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Rebuilding the Leafs: Part 3, the forwards

We've looked at the goalies, we've looked at the defence. In our last look, we'll examine what the Leafs have up front.

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The Maple Leafs organization is done for the 2014-15 season. The Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs, and both their minor league affiliates (the Toronto Marlies of the AHL and the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL) bowed out in the first round of their league's playoffs. The focus is squarely on the NHL draft and the future. Before Brendan Shanahan and his management team set about rebuilding the team, we will go through the organization and assess what the team's strengths, weaknesses and key needs are. We've already examined the goaltending situation and the defence. In our last instalment of this series, we will look in depth at the forwards.

"If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,"

- Mike Babcock, May 21, 2015

Of all the areas where that somewhat ominous Babcock quote could apply, for me the current group of forwards employed by the Maple Leafs are the ones that should have straightened up and taken notice. After all, Babcock is the man who coined the now inescapable phrase of "200-foot player", meant to describe the type of player that excels in all situations on the ice (and probably should be a prerequisite for consideration on Canada's Olympic team) but has now become short-hand in lazy analysis circles for "not perfect at everything so I don't even want to know you".

A 200-foot game is an ideal, it's an aspiration, and it's something only the truly great players in the league are capable of. Most have to settle for competency in a small area of the ice.

I think much of the league would like to be 200-foot players, but in reality some can only be 195-foot players (can do everything well except finish the play), some can only be trusted to be 100-foot players (do everything you want them to on your half the ice and that's it), and some have the skill and creativity to be 60-foot players (guys with such immense offensive skill that their offence outweighs any defensive deficiencies).

The Maple Leafs have a large group of the latter in their forward corps, and very few "200-foot players". Under Randy Carlyle, roles were very clearly defined and inflexible; it was the scorers job to score, and everyone else's job to defend, and when the team failed somehow it was the players* fault for not being the perfect ideal of a player and not the coach who deployed them that way, but I digress.

*And by players, of course I mean the specific players that are different (European, American, Muslim, generally) and not the actually useless players whom the media have decided we love because "hockey doesn't have problems with race or ethnicity..."

A MIke Babcock-coached Maple Leafs team will expect much more from its forwards than in the past, and coupled with a rebuilding team and a core of players (many with flaws) reaching or leaving their expected primes of their careers, changes are coming and will be plentiful.

But, with the Maple Leafs also having plainly stated their goals to become a developmental powerhouse, an immediate massive transition seems unlikely. With that, let's dive into the Leafs forward corps and get a sense of who might be leaving, who might be staying, and who might end up being important down the road.

Note: I have left two names off this list (Brad Ross and Joakim Lindstrom) due to the fact that they are both free agents and have signed contracts in Europe, indicating they will not be returning to the organization.

Editor Note: Brandon Kozun was announced to have signed with Jokerit after the article was submitted.

The Bottom of the Lineup

The Leafs underwent a sea change in the players they used to fill out their line-up this season, moving away from the toughness and grit in favour of a little more skill and defensive responsibility, particularly after Carlyle was relieved by Peter Horachek.

Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren were both demoted to the AHL, and both being UFAs, are likely gone from the organization. Joakim Lindstrom, acquired at the trade deadline from St. Louis in the Olli Jokinen deal, has already left for Europe, and it's unclear whether some of the other older players that jostled for a position at this point of the depth chart (Zach Sill, Troy Bodie, Trevor Smith) will return.

Who does that leave? It's entirely possible (and likely) that one or two new faces are acquired, either as a potential long-term acquisition (like Peter Holland or Richard Panik) or as a stop-gap that could eventually be moved on for future help (like Daniel Winnik or Mike Santorelli), but there are some options within the organization that might get some consideration.

Matt Frattin remains part of the organization, and at 27 years old, will likely be given one last shot to crack the NHL lineup. Frattin's shown himself to have the requisite offensive touch in the AHL, but hasn't ever really solidified a spot in the NHL. Frattin didn't really fit the profile of a "Randy Carlyle" 4th line player" but could be the sort of guy Babcock could make use of.

The team also added two young players late last season that are still relative unknowns but could compete for a 4th line role. Casey Bailey was signed out of the NCAA and got a couple of NHL games down the stretch, and while he could potentially require some AHL seasoning at 23 years old Bailey's (in theory) farther along the developmental track than some of the other alternatives.

The Leafs also signed 21-year old Nikita Soshinkov out of the KHL so it is unclear to us where he might fit or where he eventually projects in an NHL lineup.

Brandon Kozun was a nice story making the team out of training camp before an ankle injury took him out of the lineup, but despite good speed he's limited as a player and at 25 years old and an RFA I don't know if he's a realistic option (Edit: Turns out he's not.).

Finally, the team has two young centres that saw some spot duty in the NHL last season, and after a few years of seasoning in the minors, could be ready to try and move up into a 4C role in the NHL. Sam Carrick signed a one-year contract, while Greg McKegg is an RFA this summer, and both got limited opportunities this past season.

The Third Line

Last season, the Maple Leafs had real problems with the quality of the top-end of their line-up (which we'll explore later), but thanks to a few shrewd moves they had real quality through the middle of their forward depth chart. However, this was also the area that saw the most turnover as the season went on, and is likely in need of the most rebuilding going into the summer.

One of the defining traits of the Dave Nonis tenure as General Manager was how the team spent a massive amount of money on depth players whose reputation never actually reflected their play, and the embodiment of that was David Clarkson, who was moved just prior to the trade deadline to Columbus in exchange for Nathan Horton, who is likely to never play in the NHL again. After the Clarkson trade, the Leafs have largely purged their roster of any big-money deals with term in the bottom half of their forward roster, except for Leo Komarov.

Komarov's first season in his second sting started off splendidly, but injuries (including a concussion) derailed his season. The Komarov contract is far from a problem, but one that probably has more value on a team attempting to go far in the playoffs rather than rebuilding with youth. And while his age would make him one of the more elder players as the Leafs go forward, "veteran experience" rings hollow when two much younger players trying to solidify their role on the team (Peter Holland and Richard Panik) have played more games in the NHL.

Speaking of those two, the two proved to be capable of playing at an NHL level, but need more protection than the Leafs are currently able to offer.

Holland's stat profile portrays a lot of similarities to Tyler Bozak (by which I mean an offensively talented player that has defensive deficiencies) while Panik got lost in the shuffle in Tampa Bay but showed glimpses of potential in Toronto. Both will push for a promotion up the roster, especially if some of the more established forwards are moved on as part of the rebuild.

It may also be Josh Leivo's time to prove himself at the NHL level. After brief glimpses in the past two seasons, Leivo's been given minimal opportunities at the NHL level to date but has been asked to be a major contributor the last two seasons for the Marlies.

Fitting in with the Leafs desire to properly develop prospects in the AHL before they transition to the NHL, Leivo is probably the player that best describes that mindset at the moment, and with 76 points in 114 career AHL games could be ready to transition into a depth role on the Leafs.

Beyond that the Leafs don't have many options at the moment, which opens the door for a well-travelled path; acquiring overlooked free agents. Last season, the team did very well to acquire Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli on cheap one-year deals, then moving them for future returns (the two players returned a 2nd round pick and prospect Brendan Leipsic).

Before that, they made a similar deal to acquire Mason Raymond, and well before that did the same with Clarke MacArthur. Rather than rush some prospects a rebuilding Leafs could go to this well yet again to give Mike Babcock a veteran line he can trust.

Second Line

Joffrey Lupul's fight to stay healthy is a key decision the Maple Leafs face. When healthy, Lupul is still an offensively gifted forward who helps round out the Maple Leafs attack, but Lupul will be 32 years old by the time the season starts and his production significantly dropped last season.

If Lupul can't stay healthy his contract and the 3 remaining years could become problematic. At this point in his career Lupul is a mismatch for a rebuilding team and a gamble for a contender, and it's tough to see an obvious match in the trade market.

As for Nazem Kadri, he's a polarizing player because he seems caught between unrealistic expectations and circumstances out of his control. On a team with effectively no scoring depth beyond the first line (particularly when Lupul was out), Kadri remains the focal point of the Leafs attacking depth, but saddled with players that can't match his skill his production has suffered.

The other problem has been that he's been a designated whipping boy of Randy Carlyle and his cronies for reasons that don't necessarily make a lot of sense all the time, and is exacerbated by the fact that Kadri's viewed as having "regressed" since his point-per-game lockout campaign due to the fact that his point production has not matched the expectations set for him being a young player in Toronto.

Throw in a curious disciplinary action from team president Brendan Shanahan and pending RFA status and there's a million different directions to go with Kadri.

Under a different regime I would be terrified at the prospect of the Leafs trading Kadri, but at this point I don't have such concerns. He's clearly the best centre the Leafs have at any level of their organization right now, and this past season made significant improvements on the defensive side of the game to better play that "200-foot game" Mike Babcock coined a few years ago.

He plays with a physical edge and enough confidence that he has no fear of playing against anybody, and is immensely skilled and a power-play generation machine. His HERO chart depicts him as a top-line centre virtually everywhere but at suppressing shots (but miles better than the other options on the Leafs).

It's a little unfortunate he plays in a market where because he's not Sidney Crosby or John Tavares, a lot of fans won't appreciate what Nazem Kadri can do. In a lot of ways, he's become to the Leafs what Mikhail Grabovski was (Ron Wilson version, not Randy Carlyle version), but with a higher offensive ceiling. If the Maple Leafs commit to Kadri long-term and give him a real opportunity to play with linemates that match his skill, we could see him blossom.

Of course, the wild card in all of this is if the Leafs decide to fast track a couple of players who don't necessarily fit on the "methodical development" plan they appear interested in.

William Nylander spent half a season putting up historically impressive numbers for an 18-year old in Sweden's top professional league, then at Christmas was brought over to the AHL to play the rest of the season with the Marlies, where he nearly managed a point per game as an 18-year old.

The other name to consider isn't known yet, because that will come in about a week's time when the Maple Leafs are scheduled to pick 4th overall in the Entry Draft. At least one of two offensively dynamic forwards will be available to the Leafs, and if the Leafs select either Erie's Dylan Strome or London's MItch Marner, they will have added a player who produced at over 2 points per game in their draft season, a mark at which historically the player jumps straight to the NHL.

It's unclear exactly what the Leafs are planning at the moment with whomever they draft or with Nylander, and there's pros and cons to both arguments, which will undoubtedly be examined in great detail as the summer stretches on and into the fall.

The First Line

The HERO Charts for James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak really do tell you everything that you need to know about the group, don't they? Tremendous offensive production, terrible defensively, and Bozak is clearly out of place.

At this point I think it's very clear that everyone has come around to the belief that this first line simply doesn't work. The defensive inadequacies outweigh the offensive proficiency, and given the amount of time they played, that's a losing proposition. They are in effect a fantastic power play unit, asked to play heavy minutes at even strength against other teams best players.

We'll start with Bozak because he's the easiest to unpack. When he broke into the league, on a very small contract, and on a team that was trying to find the right group of people to build around, he was an effective stopgap, and his reliance on Phil Kessel to produce points could be tolerated because of the cut-rate price.

When it became time to re-sign him, with Mikhail Grabovski established as a veteran two-way centre and Nazem Kadri ascending, the math started to work against him. It's hard to know what the team would have looked like had they not chosen Bozak over Grabovski, but while Bozak's production on the surface justifies his contract, it's important to consider three important factors:

1) He's clearly outmatched against other teams' top centres
2) His production is such a clear function of his linemates and the massive amount of ice time he receives it's virtually impossible to project his contributions on a different line
3) He's quite possibly the least deserving player in league history of the "defensively responsible" moniker.

We'll talk more about the "defensively responsible" thing in a minute, but the million dollar question is what do you do with him? There's going to be questions of what accurate value in a return is (personally, cap space would be its own reward), but the thing that I've never quite understood about Tyler Bozak is that for four years post-Mats Sundin, literally no one would do as the Leafs 1C; not Matt Stajan, not Nikolai Antropov, not Mikhail Grabovski (even though all put up better numbers than Bozak in the role). Then Bozak slid into the role almost by default, and never moved.

There's a lot less to say about Van Riemsdyk, because I think he is as advertised when acquired from Philadelphia; he's an immensely skilled player who frustrates you from time to time, but in Toronto he's been much worse defensively than I expected. JVR's contract for its production is still stellar value, and if the team decided to move on from it, they could fetch a handsome return.

I do think that's a mistake initially, because Mike Babcock as a coach has made particularly good use out of big, skilled forwards who can create offence in close around the net (see; Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, and an aging Todd Bertuzzi), and JVR's puck skills in the area around the crease are sublime.

I'd like to see JVR with linemates that allow him to play to his strengths (cycling the puck in the offensive zone, and using his big frame and quick hands to create problems for the goalies and defence in front of the net).

Which brings us to Phil Kessel. Kessel's role as a lightning rod is well documented and while there are certain things for which he probably deserves criticism, and he could certainly make things a little easier on himself if he'd play the media game just a little bit, to heap all the problems of the franchise at his feet is nonsensical and stupid.

Phil Kessel gets held to a standard that is out of touch with the modern game.

"Phil Kessel is inconsistent and doesn't score 40 or 50 a year". Nobody does anymore. In fact, the ability of Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin to actually achieve those marks makes them such an amazing feat. Phil Kessel has been a virtual lock for 30 goals every season, and he's done it with Tyler Bozak as his centre.

"Phil Kessel is fat and lazy" Phil Kessel has a round face shape and gets tired after shifts, like everyone else in the league. Also last time I checked having abs wasn't a prerequisite for a quick release on a wristshot.

"Phil Kessel is terrible defensively" Granted he's not great, but would you rather have somebody who tries and just isn't good at it or somebody who just doesn't give a shit? Because Phil Kessel is the former and his linemates JVR and Bozak are the latter. It would be real interesting to go back through video archives of odd-man rushes against the Leafs, and note how many times Kessel is the forward racing back, and how many times JVR and Bozak are gliding straight-legged by the red line.

There's a lot of things about modern hockey that annoy me, but the popularity of the EA Sports NHL series with its raft of inaccuracies, and the people that apply them to actual team building, is near the top of the list. There's a large contingent of fans, both inside the Leaf fanbase and out, that view team building in the same vein as the guy who traded a red paper clip all the way up into a house. Just keep churning an asset into a slightly better asset.

As the Maple Leafs enter a rebuilding phase, I think there's going to be a lot of confusion among fans and media about how the Leafs go about this, and it's partly because of their insistence on putting labels on things like "rebuilding", "tanking" and "rebuild on the fly" (which... what?). What all of those things have in common is there's no end goal; they're demolition projects.

The Leafs need to be team building, not rebuilding. "Rebuild" implies a reiteration of what we did before, and I think that's where a lot of teams (like the Oilers, or the Panthers, or the Blue Jackets) go off course. They blame the materials (the players) for when the construction doesn't go according to the plan, when the blueprint was what was screwed up.

The Chicago Blackhawks began building this team in a fallow period with some exceptional players picked high in the draft, but have maintained their level of excellence based on a simple concept of team building that many teams laughably miss

"Get good players, and keep good players"

That's it. At a basic level, the team with the best players is going to win more often than not, and in a game like hockey where variance plays such a huge role, you can either ride a wave of favourable results and trick yourself into believing that hard work trumps talent, or you can keep tilting the odds in your favour by building a skilled team. The salary cap has forced the Blackhawks to make tough decisions on sacrifices to be made, but they seek out skill to keep replenishing their ranks.

What does this have to do with Kessel? Phil Kessel is a good player... no. Phil Kessel is a great player. The most singularly talented offensive player the Leafs have had since Mats Sundin, and possibly going back even further than that.

A top-10 offensive player in the league. He's not perfect, but no player is, and that never stops fans from fawning over inferior players like Darcy Tucker or Leo Komarov or Wendel Clark.

The Maple Leafs could make a difficult decision to move on from Phil Kessel, to try and recoup a large package of futures for him and kickstart their rebuild. And it might make sense to do so, if you believe that rebuilding a team with the problems the Maple Leafs have requires some specific timeline, a trajectory from Point A (suck) to Point B (great again).

If such a timeline exists, then there are few teams that appear to be following it. The Penguins were supposed to be crowned as a dynasty in 2009; they've yet to get back to a Finals. The Bruins and Kings were supposed to remain feared Cup threats this season; both missed the playoffs.

The Oilers rebuild, with multiple first overall picks, has stalled and sputtered so many times that surely this time it will be different (and Florida and Buffalo are following that path, ignoring all the wreckage of teams that should have been). The Lightning weren't supposed to be "ready" yet; they came within 2 games of a Cup. The Blues were supposed to rule the West, and were out in the first round.

The dirty little secret of the NHL is that nobody really knows what's going to happen. Everybody's just building the best team they possibly can, and then hoping to survive. 29 other teams don't care about your "timeline for winning" or your "window". They care about whether they've built a team that can beat your team, and if the answer is no, then they need to go get some more talent.

Over the next three months, the Maple Leafs are going to make radical changes and like a snake, begin shedding their skin and emerging with a fresh look. There will be tough choices on who stays, on who goes, and on how they intend to build towards a team that can attempt to end our Cup drought. As long as the decision to trade a player, even someone like Kessel, is based on the question of how this improves our team, then let the rebuild begin.