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Apr 9, 2011; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Maple Leafs center Joe Colborne (32) carries the puck against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre. The Canadiens beat the Maple Leafs 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Toronto Maple Leafs Forward Prospects Face Uphill Battle To Make The Big Club

We know that one day this NHL lockout will come to an end. And on that day, teams will have to make some pretty significant roster decisions. The Toronto Maple Leafs are no different.

I read an article a while back by Justin Bourne over at theScore’s Backhand Shelf debating the old “top-six or bust” methodology pertaining to young, skilled forward prospects. A commonly held belief in hockey circles is that if a young forward isn’t good enough to make an NHL team’s top two forward lines, then he should be sent back down to the AHL or another developmental league so he can get lots of minutes and power-play time, rather than “toiling” in a defensive role with limited minutes in the NHL.

Bourne points to different examples (namely Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit and the Sedin twins in Vancouver) of young skilled players who started their NHL careers in the bottom-six, before eventually developing into the dynamic offensive players they are today. He makes a compelling enough case that it made me rethink my opinion on Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri.

It’s been a while since the Leafs have had young forward prospects like they do now with Kadri and Joe Colborne, so it’s hard to think of recent examples. Nikolai Kulemin was drafted and developed by the Leafs and has been on the team’s top two forward lines the past few years, but it’s safe to say Kulemin isn’t a dynamic offensive player and wouldn’t sniff the top-six on many of the top teams in the league.

However, the Leafs do have a history of bringing in veteran grinders to play on the bottom-six, sometimes to the detriment of younger players. After the 2003-04 season, Leafs’ coach Pat Quinn lamented management’s decision to trade for a way-past-his-prime Ron Francis to centre the team’s third line, when he would have much rather have seen a young Matt Stajan gain valuable experience in that spot. Stajan never developed beyond a third-line centre anyway, but the example illustrates the longtime debate of youth vs. experience.

I do believe Kadri and Colborne could develop just fine on the bottom-six of the Leafs’ forward lines as long as they get around 12 minutes of ice time per game, but the competition for those spots will be fierce. Here’s a look at the depth chart (via The Hockey News):

Joffrey Lupul

Mikhail Grabovski

Phil Kessel

James van Riemsdyk

Tyler Bozak

Nikolai Kulemin

Clarke MacArthur

Jay McClement

Matt Frattin

Mike Brown

David Steckel

Nazem Kadri

Matthew Lombardi

Tim Connolly

Leo Komarov

Carter Ashton

Keith Aucoin

Colton Orr

Jerry D’Amigo

Joe Colborne

Kenny Ryan

Granted, this isn’t straight off of Randy Carlyle’s whiteboard, it’s more of an educated guess. We won’t have a great idea of what he’s thinking until we see how he uses his players whenever this lockout ends and some form of training camp gets started. But just looking at the amount of veterans the Leafs have signed to one-way contracts, it’s difficult to envision either Kadri or Colborne getting third-line minutes.

However, if the Leafs trade away Tyler Bozak as part of a deal to acquire Roberto Luongo, or by some miracle they’re able to find a team willing to take on Tim Connolly’s 4.75 million-dollar contract, suddenly Kadri and Colborne’s chances of making the team improve significantly. But then again, if the Leafs hope to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs, pushing one of those two players into the top-six before they’re ready might not be the best way of going about that.

If there’s one good thing to come out of this lockout it’s that Kadri, Colborne, and the rest of the young Marlies have the undivided attention of Leafs’ management and coaching staff to prove they can indeed take that next step.

Tags: Joe Colborne Nazem Kadri Toronto Maple Leafs

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