   G - 7   A - 7   Pts - 14   Pct - 10.0%   (AHL)

Age 23.  6'5" 215 lbs.  Key development year for him.  Already has NHL shot.  Needs to work on his skating.  Slow progress in development.  Scored 4 goals and 2 assists in last 19 AHL games played.

Jerry D'Amigo   LW/RW   GP - 32   G - 4   A - 6   Pts - 10   Pct - 8.9%   (AHL)

Age 19.  5'11" 208 lbs.  Has potential to develop fast.  Seems to have regressed in the past two months.  Scored 1 goal and 2 assists in last 9 AHL games played.  Still very young with high upside.

Luca Caputi   LW   GP - 7     G - 0   A - 0   Pts - 0   Pct - 0.0%   (NHL)
                               GP - 11   G - 1   A - 4   Pts - 0   Pct - 3.2%   (AHL)

Age 22.  6'3"  200 lbs.  Having a disappointing season.  Will not be waiver exempt by next season.  Might be moved to make room for Justin Hodgman on the 50 Active Player roster.  Jiri Tlusty was in similar situation last season where he faced losing his waiver exemption at end of season and Toronto did not have room for Mike Zigomannis on the 50 Active Player roster.

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, and a wealth of top six forwards 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 bottom six forwards needs more size.  This will be addressed by the arrival of Christian Hanson and Marcel Mueller.  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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