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With a struggling second Leaf unit, is it good enough to have two “fourth” lines?

When you assess someone’s work, it’s and reasonable—and only fair— to wait a sufficient amount of time before making any “final” determinations.  Now, when it comes to the performance of the Maple Leafs, we can argue and debate whether we have waited long enough (this particular season) to make pronouncements with any degree of emphasis—and authority.

But acknowledging that, I’ve been waiting for the "right" time (never really a right time, I realize) to suggest a few things, ideas to bounce off you, to see if you sense that I’m way off base or perhaps closer to “truth-telling” than perhaps we want to hear or realize.

This is not about applauding all that's wonderful or, conversely, criticizing all that's less than wonderful about the Burke build, re-build, make-over, whatever it is. (We do know that it has certainly changed since its original publicly stated intentions, but few would suggest it hasn’t produced a better team than was in place, say, three years ago…).  His work is still ongoing and a far measure from complete, to be sure.  But let’s talk about where we are, right now—not where we have been, or where we might be in a month or even two years from now.  And let’s do it in the context of who is our competition, in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

The East is wide open, I feel.  Right now, the Rangers and Bruins appear to be the “elite” teams, the favorites.  They are both fairly gritty, but with enough skill and goaltending to be not only dangerous but hard to upset for just about any squad that will meet them in the playoffs.  The Flyers have overcome a ton of injuries to not only survive but thrive, at times (though they have their lousy nights, for sure…).
But I don’t sense anyone f those three teams is so strong, so tough, so skilled, that a big playoff effort by a good team couldn’t defeat them.

A year ago, we might have believed that Washington would be one of those teams that you wouldn’t want to meet in the spring, but while they still have Ovechkin, a fair bit of skill and playoff experience, they may also be facing some self-doubt, given their playoff failures and their uneven play so far this season.  They are, as of this moment, one of the bubble teams who will have to play well just to make the playoffs.

Boston and New York are, as I mentioned, good teams, but unbeatable?  I don’t think so.

From our self-interested perspective, the question is:  could the Leafs be one of those underdog teams that could provide a playoff “upset”?


All this said, my focus today is very specific: the team’s second—and so-called “third” and “fourth” lines.

A year ago, we were in the midst of a winter wonderland feeling about the emergence of Grabovski as a (almost) true front-line NHL center.  That Kulemin was continuing his pleasant career arc was expected, at least from my perspective.  But MacArthur’s contribution came, if not out of left field, certainly as a modest shock to most Leaf observers.

In short order, they became the team’s best and most consistent unit, a line that could skate, move the puck, check and actually "finish", too.

So when, this season, Lupul caught fire with Kessel, and Bozak did nothing to hurt the line (and in fact helped it, with his vision, smarts and speed, I would argue), most of us naturally expected the Grabovski line to further cement its status as a productive, defensively reliable and at times explosive unit.  Who really cared whether they were a "first" or "second" line?

For reasons most of us probably can’t quite digest just yet (perhaps because we don’t have the required time or distance to step back and assess their performance with detachment and perspective), this “second” unit has been less than stellar too often this season.

We have all season Grabbo play some splendid hockey in the last six weeks or so.  But Kulemin has been in a dreadful, season-long swoon.  For me, it is one of those inexplicable collapses (the KHL team tragedy may well be a cause, as others have cited, but we just can’t really know…) that defies explanation.  We can defend Kulemin (and those who follow this site know I really like this guy and have tried to look for the positives in his play) and say, “oh, but his defensive game is still good…”.  But the reality is, we need more from him—much more.  Five goals or whatever it is, at this point in the NHL season (56 games in) just doesn’t do it.  He’s paid to produce more—and expected and needed to produce more and let’s face it, simply play better.  He’s a big guy who should be delivering those barnstorming hits that we see on rare occasions at least once a night or every other game to keep the opposition honest- and a bit off their game.  But most nights he seems to glide through the evening with effort, yes, but not much to show for it.

As for MacArthur, well, it’s a good thing he can snipe goals on occasion, and gets hot just often enough to keep the wolves at the door and satisfy some  fans, but from my perspective, he had a career year last year.  Was that MacArthur, or is he what we see now?  He has “points” this season, but is he really doing enough?

So if I had to rate the second line this season, with raw “numbers”, I would put Grabovski at a 7.5 (maybe a B+, because he has been very good in recent weeks, less so earlier on…) MacArthur at a 6.5 (a straight “C”) and Kulemin at 5, a D.  That’s just my honest perspective, though, as always, I am more than open to compelling arguments to the contrary that will sway me from my current stance. 

Can things change?  Of course.  I may view things very differently in a month, or come playoff time.  The beauty of a long season, I suppose.  But here’s the real conundrum, at least for me.  I’ll just say it:  I think we have two “fourth” lines right now.

I know some will dispute this vigorously, and say, “Michael, you’re way off, we actually have two good third lines…”  Problem is, I just don’t see it most nights.  Oh yes, when we play a team that lets us free-wheel, Kessel, Lupul, Grabovski and MacArthur will score, and our speed will win the day, assuming we play enough defense, don’t give the puck away all night and our goalies play like they can.

But as I look at how we are constituted right now, I will say it again:  we have two fourth lines.  Let me be clear:  every guy we’re discussing here is, by the 30-team standards of the current league configuration, an NHL player.  All bring something to the Leaf table.  But is it enough?

Connolly, for example, may break out at any time, but what I’m seeing right now (and yes, injuries may be there that we don’t know about) is an old 30 year old.  A guy with sweet hands and vision, for sure, but one that just can’t go to the areas he needs to go to help the team.  He’ll help on the penalty-kill, yes, and that’s important.  But while he has been relegated to playing with lesser offensive threats, if you just look at his play, I think it is simply lacking the drive that will be required come playoff time.

Lombardi and Crabb? Well, we all love Lombardi’s elite speed, but as I mentioned the other day, for me, he is Camalerri without the finish (Camalerri doesn’t have it lately, either…) or grit.  Crabb is a guy we all love for his tenacity, and he shows some offensive moves when given the chance, but is he really an impact third-line guy?

Then we have Steckel, Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong or Darryl Boyce.

Brown is a rugged guy who plays hard.  It would be difficult to question his desire or willingness to mix things up and hit.  He did that all night in the “lost in the wilderness effort” against the Habs on Saturday night.  I admire that.

Steckel wins a ton of draws, and in today’s game, that is awfully important.  But is he going to be a shutdown defensive centerman come springtime? For his size, is there sufficient toughness and grit, to go along with those marvelous face-off skills?

Armstrong is seemingly loved in Leafland.  I’m not quite sure why.  Not that I don’t like the guy.  And I know that I keep being reminded that the Leafs win more when he plays.  But I sure wouldn’t want to have to put that  theory to the ultimate test, as in hoping his presence will swing a playoff series.  I just don’t see it.  What I do see is a guy who can contribute, play a role, for sure.  But those that pigeon-holed him before he came here saw him as a limited player.  Has being a Leaf suddenly made him more than that, really?  Or is it because we see what we want to see?

Like many others, I love the Boyce story and how he worked his tail off against many odds to get to the NHL.  But again, is he a guy that, other than the occasional offensive contribution,  is going to be a key factor—albeit within limited minutes—down the stretch?

I guess my answer is, our “bottom-six” (though I realize Burke has now shifted his language to suggest we now have a “top-nine”…my response is…whatever you need to say this month...), while all guys who bring something to the table and play a fair bit under the Leaf ice-time structure, are two units that fall short of what the Leafs will need when they take on teams like the Flyers, Rangers or Bruins in a 7-game series.

Again, I stress, I am open to arguments to the contrary.  And I think those who know this site know me well enough that I am not suggesting this simply because the team has lost a couple of games.  I’m trying to step back and be honest and assess—not with blue and white eyes, but with the eyes of someone who has followed this franchise closely for more than 50 seasons—what they “are” right now.

And for me, what they are, in a parity-filled and pretty mediocre Eastern Conference, is a team that, when the wind is at their back and the opposition lets them play to their strengths, can win a lot with speed.

But as I have mentioned for months now, what I do not see is team toughness—and that’s not just the willingness (or not) to stand up for Phaneuf and Kessel when they are mauled by an opposing player.  It's a mentality that shows itself most nights, a determination, a toughness….an ability (willingness?) to go to the tough areas to make plays—and to prevent plays from happening against them.

This is a young, entertaining team.  A lot of good things are happening.  (Wilson changed the lines at practice again on Monday, but we saw how that lasted last time...)  They can make the playoffs and they can maybe do damage once they are there.  But while we may be having an entirely different discussion next season, right now, the second line is being dragged down by Kulemin (and yes, MacArthur, who I’m not sure is a true second-line guy) and the fact that we have, if you include Rosehill, Boyce, etc. about 8 “fourth-line” forwards.

Your turn—tell me why I’m wrong…


  1. You are right.

    You can only have so many fringe NHL guys.

    I would put Boyce, Rosehill and Crabb all in that category of fringe NHL guys.

    In my mind you can only have one of those guys.

    Brown, Steckel and Armstrong are at least fourth line guys on most teams... and I think Armstrong is actually third line on many teams.

    However a third line of Kulemin,Lombardi and Crabb doesn't instill any confidence in me at all. Perhaps there will be some magic chemistry on the 2nd and third lines but I think this experiment ends quickly.

    I wouldn't mind a tougher guy on the third line perhaps Moen or Gaustad.

    We need more guys that hate to lose...that doesn't really fit Conolly.

    Also, in this old days they could bump up a tougher guy from the third line to the first line for a few shifts during a game to prevent a star from being harassed like Kessel was in Montreal.

    You can't really bump up Brown (stone hands) to Kessel's line for a few shifts...but you could do that with a better player like Paul Gaustad.

  2. Well, I won't be the one to to tell you you're wrong. Kulemin's funk has sunk the second line, and I see now he's been moved to a checking line. He's looked lost all season, MacArthur's shown flashes of his old self (I think he's still on pace for 20+ goals), but perhaps both of them are suffering from BCS - big contract syndrome. I'd love to see a stat on how many players match or surpass their numbers in a pre-contract year, once the big payday does arrive.
    Connolly has been a disappointment, Lombardi hasn't really brought all that much - but they're both coming off serious injuries, and maybe it takes a long time to feel comfortable again. There's another stat I'd like to see - how many players match or surpass their numbers after coming back from a major injury? (One of the reasons Lupul's season is such a compelling story).
    No matter - here's where we are to the O'Malley eyes: we have a dynamite and dangerous first line, a so-so second line, and, to be honest, maybe one solid hitting/checking line. Our D is pretty solid, but our goaltending is questionable, though the best guy hasn't been designated the #1. (And won't be, from what I gather, in the TML meritocracy).
    We're probably right where we deserve to be, which galls the fan in me to say. As a team we're trending upward, but in the absence of any significant move before the trade deadline, it looks like we're in trouble this year.
    The next three games are very important, to my way of thinking. It'll be interesting to see if the latest line changes bear any fruit for us.

  3. My point of view lines up pretty closely with Gerund’s. It really is “showtime” now for the current group. In the next few games they will probably either affirm or cast doubt on Michael’s sobering position, which could well prove more substantial than mere devil’s advocacy. In the last game, the only Leaf that impressed me was Mike Brown. Jonas Gustavsson’s performance was hard to judge, given the nature of the goal against him. I hate to go on about the goaltending management, but the position is too critical to adopt an organizational position, based on what?: Contractual status and/or the individual player having a likeable personality. Man oh man. It is apparently obvious to everyone, excluding the Leaf organization, that at this point in time, starting the Monster is more likely to result in a win. It is plain ludicrous, possibly suicidal from a coaching position, not to play the one who is giving you the wins that will get you to the post-season dance. So, what is going on here? In my opinion, providing lip service to a “meritocracy” is worse than no meritocracy at all. It is, quite frankly, disheartening from a players’ perspective. Do we not have a word for that that is oh so semantically close: “Hypocrisy.” What do you know, it even rhymes.

  4. Versteeg would be ideal on the third line.

    And I dont' get how people say versteeg was awful in Toronto but then defend Crabb or Lombardi or Kulemin. Ridiculous.

  5. Well said DP, thanks.

    Gerund O'.....I'm sure that "research" is out there (performance after big contacts, major injury...)...The concern, it would seem, heading into the playoffs is: what happens when other teams focus on shutting down our first line? Thanks for a another good post.

    Bobby C...I can appreciate your thoughts on the goaltending situation. If what you are suggesting is accurate, it would not be, in my mind, the first time this organization said and promoted one thing and acted quite differently. "Meritocracy" means little if it is not applied consistently across the board. Eventually the players realize the words don't match up with the organizational decision-making....

  6. Anon...I think sometimes people want to defend Burke, as though all his moves are outstanding. As I've posted here before, we'll never know why Versteeg was really traded. But it's hard to believe he wouldn't be helpful now, and he's still very young- and established. Perhaps the draft choices acquired in return will pay dividends years down the road. We won't know for some time.

    As for your point on Crabb, Lombardi and Kulemin: I like Kulemin. I want to believe this is an "off" year. But more broadly speaking, my guess is that, as fans, we want to rationale the team's moves and place them in a positive light. Lombardi shows flashes and Franson has been OK, so we want to say we "won" the trade. But Lombardi, for example, costs a fair bit for a guy who has produced infrequently. Again, it's a defence of Burke's moves, I suppose.

  7. Lets face it, each of the guys on the Grabovski line last year had career years. You pretty much knew that was not going to continue. As much as some people like Grabovski, I still see him as a "small" skilled centre. He's not the type of player who is going to out-muscle anyone for the puck, and physically loses out to most centers in the league. Can he put up points, yes, but in spurts. Is he a good 2-way center, yes. If Leafs plan to keep Grabovski, then give him two big talented wingers, otherwise Leafs have an okay second line with sporatic scoring.

    I agree with you 100% on Lombardi. He's fast but physically he's not cracked up to be a winger in this league. As a centre, he too needs fast and big wingers who can score. Sorry, can't afford those guys playing 3rd line.

    You're right we have two fourth lines, and an inconsistent second line. Sorry, but for me I have trouble watching the likes of Crabb, Kulemin, and Lombardi play mediocre hockey, when we have talented players like Kadri and Frattin playing in the AHL.

  8. TML__fan....well said, blunt - but I sense you're not alone in your assessment. Whether some of us may agree or not, we have to assume the brass believes their best chance of winning right now is with the present roster, and that Kadri and Frattin are developing in the best environment in the AHL (though this is why I wish they had kept Kadri in the minors ALL of last season, as I said here many times...).

  9. TML__fan,

    I don't mind Grbovski, he played really well against the Pens and was quite good closely checking Malkin the whole game.

    But you are right...too many small guys. We need some size.

    On Frattin and Kadri...Down in the AHL Kadri is cold but Frattin is hot.

    Frattin has eight goals in his last eigh games.

    Crabb doesn't have a point in his last 5 games.

    Perhaps its better to play Armstrong rather than Crabb?

    Maybe time to reward Frattin with a call up for a few games?