2014 – 2015 Toronto Maple Leafs Road To Rebuilding the Fourth Line and Defensive Core

With the pending ground up rebuild coming to Leafs land, there is a significant opportunity that may be presenting itself to a number of Maple Leaf rookies currently striving to make the jump into the NHL or back to the NHL given the number of roster spots that may become available over the summer. If management does indeed decide to ship the likes of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf and Tyler Bozak out and free agents such as David Booth, Trevor Smith, Joakim Lindstrom, Zach Sill and Eric Brewer are not resigned, it will leave no less than 9 roster spots open; depending on whether or not the team acquires young roster players in any of the larger pending transactions that are pretty much set to happen this off season.

In terms of replacing top six forwards, of all the players that are set to becoming unrestricted free agents (UFA’s) at the end of the year, management in my opinion really should attempt to retain the services of winger David Booth who has reacted positively to an increase in ice time adding 5 points in the last 6 games recently and 8 points in the past 17 games since being added to the top six at the beginning of February. If the Leafs do ship out the likes of Kessel and Lupul, Booth would be a valuable veteran top six player that has the potential to put up points and at worst may be an inexpensive resigning. He is also driven to rekindle the type of success achieved earlier in his career and may be the kind of lead by example player the team will surely need in their room; Booth is in phenomenal shape and his tenacity on the ice could be contagious.

There is however a lack of free agents this summer who may be available to the team that could potentially slot into a top six roll; of those who are available, not many would be interested in joining a team in the midst of a complete rebuild or they may command significant contract dollars or term in order to entice them otherwise. Leafs management will need to practice patience this coming off season and stick to a proper rebuild through the draft while also waiting to see what UFA’s remain before the start of the season in an attempt to sign viable players to short term deals who could be dealt at the trade deadline for draft picks. Although one hates to admit it, for the short term especially if the team trades the likes of Tyler Bozak, they may need to consider utilizing Nazem Kadri as the top line center while bringing in the likes of a Brad Richards to fill the 2C role.

There are also two avenues the team may need to consider for next season with respect to how they will approach rebuilding the fourth line. The current unit are all UFA’s at seasons end and given the teams struggles there is little chance they will be retained. However do the Maple Leafs build out the line with free agents who could add some bulk to the corps while remaining defensively responsible OR do they bring up prospects currently with the Marlies to garner valuable NHL experience which could be the more logical long term investment.

In terms of the third and fourth lines the Leafs already have a decent third line made up of Leo Komorov, Peter Holland and Richard Panik but the entire fourth line is open for debate. This is where it may make sense for management to focus on building a workhorse fourth line from available free agents that could also be a force on the PK. Perhaps they consider pending Boston UFA’s Dan Paille and Greg Campbell along with Avalanche grinder Cody McLeod. It would also not surprise me if the team looks at the likes of Daniel Winnik again along with Chris Stewart for supporting roles who can also chip in the occasional point with the ability to play up and down the lineup.

That being said the team should also consider putting together a young Marlies fourth line and focus on getting more young players into the lineup, who could play sheltered minutes. Although there has been plenty of discussion circulating about Connor Brown and William Nylander, who are having solid years in their own right with the Marlies, both players could use some additional seasoning in the AHL to develop both physically and on the defensive elements of their games. Nylander is just 18 and Brown 21 and with some trying seasons coming for the Leafs it may make sense for both players to continue enjoying success in the minors and take more prominent roles with the team. The Marlies look poised to become even younger this summer which will increase the overall importance of players like Brown and Nylander to take more prominent roles with the club.

That being said there are still a couple of players currently with the Marlies organization that the Maple Leafs could consider extending camp tryouts to that may be able to make an impact next season who will also be very cap friendly and are at a point in their development where playing at the NHL level may be the best thing for them. Some players have been left off the list below given their relatively young age, as it just makes more sense to continue their development with the Marlies for another year logging a lot more significant minutes however below are some who may make sense to consider:

Forwards

LW Age Center Age RW Age
Josh Leivo 21 Sam Carrick 23 Matt Frattin 27
Jamie Devane 24 Byron Froese 24 Connor Brown 21

Defense

LHD Age RHD Age
TJ Brennan 25 Andrew MacWilliam 24
Stuart Percy 21 Petter Granberg 23

Josh Leivo has made considerable strides at the pro level over the last two years with a couple of cups of coffee with the Maple Leafs where he managed to produce a couple of points. A right handed shot, left winger like Lupul, Leivo at times looks almost bored at the AHL level, he has an NHL release and it might almost be necessary to bring him up for an extended look to give him a shot in the arm especially given his potential and the positive impact it may have on his development.

Sam Carrick has also been up and down between the two leagues over the last year and didn’t look completely out of place. An extended look on the fourth line if the team does not resign Trevor Smith, which seems likely given the change needed to the teams direction, may give him an opportunity in sheltered minutes at center to determine if he can make an impact on the draw and play against NHL players on a regular basis. His tenacity alone may be worth the positive impact it could have on other players.

Matt Frattin appears to have re-established his game and his confidence levels have returned to a point where he is making smarter decisions with the puck, using his body and has become a go to player to generate goals for a young Marlies squad. This may be his last chance to make an impact at the NHL level given his age and it will be up to him to grab the opportunity and run with it.

TJ Brennan may have been the most patient player in the AHL over the last two years, who has done absolutely everything necessary to be given a legitimate shot at the NHL. However after leaving the Marlies for the New York Islanders, he was part of a trade to the Chicago Blackhawks who’s depth chart was no better. A late season trade back to the Maple Leafs for Spencer Abbott finally saw Brennan called up to the Leafs recently and it is expected he will slot into the lineup on the teams upcoming road trip. Long overdue but very much warranted.

Andrew MacWilliam played his first NHL game in front of his parents the other day against the Buffalo Sabres and did not disappoint, garnering his first professional point (see the 1 minute mark on the video below with his cross ice pass) an assist on Brandon Kozun’s goal and landing recognition as the third star of the game. Hopefully the Leafs will continue to rotate him into the roster for the rest of the season to get a better idea of where he may fit in to their future plans.

So the team has two options to explore over the summer with respect to rebuilding their fourth line and some decisions to be made on which young players would be best to integrate into the defensive core for next season, with a number of positives and negatives for each to weight. Here is also hoping that the team also considers leaving a spot or two free, in terms of the number of players they have signed next year, as an assumption could be made that there will be a player or two worth picking up on the waiver wire especially given the cap situation some of the other teams are in.

Given how passionate and knowledgeable this fan base truly is, the team will hopefully consider acquiring and fielding as many young prospect players as they are able who have the potential to grow with the team over the next couple of seasons. They would be at the very least entertaining to watch and along with their own development may help re-develop a passion for the team long lost in the circus that has been the last couple of seasons.

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