Leafs Team Needs: Top-Six Winger

Dustin Penner is one option Brian Burke should consider carefully.  (Photo from Getty Images)

In 2011-12 the Toronto Maple Leafs managed to rank 10th in the league in Goals For. If I told you that the Leafs’ current set of top-six forwards were likely to put together a very similar goal total next year, would you be surprised? Skeptical, even?

Although Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul both saw themselves the beneficiaries of some puck luck this past season, I’ve got a few numbers that suggest it won’t be such a steep dropoff. The table below shows how many goals we might expect from each of the Leafs’ top six forwards based on last year’s shot totals and their average shooting percentage: 

Admittedly, this is a very rough predictive tool, but if the Leafs’ lost a grand total of 5 goals from their top six from this year to last  year, it would only drop them from 10th to 11th overall in scoring. This begs the question: do the Leafs even need another top-six winger?

The short answer is ‘yes’. It’s important, however, not to get too bogged down in the top-six/bottom-six mentality that is so prevalent nowadays. The Leafs don’t just need better top-six wingers, they need better forwards all around. The best way to do that? Push some respectable talent down the depth chart, so that your 3rd line could, theoretically, still be a scoring threat. Heck, is it too much to ask that the Leafs’ fourth line next season chips in a few more goals?

Let’s look at a few possible solutions:

Home-Grown Options

While I still expect Nazem Kadri to one day play a top-six role in the NHL, it would be unwise to rely on him to do so next season. His NHL equivalency numbers don’t look like what most of us would call "elite", and he should have the benefit of at least one sheltered year before he sees full-time, regular NHL action against the league’s finest defenders. Ideally, he can play on the Leafs’ third line next season, play spot-duty on the second in the event of an injury, and see some good power play minutes.

Joe Colborne isn’t a dud, but it’s also fair to say that his stock has fallen recently. A wrist injury certainly hindered his ability to contribute through the AHL playoffs, and it’s possible that it also had an impact on his season, but the simple fact of the matter is that we have yet to see anything from him that suggests he’s ready for a top-six role.

It’s also true that Matt Frattin had a wonderful playoff run with the Marlies, and could very well develop into a second or third line ‘tweener’. Myself, I’m not holding my breath. I’d love to see him in a third or fourth line role with the big club this season, and the odd shift with second-line players wouldn’t hurt, but he’s definitely not a top-six solution for next season.

The Trade Market

Rick Nash:

How many ways can I say ‘no’? I’m sure that I won’t ruffle many fans’ feathers when I say at this point how bloated Nash’s contract is, how his career numbers are likely to slide downward from here on in, and how Scott Howson still somehow expects a totally unreasonable haul for him.

He’s just not a substantial enough upgrade from Clarke MacArthur or Joffrey Lupul to be worth all this trouble.

James van Riemsdyk:

If Paul Holmgren is silly enough to hand the Leafs van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn, then you pull the trigger on that deal immediately. While JVR’s (roughly) 0.5 points-per-game pace from the last three seasons suggests that he’ll never blossom into everything the Flyers dreamed of when they drafted him 2nd overall, he’s still a solid NHLer, and just the kind of guy who looks good on a second or third line.

His Corsi numbers look decent, although his zone starts suggest that he may not be driving the proverbial puck possession bus on the Flyers. Oh, and he wasn’t particularly lucky, last season. A 7.53% shooting percentage may allow a GM like Burke to ‘buy low’.

He’s an interesting option, but the cost of a trade may be prohibitive.

Bobby Ryan:

It’s the rumour that just won’t die. Well, actually, it’s a series of rumours about the same player, and we can’t kill them fast enough before they pile up.

Bob MacKenzie recently revealed that Ryan may be on the trade block again. Of course, this is after having gone through something of a rough patch with the Leafs’ new coach Randy Carlyle. But hey, if Carlyle and Joffrey Lupul can mend ties, why not?

Ryan is younger, produces about the same number of points, is cheaper, has a shorter contract, and should cost correspondingly more than Rick Nash. So how the heck would the Leafs land a player like this? The truth is, I haven’t the slightest idea.

Moreover, if Bobby Ryan takes an average of 2.84 shots per game, I’m not sure how there will be enough pucks on the ice for Phil Kessel to continue firing at his average of 3.36.

Let’s not hold our collective breaths.

Free Agency

Dustin Penner:

As Danny Gray pointed out in our last podcast, the L.A. Kings’ Cup win dramatically changes the market for Dustin Penner’s services. This is somewhat disappointing, since the stars seemed to all be aligning for Brian Burke to go out and get the player that he so famously lost to an RFA offer sheet. A big winger, capable of potting 20 goals per season available for cheap? Sign me up! Now? Burke’s odds are a lot longer.

Looking at Penner’s 4.82 shooting percentage, you’d think he’d be ripe for the picking. I mean, 17 points on the year? His Corsi numbers look good, not great, and although he was somewhat sheltered in terns of zone starts, he finished most of his shifts in the right place, as well.

Would I be happy to see him paid $3M (or, realistically, much, much more) per season? No. With the Leafs in something of a cap bind, they don’t need any more under-performing veterans. They need someone who can definitely score.

Zach Parise:

For quite some time, most hockey folks considered it a given that the Devil’s captain was going to find a new home on July 1st, but the Devils’ recent push to the finals has perhaps made him think twice. On the other hand, as recently as a week ago, Lou Lamoriello had still not had any contract discussions with Parise’s agent, so what happens is anyone’s guess.

If he is available come July 1st, there will be a bevy of teams lining up to enlist his services. There will be a bidding war, and probably something approaching the Brad Richards lunacy that we had to endure last season will ensue. The cost will be exorbitant, and concerns about his knees will probably be forgotten in all the madness. On top of this, Parise will be 28 this July, and isn’t likely to see his production soar much (if at all) higher than it has been over the past few seasons.

He is, of course, still an elite player, and will likely continue to be so for another 4 years at least. His numbers at Behind the Net aren’t phenomenal, but he would still obviously be a big upgrade on the left side for the Leafs.

My prediction? I believe he’ll either re-sign in New Jersey or hit the open market and never think twice about moving to Toronto. He’ll get more money and term elsewhere.


Fortunately for Brian Burke, if his search for a top-line center ends in Tyler Bozak, he still has a few options to pursue on the wing.

The Leafs’ best option seems to be the trade route, as Brian Burke has something of a poor history with UFA signings, and the market seems to be ripe. Players like Cody Franson and Nikolai Kulemin are RFAs that have yet to be re-signed to contracts, and could prove useful as trade bait as a part of a package. Let’s just hope he can blow the doors off at the draft.