Here are some harsh truths as the Leafs continue their abrupt awakening from the dream that was the first 13 games of their NHL season: the goaltenders can’t be relied upon, the club’s scoring depth is woefully lacking and the second forward unit that clicked so smoothly last season looks like a trio of players on the ice with one another for the first time.
The first truth is troublesome, but ultimately doesn’t require action (at least not now). James Reimer is working his way back from the whiplash/concussion/whatever business and there doesn’t appear to be a need to add a veteran netminder in the interim. Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens have been awfully shaky, but there’s a reason that neither man is atop the Leafs’ goaltending depth chart right now.
Now, the other two obviously come as part and parcel of each other. It’s not easy to have scoring depth when your second line isn’t performing up to standard. As such, it’s time for Ron Wilson to split his most consistent line from 2010-11 up.
This isn’t necessarily about identifying individual performance, although Clarke MacArthur looks like he could tally another 60+ point season with the right linemates while, on the other hand, Nikolai Kulemin apparently hasn’t clued into this regular season thing going on. It really comes down more to being a shake-up aimed at, really, any forward not named Kessel or Lupul.
The top line is off-limits. Tyler Bozak (the only forward aside from Phil the Thrill to have scored over the past four games) is a perfectly adequate place-holder as the first line pivot for the next game or two as Tim Connolly works his way back from injury and any other changes would disrupt the good thing that Kessel and Lupul have going.
From there, I would certainly be ready to demote Kulemin and maybe even Mikhail Grabovski, who is working hard but simply not seeing the results, off the second line. A line of, say, MacArthur, Bozak (once he’s called off Kessel/Lupul duty) and Matt Frattin (seriously… he’s shaken off some early nerves and is improving quickly) would have some scoring ability with physical, two-way capabilities mixed in.
That would also add more scoring punch to the third line, where Grabbo and Kulemin could find themselves in a decidedly lower pressure situation with the opposing team’s third-string defensive unit to, potentially, prey upon. Mike Brown possesses some speed and could work on the wing, but I would be interested to see if Grabovski would fare better if moved to the wing to be centered by Matt Lombardi. Lombardi-Grabovski-Kulemin would hardly be the type of grinder line that Brian Burke likes among his bottom-two lines, but the unit would help balance the scoring efforts and would shake up a forward corps clearly in need of a jolt.
Look, I’m no expert when it comes to chemistry (I sucked in all sciences), so these proposals come with the added caveat that my analysis of the melding of on-ice styles could be way off. The point here is that five goals in four games isn’t going to cut it – and when your second scoring line is responsible for precisely none of those goals, that’s as good a starting point as any to take part in a bit of problem solving. It’s not a panic move, but a reaction to the present realities facing the club.
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Written by Ben Fisher