Morning Mashup: Serious Lineup Considerations


Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star

Leave it to the Toronto Maple Leafs to have more roster questions heading into the regular season than heading into camp.  Suspensions, injuries and trades have forced more confusion as to who fits where in the forward corps.  Wednesday afternoon, reports came in from Leafs practice of Wilson’s impromptu line combinations heading into tonight’s home opener against the Montreal Canadiens.  While it seemed to answer a few questions, the current status of the Leafs roster longer term remains up in the air.

The programme editing department at the ACC must be a comedy of errors heading into tonight’s first tilt, but the wackiness won’t end just yet.  October has already been a surreal month for the Buds, with so many questions remaining. Let’s take a look at the leafs concerns up front.

Projected Game 1 Forward Lines

Kulemin – Grabovski – Frattin
Lupul – Bozak – Kessel
Armstrong – Steckel – Dupuis
Rosehill – Lombardi – Brown
The infirm and/or invalid: MacArthur – Connolly – Orr

Of course Tim Connolly would get injured before the season even begins.  This was the quintessential knock on this otherwise talented guy.  We all knew this July 2.  But Connolly’s kept skating with the team, despite the club keeping mum as to the extent or outright severity of the injury.  With the large, bizarre break between games 2 and 3, the general expectation seems to be he’ll be in the line up.  While a pie in the face to Leafs Nation, the fact that Connolly continues to practice is promising.  With that in mind:

Probable Game 3 Forward Lines

Kulemin – Grabovski – MacArthur
Lupul – Connolly – Kessel
Armstrong – Bozak – Frattin
Lombardi – Steckel – Brown

There’s a tonne of variables on this projection beyond Connolly’s health.  Grabovski, Kessel, Lombardi, Bozak, Brown and Orr have also had questions regarding their health heading into game 1.  I think the Leafs are going to especially watch Matthew Lombardi and Colton Orr.  With both coming off concussions, it’s a conscientious thing to do.    Lombardi might be spared from the fray for a game or two, while Colton Orr’s minutes will be managed this coming season.  He can throw hands with the best of them, but he’s looked a shadow of himself through camp.

Nonetheless, Wilson and Burke will have to make some serious roster decisions when Kadri and Connolly come off the IR.  This fact alone makes it impossible to suggest how the Leafs forward pairings will appear by even game 10 of the regular season.  Kadri should be ready to come back. Lombardi could really bounce back.  Frattin could really impress.  Given the glut of 3rd/4th liners now on the roster, weight must be cut.  And that itself opens up a further can of worms.

There are some segments that feel the acquisition of David Steckel was the precursor to something bigger.  On the surface, Burke has iterated that the management team has coveted the 6’5” center for a year and a half.  I’ll be the first to admit that a left handed, faceoff specialist and defensive forward would add a tremendous tactical uses for a team searching for a glimmer of PK proficiency. That might perturb recent offseason signing Philippe Dupuis, could be the cruel victim of fate, trades, injuries and a Shannaban.

In and of itself, the Leafs now have 6 centermen on the roster (7 depending on how you view Kadri).  To make things more complicated, the Leafs sit just $100,000 shy of the cap ceiling.  Unless Burke’s got a 10 Center-per-Cup mantra I haven’t heard of, something’s gotta give.

The trade avenue invariably comes up, that the Leafs might package some players to get a semblance of cap relief.  Burke has already stated that he is willing to make upgrades, and the Leafs have plethora of promising depth at all positions.  Yet to get the type of cap space Burke likes to work with, the Leafs would need to offload players with a mightier cap hit than Carl Gunnarsson and Tyler Bozak to offset the ledger enough in the Leafs favour.

It seems more likely that the Leafs will need to demote waiver exempt players like Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin to the AHL.  It will relieve pressure on the cap and league roster size restrictions.  Sure it means the Marlies will have more NHL caliber players than the Senators, but it’s an easy out.  They’ll be the taxi squad, but it might be the best for their development anyway.

Yet I can’t help shake the feeling that Burke knows something and isn’t telling.  Perhaps the Steckel move was opportunistic, perhaps it was reactionary.  The coy dissemination of Connolly’s roster status this past week and the addition of someone who can skate a shift as a bottom six center has left me wondering.  Is it possible that Burke knows Connolly is going to be out a while or often?  Is Bozak going to have to be the de facto Kessel-line centre for an extended period of time? Is that really why the Steckel deal went down? Or was this simply an offer Burke couldn’t refuse for a player he’s so desperately wanted?

We don’t yet have the answer to those questions, and the hazy outlook amongst the forward ranks is not the inspiring introduction to the season the franchise would have hoped for.

Regardless, when the puck drops tonight amongst the fanfare and bombast, these unanswered questions will fade into the background for a night.  So enjoy tonight’s game, ladies and gentlemen! Its very likely that this line up will be performing 1 night only.

Thanks for reading, and as always, onto the links.

Check out Joe Cino’s breakdown of new forward Dave Steckel.

Yes, Sidney Crosby is still hurt.

The Globe’s James Mirtle breaks down 5 things to look out for this coming season.

A long look at the long list of Leafs defensemen that’ll be making headlines this year.

Apparently Ron Wilson DOESN’T make playoff guarantees.

VLM with a piece on pressure and relativity in Leaf Land.