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Is the Leafs' fourth line in for a changing of the guard?

Early on in the 2013-14 season (and during the preseason), the Leafs have dressed a very different fourth line than last year’s. Troy Bodie, Carter Ashton, Colton Orr, Jamie Devane and Frazer McLaren (once he returns from injury) are all in the conversation of who might play on Jay McClement’s wings. Trevor Smith was also in the conversation through training camp, but his recent appointment as captain of the Marlies makes it unlikely he’ll see regular time with the Leafs.

Orr and McLaren are the old hands of the group, both of whom had their contracts extended last offseason and looked to regain their positions on the energy line at the outset of training camp. However, the signing of Troy Bodie and the rise of both Jamie Devane and Carter Ashton have gotten in the way of that happening. Bodie (who, of course by sheer coincidence, is the son-in-law of MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke) was brought in as a depth option for the Leafs, but has impressed in the young season, getting two assists and seven hits, while looking comfortable in an energy role. Ashton and Devane also surprised many with very strong performances in the preseason, which culminated in Ashton making the opening night roster and Devane being called up after it was announced Nikolai Kulemin would miss at least two weeks will a bone chip in his ankle.

Orr and McLaren also both suffered injuries in the preseason, giving Devane and Ashton more chances to impress the coaching staff. The new trio offers a different skill set than Joe Bowen’s beloved Blue Bombers. All three have shown they will drop the gloves if need be, but are certainly not prototypical enforcers like Orr and McLaren. The three are all better options than McLaren and Orr in terms of speed, puck-cycling and offensive ability, things which many have called for in Toronto’s energy line since last season, when the fourth line was often benched late in games.

An enforcer-driven line isn’t without its positives though. McLaren and Orr are two of the most intimidating players in the league, and their presence certainly makes other teams think twice before going after the Leafs’ star players. (Notice how John Scott only went after Kessel when Orr, McLaren and Fraser were out of the lineup?) Orr is known for his presence in the dressing room as well, as Randy Carlyle alluded to at beginning of last season saying, “He brings a good work ethic. He brings strong leadership qualities.”

In conclusion, I feel that a combination of the lines is the best option. Carter Ashton is likely the most talented of the three newcomers to the fourth line, and because of this, he should be sent down to the AHL for another year. That might sound strange, but he has the potential to be more than a fourth-line player, an additional season in the AHL with top-six minutes should help him realize that potential. Devane also showed that he can be much better than an average fourth-liner, and I think that at least one season with the Marlies will be better for his development. Bodie should take the fourth line left wing spot, with Orr and McLaren alternating as the team’s resident fighter on the right wing.

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