After our first two battles – won by Tim Connolly and Phil Kessel, shockers, I know – it’s time to decide who will take the wing alongside them. Taking into consideration the fact that Kessel and Connolly aren’t exactly the biggest guys in the NHL, the ideal left winger should bring some size, grit and a penchant for crashing the net, since, if all goes according to plan, Kessel should be creating tons of rebounds with all the rubber that Connolly’s feeding him. The Leafs’ depth chart on the left wing isn’t exactly loaded, but there’s certainly a few guys that will challenge for the role.
Candidates: Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur, Nazem Kadri (No, Jay Rosehill and Mike Brown don’t have a shot)
If you’ve read any of the speculation leading up to the season so far, it’s a pretty fair bet that when the puck drops on opening night, it will be Joffrey Lupul playing alongside Kessel and Connolly. I’m gonna tell you why he’s the best man for the job, and why it could turn out to be a great opportunity for the Leafs and Lupul. Before we get to that, though, let’s see why Kadri and MacArthur won’t get the job.
First of all, as bad as we all want Kadri to take that next step and become a bonafide NHL star (which, although I haven’t expressed it much here, I honestly think he has the potential to be), I just don’t see him being a good fit on this line. I’m sure he will be given every opportunity to do so, as it would be a huge benefit to the team, not only in terms of production but also just for the sheer morale boost of having a legitimate homegrown talent finally pan out. As I mentioned earlier, the ideal linemate for a playmaker and sniper is a power forward. Someone who can do the dirty work, crash the net, bang in the rebounds and create space for them.
Clarke MacArthur would do a better job of that than Kadri, but while he has the attitude of a power forward, his overall size and skillset are more inclined with those of a playmaker, a role he fills perfectly when paired with Kulemin and Grabovski. This is not to say that either MacArthur or Kadri wouldn’t be a solid addition to the top line, but it’s a pretty safe assumption that Mac will begin the year with his old linemates. Kadri would have to have one hell of a preseason to earn Wilson’s trust on the top line, something I am not counting on happening.
His defensive game, while it did improve dramatically over his first stint (not saying much considering he was pretty one-dimensional during his NHL debut), would probably be a liability should he be pressed into duty against some of the other top scoring lines in the league. At six feet tall (a generous listing, at that), Kadri needs to add size if he wants to be able to effectively play a full shift in the NHL . Obviously, I haven’t been party to his training regimen in the offseason, and if he shows up at say, 6’0, 195 lbs, I’d be a lot more optimistic about his chances.
With Kadri and MacArthur being less than perfect fits on the top line, the duty should fall to none other than Lupul. At 6’1, 206 lbs, Lupul has a big frame, and knows how to use it. After a bit of a slow start, Lupul found his groove and contributed nicely on the Leafs’ late-season push. In the video I posted showing all of Kessel’s goals, you’ll notice he and Joffrey move the puck very comfortably together. Factor in a more offensively skilled center than Tyler Bozak in the form of Connolly, and this could be a pretty formidable scoring unit. Except for a brutal season in Edmonton, Lupul has scored 50 points in the other two full seasons he’s played since the lockout, none of which saw him pull first-line minutes. If he can take advantage of the opportunity I think he’ll be presented, I don’t think it’s out of the question to see him flirt with 60-65 points this season.