Young Guns

Youth.  Inconsistency. Promise. Growth. Development.

These are all areas of concern for the Leafs fan base.  We haven't seen enough of those aspects in certain corners of this year's club. But in reality - perhaps the over-estimation of results stems from expected quality of play on behalf of those who should already be developed?  Perhaps we would have liked to see more from the likes of Komisarek, Giguere, Lebda, or Armstrong?

Be that as it may, what do Leaf fans have to look forward to?  Why that same youth mentioned previously of course.  There are 25 players in the NHL who are 24 or younger entering this season that have managed to score 10 goals so far this year.  Of those, 3 play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Chicago is the only other team to have 3 players on the list.  That old foil for Leaf bashers, the Boston Bruins possess one (Milan Lucic) - and frankly his odds of making that list regularly are in doubt to my mind.  

Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, and Kris Versteeg are all on the list of 10+ goal men who are 24 or younger.  This is a list that obviously includes the likes of Crosby and Stamkos, but beyond those two lights out scorers the rest of the group is more comparable.  Logan Couture has 18 in what must be described as a fantastic rookie campaign. Dubinsky, Giroux, and Lucic all have 16 and all 3 have seriously slowed down since starting the season on a hot streak.  Dubinsky has 4 goals in his last 17 games, Giroux has 4 in his last 16 games, and Lucic has 1 goal in his last 10 games.  Next on the list would be Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Matt Duchene, and Bobby Ryan who all have 15 goals on the year.

Phil Kessel sits alone at 14 goals so far, and then at 13 we have Nikolai Kulemin, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal.  Malkin was injured for a chunk of games so his scoring dropped a tad, and Neal has gone cold quickly in the past month, with no goals in his last 10 games.

Taylor Hall and Evander Kane are two of the top 19 year olds in the NHL, both sitting at 12 goals on the year.  Then we have Nicklas Backstrom and Patrick Kane at 11 goals, tied with another rookie, the Rangers Derek Stepan, Chris Stewart of the Avalanche, and John Tavares of the Islanders.

Pulling up the bottom of the list we have another Leaf in Kris Versteeg, Blackhawks rookie Bryan Bickell, Minnesota hit machine Cal Clutterbuck, and Atlanta sniper Bryan Little, all tied with 10.

Every player on the list is averaging 0.28 goals per game or better, which works out to a 23 goal pace over a full 82 game schedule.  15 of the skaters are scoring at a rate above 0.36 goals per game, which would put them roughly on pace for a 30 goal season.  Kulemin and Kessel are both in that top 15. Pittsburgh Colorado, and Chicago are the only other teams with 2 players in that group (Toews + Kane, Crosby + Malkin, Duchene + Stewart, Kessel + Kulemin).  It may seem very odd to read those names in the same elite category - but it's reality.

Also, some may argue that 24 is a fairly arbitrary cut-off date - and it is - but Malkin is 24 and roughly the same age as Kulemin - if it were any lower they wouldn't be on the list.

My main reason for choosing the age of 24 is because 25 is apparently the average age at which players reach their peak production, so theoretically all of these players can still be considered to be on the upside of their career development curve.  Thus these 25 scorers are likely to be amongst the top group of goal scorers for the next 3 or 4 years at least - if not longer.  Perhaps this will help soothe some of the Leaf fans' pain when they concern themselves over the direction in which Brian Burke is taking the franchise.

There are brighter days ahead, and the reality is, if MacArthur (25), Grabovski (26), and Bozak (25) can keep scoring, or in the case of Bozak increase it, then the Leafs will have a very solid core of players 26 or younger around which they can move forwards.  

On the subject of Bozak, the following information may soothe the worriers a tad.  Bozak has now played 74 games in the NHL.  He has produced 15 goals and 42 points in his first 74 NHL games.  That approximates a rookie season, and the number of rookies to produce 42 points at roughly the same age is quite minimal.  Tomas Vanek put up 48 points in 82 games as a 22 year old.  Blake Wheeler put up 45 points in 81 games as a 22 year old.  Jamie Benn had 41 points in 82 games as a 20 year old.  Travis Zajac had 42 points in 80 games as a 21 year old.  Alex Steen had 45 points in 75 games as a 21 year old.  Patrik Berglund had 47 points in 76 games as a 20 year old.

Obviously he's slightly older than that crowd, and he still has a few games before he hits the 82 game plateau, but in all honesty, his production has been around the same as that group through the his first year in the NHL.  That's a GREAT group to be a part of.  

MacArthur is leading the team in scoring, and Grabovski is it's most dynamic forward (a favourite subject around these parts).  All in all, the Leafs young top 6 group of scoring forwards isn't something they should be talking about shipping out.  Considering that entering this season the group was seen as the Leafs greatest soft spot, largely due to their inexperience, it makes little sense to ride out the growing pains portion without reaping the rewards of their development.  This too would be an example of selling low... not high (as many predict).  The idea that Grabovski and MacArthur have hit lofty heights they will never reach again is more than a bit misleading when one considers their ages.  They could well regularly produce at the pace they've shown thus far, and there is no reason to assume a drop off is imminent in their production.

If trades are likely to happen, I would hope Burke will refrain from moving out young assets that will continue to grow and develop.  He should be seeking to move his veterans like Beauchemin, Sjostrom, Lebda, Komisarek, Kaberle, Giguere, etc.  If he can reap a solid return in exchange for that group, then he might as well seek to do so... and at the same time reduce the cap burden for next season.

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