TORONTO - Since it’s the Fourth of July and presumably Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson is enjoying the American holiday, we’ll switch places for the purposes of the next 800 words or so.
For starters, my golf handicap just went down by a dozen strokes and my wardrobe is suddenly presentable.
And now for the important stuff: Let’s put together a hypothetical Leafs depth chart even though it’s months before what should be a competitive training camp this October.
Wilson will have options to consider over the summer, details that could be altered dramatically depending on what general manager Brian Burke and his staff do between now and then and how certain prospects kick up their game.
The lineup already has some significant changes from the one that ended the season, however. For better or worse, here’s what we’ll write on the game sheet:
Joffrey Lupul-Tim Connolly-Phil Kessel
On paper, this should be the Leafs’ go-to trio — and by paper, we mean currency. With a combined salary of $14.4 million US, these three will be expected to produce more than they have in their career and certainly have the potential to do so.
In Kessel, you have one of the best natural snipers in the league, a player seemingly waiting for a big-time centre to help transform him into a 40-goal a season man (or better.)
He may still be waiting into next season, depending on whether the man in the middle is more Terrific Tim than Tiny Tim. Talk to a Sabres fan for more than a breath and you’d think the guy should head straight to the Marlies.
Connolly seems thrilled about both the chance at a fresh start and the opportunity to feed Kessel, however, and at times in his career has shown he can be a good setup man.
The more Lupul played last year, the stronger he got fuelling optimism for further progress with a full off-season to get healthy. Of the three, Lupul is the most willing to go to the net so could complement the other two.
Who knows what type of chemistry will develop once they actually hit the ice in training camp, but even with the iffy Connolly, it’s a move up from last year.
Clarke MacArthur-Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin
Like all of these projections, this one comes with a fairly big assumption: That being that MacArthur either signs with the team or gets to an arbitration figure is satisfactory.
Burke has expressed concern about overpaying or MacArthur based on one good season. The argument for doing so, of course, is that MacArthur probably deserves some of the credit for both Grabovski and Kulemin turning in big seasons.
Speaking of those two Russian-speaking forwards, as solid as they were last season (29 goals, 29 assists for Grabovski; 30 goals 27 assists for Kulemin) they have to build on that breakthrough campaign and continue the evolution into bona fide top six NHL forwards.
Colby Armstrong-Tyler Bozak-Nazem Kadri
This is a really interesting grouping for a number of reasons and in so many ways could be a key to the team’s success if held intact.
The Leafs had an uncanny record when Armstrong was healthy in the lineup as last summer’s big free-agent acquisition was exactly what Burke had hoped for — an energy player who seemed to inspire his teammates when on the ice.
Bozak, meanwhile, was put in the uncomfortable (unfair?) position of the being the team’s No. 1 centre on too many nights and predictably showed he wasn’t ready. While Bozak didn’t stink out the ACC many nights, with less pressure on him in this role, should get the chance to develop at a more realistic pace.
And then there’s Kadri, who had a disastrous training camp amid unrealistic hype and expectation. The 29 games he played, should give him a better idea of what it takes to be an NHLer and perhaps prepare him to show some of his considerable offensive upside.
Colton Orr/Jay Rosehill-Darryl Boyce-Mike Brown
Obviously this unit could change dramatically, even by the time training camp arrives. Part of it will depend on Orr’s recovery from a head injury although recently signed Rosehill can play that roll. The fourth-line centre spot may be one of the more notable positional battles at camp.
While it seems unlikely that Matthew Lombardi, acquired in a deal with Nashville on Sunday, will be ready for the start of the season, a quick comeback dramatically alters the dynamic and depth at centre.
A week ago, Burke suggested that winger Matt Frattin may be a player ready to crack the starting lineup out of training camp. Frattin just finished his college career at the University of North Dakota but was the NCAA’s leading scorer last year and if ready could fit in the forward group.