I’m just going to go ahead and state the obvious, rather than dragging it out for a few more posts. Unless something dramatically changes during training camp and the preseason, it’s widely expected that Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin will be the 2nd line for the Leafs in the 2011-12 season. All three players had great seasons, totaling 80 goals and 177 points, and proved to be one of the more defensively responsible units Ron Wilson had at his disposal. While that’s not exactly saying much considering the Leafs’ defensive woes, the Leafs’ 2nd line was rightfully discussed as one of the top 2nd units in the league, if not one of the top units in general.
Now, there are a few ways next season could go. If you’re like many Leaf fans and have grown to be the eternal pessimist, then last year was a fluke. MacArthur played over his head, and won’t get near the 21 goals and 62 points he put up last season, despite the raise and new contract he got. Grabovski will revert back to his old inconsistent ways, and won’t be able to keep up the way he played last season – an annoying pest to play against that could both score and dazzle with his flashy dangles and shootout moves. Kulemin – well, if anyone’s got anything bad to say about Kulie, they can just get the hell out right now.
Of course, there’s a flip side to that coin. Some fans will be heading into the upcoming season expecting all three players to score at least 30 goals. Kulemin, if you believe some of the more outrageous claims being made in the great blogosphere, is the second coming of Pavel Datsyuk, while Grabbo will cement his place as one of the top pivots in the league this season. Honestly, as with most extreme projections, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
As far as Kulemin goes, I think the sky’s the limit for the 25-year old Russian. He’s posted 114 points through his first three seasons, with last year obviously being his breakout campaign. The same folks that put together the Kessel video I put up here last week did the same thing with Kulemin, and I”m going to include that here, as evidence of the fact that I think he not only has the potential to become a regular 30-goal scorer, but potentially improve on those numbers in the coming seasons. You’ll see on a large number of his goals last year, he was just in the right place at the right time. Lucky bounces – sure, if it’s once or twice, but when it’s a pattern, it becomes indicative of a player’s ability to successfully read a play and combine that with his willingness to go to the difficult areas of the ice and be productive. Add in the fact that he’s got a wicked shot, and we could easily be watching the development of one of the top players in the future of this team.
Now, as far as the rest of the line goes, the other two players are both at a crucial situation in their careers. With both men coming off of career years, it will remain to be seen whether or not they can improve on those performances, or at the very least, repeat them. If I had to pick one of them to fall back and the other to improve, I’d say Grabovski has the higher ceiling, as he finally seemed to be at home playing the style of game that coaches have hoped he would since he entered the league in 2006. That’s not to say that I think MacArthur will regress – I honestly think he’s a solid asset to the team, but if Kadri or Frattin were to force their way into a top-six role and he wasn’t exactly lighting it up, he would fit in well on the 3rd line with his style of play.
Putting it realistically, it’s actually not extraordinarily far-fetched to think that the Leafs could have as many as six 50-point scorers on their roster next season if the Mac’n the USSR line can maintain its form from last year. I don’t anticipate MacArthur regressing to his bottom-six form that saw him passed over by the Sabres and Thrashers before coming to Toronto. I think Grabovski realized the potential he had and should have every opportunity to approach the 30-goal threshold again this year. Meanwhile, Kulemin is only going to keep getting better, and I can’t wait to see what he’s got in store this year. Considering that a more effective top line will take some of the pressure off this line, and these three guys should be more than pumped for the season to start.