It was quite the productive weekend for a Leafs’ braintrust inching closer and closer to the regular season, as the team trimmed down its roster to 30 players and head coach Ron Wilson even started penciling in line combinations.
While nothing is etched in stone, Wilson has spoken openly about how things are likely to shake down up front regarding his top four lines.
The team is sufficiently pleased with the contributions of top trio Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Kris Versteeg that they appear to be entrenched on the first line. On the second line, Wilson is leaning towards having Mikhail Grabovski flanked by Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin.
In speaking with Paul Hunter of the Toronto Star, the head coach even went so far as to clear up some of the logjam on the bottom two lines. Though no centres were named, Wilson tabbed Colby Armstrong and Fredrik Sjostrom as the third line wingers and Colton Orr and Mike Brown for some gritty fourth line duty.
Perhaps the most notable absentee is Nazem Kadri, whose contributions in training camp simply haven’t matched the hype thus far for the 2009 first-rounder. Hardly a fit centring one of the bottom two lines focused more on toughness than scoring and with Brian Burke already admitting that “he’s not playing anywhere near to the level he was expected to,” Kadri seems destined for a demotion at this point.
That’s not to suggest there’s nothing left for Leafs hopefuls to play for.
The two remaining centre positions will likely come down to John Mitchell and Christian Hanson, but Mitchell’s 2009-10 struggles seem to have carried over and journeyman forwards Tim Brent and Mike Zigomanis could still make a push to be part of the opening night line-up. Of course, there are options beyond the in-house variety that could come into play, such as trades (although Burke seems to be holding steadfast on maintaining his defensive depth) and free agents (if Brendan Morrison doesn’t make the Canucks, the Leafs could be waiting).
For those who don’t secure a spot on one of the team’s top four lines, there will likely be at least one additional forward spot available, even if reports of Toronto keeping eight defencemen are true. Luca Caputi and Jay Rosehill will challenge the left over centres for the 13th spot up front.
A quick look at those lines suggests a team at risk of continuing to struggle with scoring depth.
The top line looks solid, albeit with questions regarding Bozak’s ability to be a full-time No. 1 pivot at the NHL level. It’s also hard not to notice that Versteeg is jumping two lines from his responsibilities on a much deeper Blackhawks squad from last year. The second line, meanwhile, boasts a centre whom the team tried, unsuccessfully, to unload this summer and two wingers without a 20-goal season on their resume.
For this team to have enough scoring punch to contend for a play-off spot in the East, the will need several players to make the most of their increased role and opportunities.
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Written by Ben Fisher