Editor's Note: The '67 Sound takes a look at some of Brian Burke's latest public comments and examines how they apply to his team building philosophy. It's a bit of a longer piece but definitely worth a read.
In various comments over the past week, and in reaction to some typically thoughtful pieces over at Copper N Blue, I have been thinking about who is going to make this Leafs team and what role they are likely to play. I should also credit various members of PPPPP who are always emphasize that the NHL is not a fantasy league or video game, and team roles are important. As Brian Burke often likes to refer to his Cup-winning team in Anaheim as a model of how he likes to build a team, I thought I would take a closer look and see what lessons can be learned. Karina's helpful reference to an outstanding Mirtle article from three years' ago is also a must-read on this front.
On Twitter yesterday, I looked at Burke's assertion in recent radio interviews that the Leafs did not have too much defensive depth with eight established players on one-way contracts because to win in the NHL, you need to have "nine or ten" defencemen; he specifically referenced his Cup winning team in that regard. I used this as a jumping off for my first "Brian Burke Bluster" (BBB) casefile. In fact, the Ducks broke camp with three veteran defencemen (Niedermayer, Pronger and O'Donnell); one second-year player who would play a major role (Francois Beauchemin); one AHL journeyman (Joe DiPenta) with only one NHL season under his belt, who would only play another 23 NHL games after '06-'07, and who was making $500,000; one rookie (Shane O'Brien) who was traded midseason and effectively replaced by Ric Jackman in a separate trade; and another aging AHL journeyman/NHL rookie in Kent Huskins. Ian Moran and Aaron Rome, one at the end of his career and the other at the beginning, both played one game.
So technically yes, Burke was correct. The Ducks used nine defensemen. But to compare the Leafs' defence corps this year to the Ducks' Cup-winning defence corps is frankly ludicrous. As Mirtle emphasized, the Ducks were built not around evenly-spread medium-priced talent, but with a high-priced core surrounded by cheap role-players. This was nowhere more true than on defence. The Ducks had two stars (Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger); two steady second-pair types (Francois Beauchemin and Sean O'Donnell); and three low salary, unproven spare parts (DiPenta, O'Brien and Huskins). That hardly matches the Leafs, who have no less than six medium to high salaried defenders (Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Tomas Kaberle, Beauchemin, Jeff Finger, Luke Schenn), another veteran making well-above league minimum in Brett Lebda, and in Carl Gunnarsson a guy who, while cheap, has proven himself capable of Top 4 minutes. Particularly with Gunnarsson looking at a potential big raise next year, I continue to think the Leafs need to shed at least two high priced defencemen to free up cap space.
What about the forwards? We all know Burke loves to talk about "Top 6/Bottom 6". However, one of the Copper N Blue pieces linked above suggests that in reality, most NHL teams run a Top 9, and a 4th line. The drop in even-strength ice time from the 3rd to the 4th line is often as much or more as the difference between the 1st and 3rd. What did the Cup-winning Ducks look like?
They actually had a Top 10 and bottom 5. The Top 10, in order of overall ice time: Teemu Selanne, Andy McDonald, Sami Pahlsson, Chris Kunitz, Rob Niedermayer, Todd Marchant, Ryan Getzlaf, Travis Moen, Dustin Penner and Cory Perry. Remarkably, every one of these players but Marchant played 81 or 82 games--seriously, this team was ridiculously lucky with its health. Their even strength ice time saw similar ranks, though Perry, Getzlaf and Penner dropped to the bottom--those three were 4th, 5th and 6th in power play TOI. So if you go by ice time, the Ducks' Top 6 were Selanne-McDonald-Kunitz (1st line), and Pahlsson-Niedermayer-Moen (2nd line). Getzlaf-Penner-Perry were the 3rd line, Marchant also significant minutes, while Shawn Thornton-George Parros-Ryan Shannon-"Who the fuck is"-Brad May shuffled in and out of the 4th line/press box and played minimal minutes. This was NOT a model of "skilled Top 6, truculent Bottom 6".
So what was the model? Looking at scoring statistics helps tell us what was actually going on with the Ducks. As everyone knows, what I've called the 2nd line above based on ice-time was the checking line. While behindthenet.ca does not go back to that season, I'm guessing they would have had ridiculously high qualcomps. I'm also guessing what I have called the 3rd line received pillow-soft minutes--their average age was under 22 and had 132 NHL games between them coming in. As a result, the 3rd line of Getzlaf-Penner-Perry ranked 4-5-6 in scoring among forwards, while the 2nd line ranked 7-8-9.
Based on all this, rather than "Top 6/Bottom 6", what I perceive is a Top 9 (plus Marchant)/Bottom 5, with the Top 9 broken down as follows: A true scoring first line (call it Line F), a second checking line (call it Line C), and a third, sheltered scoring line (call it line S). Line F featured relatively high priced veterans (though Kunitz was pretty young and cheap, a la Kulemin with the Leafs). Line C was lower-priced veterans (though Niedermayer was earning a healthy $2 million that year). Line S was cheap kids. The fourth line (call it Line T for Truculence) was cheap fighters and some guy no one has ever heard of.
So what does this tell us about this year's (and next year's) Leafs? Who can fill these four lines? Let's take a guess:
Line F: Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel seem the only locks here, with Nikolai Kulemin and Kris Versteeg the leading candidates for the last spot.
Line C: Colby Armstrong seems the only lock here, brought in to play the Niedermayer role. I am still skeptical that Armstrong is that good--the advanced statistics do not suggest that he is an elite shut-down/penalty-killer type. If he is, however, he could actually justify his contract. I had been viewing Armstrong as a 3rd liner, which is almost never worth $3 million. However, IF he can perform as the core of an effective "C" line, $3 million could be justified. Niedermayer actually led the Ducks' forwards in ice time in '05-'06 and still played a very prominent role on the '06-'07 team, and accounting for inflation Armstrong's salary isn't that much more than Niedermayer's $2 million. Two out of Christian Hanson, John Mitchell, Fredrik Sjostrom, and whichever of Versteeg or Kulemin don't make the F line, can be expected to join Armstrong here. Ideally you would have Sjostrom joining Mitchell or Hanson, leaving Kulemin and Versteeg to play more offensive roles on Lines F and S.
Line S: Again, we have one sure thing for this role (Mikhail Grabovski) and then an abundance of candidates; hopefully three of them can come close to Penner, Getzlaf and Perry. The Ducks' experience shows Burke is perfectly willing to go with young guys in this role, meaning Nazem Kadri, Jerry D'Amigo, Marcel Mueller and Luca Caputi are all in the mix. Mueller in particular seems tailor made for the Penner role. The better comparison here is probably the '05-'06 Ducks, when Penner-Getzlaf-Perry (at ages 22-20-20) made their debuts after starting the year in the AHL. I expect to see a lot of turnover on this line.
Line T: Colton Orr and Mike Brown are locks here, to be joined by whichever of Hanson, Mitchell and Sjostrom can't cut it on Line C.
If I had to guess, our opening-day roster would look something like this:
F: Nikolai Kulemin - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
C: Colby Armstrong - John Mitchell - Fredrik Sjostrom
S: Marcel Mueller - Mikhail Grabovski - Kris Versteeg
T: Mike Brown - Christian Hanson - Colton Orr
I wouldn't even rule out another minimum salary UFA pick up to fill out Line T and the pressbox; there's no way Kadri, Caputi and D'Amigo should see those roles if they don't make Line S.
In the long-term, we have too many candidates for Line S: Mueller, D'Amigo, Caputi, Grabovski, Kadri and Versteeg. All of those guys project as scorers and Versteeg is the only one who would seem to be capable of playing a Line C role. I suspect Burke will use the first half of the year to evaluate, and hopefully he will eventually try to package some of that excess depth at forward and defence for another elite player to join Phaneuf and Kessel.
In any event, if Burke is indeed trying to build a team in the image of the '06-'07 Ducks, I find it unhelpful to focus on Top 6/Bottom 6; those teams had much more distinct roles for their four lines, as I have tried to describe above. Wilson's line blender will blur things in comparison to the set roles Carlyle used in Anaheim, but I still expect Burke to push the roles I have identified above.
H/Ts to blurr1974 and Death_by_Leafs for a couple corrections that have been made from the original version.