With the 2012-2013 NHL season looming (assuming the league and players association are able to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement), it’s getting to be that time of the year again where teams must decide what their everyday lineup will look like heading into the regular season.
This task is never easy, especially when some players come out of nowhere and turn in phenomenal training camps and impressive preseason performances.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, putting together the lines up front may be even more of a challenge than most other teams will face.
Consider the fact that they only have four slots open on the wing between the top two lines, with six or seven players who’s styles are suited for top-six play.
There’s James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Nikolai Kulemin, Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur.
All seven of those players are not only solid choices for a spot on the Leafs’ top two lines, but they’re all built for that role as well.
While some may find the thought of having three lines with offensively gifted players on the wings enticing, keep in mind that having a gritty third line that can fore-check and play high-octane, two-way hockey is key to winning in the NHL.
Furthermore, head coach Randy Carlyle has always favored tougher, grittier players, which leads me to believe he will be looking to keep his bottom six forwards in that more traditional mold.
So where does that leave up-and-coming prospects Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin?
There is no doubt that Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are already guaranteed their spots on the first line, after the season they had together in 2011-2012.
It’d also be hard to see the Leafs bumping van Riemsdyk down to third line duties, considering what they traded away and the fact that he’ll be earning over $4 million this season (that’s would be a very expensive third liner).
As for Nikolai Kulemin, the Leafs just re-signed him and he’s still only one year removed from tallying 30 goals, while MacArthur has been a consistent 20 goal scorer, and like van Riemsdyk, would be fairly expensive on Toronto’s third line.
Sending both of them back to the AHL wouldn’t do much good either, as both of them have proven that there isn’t much left for them to learn in the minor league system, with Kadri addressing his issues when it comes to playing more responsible defense and Frattin showing that in the AHL he looks like a man among boys more often than not.
The only other solution that seems feasible right now would be a trade of some sort.
Burying Kadri and Frattin in the minor for another full season wouldn’t do anyone any good, but there may not be enough room on the roster to accommodate them right now.
Perhaps Brian Burke is still exploring the trade market for a top line center.
Making that type of move would address a major need for the Leafs and they’d have plenty of assets to move, whether they be proven NHL-ready talents like MacArthur and Kulemin, or young guns on the verge of breaking out like Kadri and Frattin.
Either way, I wouldn’t expect to see Burke sit on this lineup all season.
He may not shake things up in the immediate future, but with the current makeup of the team, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that he will be making some sort of move by the trade deadline.