Which Prospects Will Crack The Maple Leafs Lineup?
It’s the dog days of summer and with little in the way of hockey news to write up our thoughts have turned to the Toronto Maple Leafs prospects. Say what you will about Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, but when it comes to assembling young talent he seems to have done a decent job.
Looking at the Maple Leafs list of prospects you get the sense that the Blue and White will be a very competitive team in the coming years. That said, are there any prospects ready to make an impact at the NHL level for the upcoming season, is there another Jake Gardiner (who burst onto the scene last season and performed exceptionally well last season) amongst them?
The Maple Leafs top prospects features a good mix of skill and brawn with the likes of forwards Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri, Carter Ashton, Joe Colborne and Tyler Biggs leading the way up front, while defensemen Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy and the fifth overall pick from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft Morgan Rielly looking like the most NHL ready prospects on the backend.
Of course, we cannot forget about goaltending prospect Ben Scrivens, who may see some time with the big club as a backup and fellow puck stopper Mark Owuya has a number of fans looking to him as the long term answer between the pipes for the Blue and White.
When you consider the overall depth of the Maple Leafs young talent they are right up there with the best in the NHL. While nobody is willing to call any of them super star material yet, there are more than a few that should be NHL ready sooner rather than later.
But what of the upcoming season, will any of these youngsters be ready to crack the Maple Leafs lineup?
When you consider the Maple Leafs roster there appears to be a few areas where a prospect could crack the lineup. Up front the addition of James van Riemsdyk will make it tough for any prospect to crack the Maple Leafs top-six. That said, with Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin’s struggles from last season still fresh in the minds of many, earning a spot would not surprise anyone.
Let’s face it, James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Mikhail Grabovski will make up four of the Maple Leafs top-six forwards, while Tyler Bozak, MacArthur, Kulemin, Kadri, Matt Frattin and Carter Ashton will be left to fight it out for the scraps.
Kadri, Ashton and Frattin would look to have the inside track on cracking the lineup, with Frattin and Kadri probably getting the longest looks. Meanwhile, late season acquisition Carter Ashton looks more suited for a bottom six role; that is if he can demonstrate the desire to play a more physical game than what he showed at the end of last season.
Not to mention the likes of Matthew Lombardi, who was hampered with injuries last season and Tim Connolly, who the Maple Leafs may favor to see bigger minutes due to his bloated contract. Both of these players have something to prove, whether they crack the Maple Leafs top-six on a consistent basis is up for debate.
The smart money is on Frattin to crack the lineup. Frattin has the physical edge head coach Randy Carlyle typically covets and the hands to be an offensive contributor when given the chance. Through 56 games with the big club last season Frattin lit the lamp a total of eight times while adding seven assists. Frattin also brought a measure of energy to the lineup, something the Maple Leafs dearly need.
That said, at this point he too is best suited for bottom six minutes, leaving the door wide open for Nazem Kadri to scoop up some serious minutes on the Maple Leafs top-six.
If Kadri is to make the Maple Leafs roster he will probably have to beat out Bozak, MacArthur or Kulemin and show that he is ready to be defensively responsible while raising his offensive game to a new level, which will be no easy feat. Bozak established himself as a valuable faceoff man last season while playing first line minutes between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Bozak’s 18 goals and 29 assists from last season were decent totals, far avove what Kadri was averaging. Bozak’s offense may not be enough to keep him on the first line, but the addition of JVR to the lineup won’t help Kadri’s chances of cracking the top-six either.
Like many Leaf forwards, Bozak is probably best suited for the bottom six, but he too could earn his way onto the second line should MacArthur or Kulemin falter. Bozak didn’t take many nights off last season and he won’t hurt you defensively.
For Burke, the fact that there are so many question marks in the Leafs’ top-six is actually a good problem to have. When Burke took over the reins from former Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher he promised to build a franchise that would spit out prospects that would push the players on the big clubs roster. Slowly but surely he is accomplishing just that.
With defenseman Luke Schenn being shipped out to the Philadelphia Flyers in the JVR deal a roster spot has opened up on the backend. With a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the perpetually lost Mike Komisarek, Korbinian Holzer (who was a stand out with the Maple Leafs AHL club last season) looks to have the inside track on cracking the lineup on the backend, while Rielly, Percy and Blacker will likely need some more seasoning.
In the crease James Reimer looks to be Burke’s choice as the team’s number one goaltender. That is unless he manages to land Roberto Luongo or Jonathan Bernier in the much rumored trade scenarios.
Either way, Ben Scrivens will probably make an appearance at some point as Reimer’s health, while said to be good this summer, is somewhat uncertain.
Like Holzer, Scrivens was a major contributor to the Toronto Marlies Calder Cup run, causing some fans to suggest Burke enter the season with Reimer and Scrivens as 1A and 1 B rather than bringing in a proven veteran or another youngster to push Reimer.
For the first time in years training camp is shaping up to be a balls-out competition. Roster spots are available, now it is just a matter of impressing the Leafs brass and coaching staff. After all, anything is possible, just ask Jake Gardiner.
Until next time,