Top 6 forwards and the Maple Leafs offense

A year ago Cliff Fletcher as interim general manager of the Maple Leafs suggested that the Leafs had only one top 6 forward, that being Nik Antropov. With Antopov now gone there was ample discussion among the media and fans about how dismal the Leafs offense will be and despite the upgrades Brian Burke made on defense the Leafs lack of scoring will likely lead them to another missed playoff. Brian Burke has addressed that in a major way by acquiring what everyone will agree is a top 6 forward in Phil Kessel, but is Kessel enough? To answer that, we need to get a clearer understanding of what a top six forward actually is because there seems to be a misunderstanding.

The obvious answer is that a top 6 forward is a player who can play on your top two lines. Most people also seem to believe that to play on a teams top two lines you have to produce offensively. So for the purpose of this analysis let me assume that ‘top six’ really means ‘top six offensive forwards.’

Since there are 30 teams in the NHL to be considered a top six forward you could consider the top 180 offensive forwards in the NHL to be top six forwards. On a points per game basis for players with at least 41 games played the 180th player on the list was Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers with a points per game pace of 0.49 which equates to just 40 points over the course of an NHL season. Yup, score 40 points and you can be considered a top six player. Maple Leafs among the top 180 include Jason Blake (57th), Ponikarovsky (78th), Stajan (85), Hagman (114th), Grabovski (129rd), Stempniak (139th). Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore were also among the top 180 offensive players in the NHL.

Of course, a top six player on the New York Islanders is completely different than a top six forward on a cup contending team. The top teams in the NHL will surely have a better top six than the bottom teams. To find out, I looked at the top 96 offensive forwards on the 16 playoff teams from one year ago. The bottom players on this list were Markus Naslund and R.J. Umberger both of whom had 46 points in 82 games for a points per game pace of 0.56. So, to be considered a top six forward on a playoff team you have to be capable of producing at a pace of 0.56 points per game. Even with this higher cutoff Blake, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Hagman, Grabovski and Stempniak would still be considered top six forwards as was Antropov and Dominic Moore was right on the cutoff.

Heading into this season the Leafs still have Blake, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Hagman, Grabovski and Stempniak on the roster and now with Phil Kessel (46th overall and 32nd on the playoff team list) in the mix they arguably have 7 top six forwards on their roster and that is without factoring in what youngsters like Kulemin, Tlusty, Bozak and others might do. I am sure many in the media are surprised by this but yeah, the Leafs have more than enough top six forwards to compete for a playoff spot.

Yeah, I know, the critics are going to come out and say ‘well, ok, but they don’t have any first line players’. Fine, let me address that too. The 48th leading point per game producer on a playoff team was Brian Gionta who produced 60 points in 81 games for a point per game pace of 0.74. Jason Blake and Alexei Ponikarovsky along with new addition Phil Kessel meet that threshold so all three can be considered first line players on a playoff team and Matt Stajan was just short of that threshold at 0.72 points per game pace.

I will grant critics the argument that the Leafs lack the true superstar like a Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk, Zetterberg or even someone like a Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane or Mike Richards. That was a fair argument, and to some extent may still be, but with the addition of Kessel that argument holds less weight. Yes, there is still some risk in Kessel in that he has only produced at an elite level for one year and he does have some detractors, but Kessel does have elite level talent and is more than capable of developing into a perennial 30+ goal, 80+ point player and be among the leagues elite.

To summarize, too many people have a false view of what kind of offense a top 6 forward will produce. Most top 6 forwards aren’t 30 goal, 70 point guys. The majority of them are 20-25 goal, 50-60 point guys and in that regard the Leafs are just fine. Are the Leafs going to be an elite offensive team in the NHL? No. Can they be a good one, as they have been for several years now? You bet.

This article has 13 Comments

  1. I always found that when the goalie and the defense is weak then offense drops as well. I hope that with a stronger defense group both the goalie and the offense can get better numbers.

    That said, I never had a problem with the Leafs offense. If you look at it they always ranked among the top in the Goals For category. The problem is that the ranked even higher in the Goals Against category.

  2. I think that teams who finish dead last in the league in goals against (as the Leafs did) will often score more goals than they deserve credit for. When a team is always behind the count, they have to really open things up and send everyone forward in an attempt to tie the score. I think that Toronto’s position as the 10th best offensive club is misleading, because the team wasn’t usually in a position to systematically defend the lead. Sound defensive hockey is a team concept, and in my opinion the Leafs forwards are hugely unproven in that regard.

    Toronto has too many 4-6 range top six forwards, and most of them aren’t very good in their defensive zone.

    That’s a bit of a problem, if you ask me. Kessel may be a first line winger, but I feel as though he’s currently the only player the Leafs have who would be a legitimate 1st liner on a quality team – and he’s defensively inept as well. Some of the Leaf’s current players may develop that quality in the not too distant future, but If you ask me, I don’t think the Leafs are a playoff team yet. They’ve rebuilt incredibly well in the past year, which is exciting for the fans, but they still have an unbalanced lineup with more than a few holes, and there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding that goaltending situation.

    Their Defense is looking MUCH better though, and that will significantly help the cause.

  3. I am not sure I necessarily agree that the Leafs forwards aren’t good in the defensive zone. Many of them are. Hagman is definitely good. Stajan is pretty good as well and kills a lot of penalties. Ponikarovsky and Blake aren’t too shabby. Antopov was a bit slow and could be beat by quick forwards but played his position well and his size and reach cut off the passing lanes. He often played the PK too.

    Also, the Leafs have generally give up relatively few shots over the years so clearly goaltending is somewhat of an issue. If the Leafs team save percentage improved to even 20th in the NHL they would have been more than respectable defensively Their goaltending wasn’t just bad, it is often downright awful. I’d suggest that they were an OK defensive team with very weak goaltending.

    Another problem with the Leafs was their mix of defensemen. They had too many more offensively oriented defensemen (Kaberle, Kubina, Mcabe before last season, etc.) and didn’t have that pure shut down guy or anyone who would get physical when needed. Schenn provided a bit of that last season but as a rookie wasn’t as polished as a team needs and couldn’t do it alone. This year he has Komisarek to help him out and Beauchemin is a less offensively skilled but better defensive presence than Kubina. Their defense may not be significant better in total value this season but it will provide better balance and with that a better result.

  4. Some interesting numbers and a good post.

    Ron Wilson defined a top-six player as a guy who could crack the top two lines on the first and second place team in each conference.

    I’d love to know how the Leafs current mix of players hold up under that definition.

  5. Okay, well, that would be Boston, Washington, San Jose and Detroit.

    Here’s a comparison for you based on the following:

    -Leafs vs. league’s top four teams
    -Top six point earning forwards per team

    Blake – 0.80 PPG, Ponikarovski – 0.74 PPG, Stajan – 0.72, Grabovski – 0.62 PPG, Antropov* – 0.73, Hagman – 0.65 PPG

    Boston (Including Kessel):
    Savard – 1.07 PPG, Krejci – 0.89 PPG, Kessel – 0.85 PPG, Ryder – 0.72 PPG, Wheeler – 0.56 PPG, Kobasew – 0.61 PPG, Lucic – 0.58 PPG

    Ovechkin – 1.39 PPG, Backstrom – 1.07 PPG, Semin – 1.27 PPG, Laich – 0.64 PPG, Kozlov – 0.61 PPG, Fleischmann – .051 PPG

    San Jose
    Thornton – 1.05 PPG, Marleau – 0.93 PPG, Setoguchi – 0.80 PPG, Pavelski – 0.74 PPG, Michalek – 0.74 PPG, Clowe – 0.73 PPG,

    Datsyuk – 1.20 PPG, Zetterberg – 0.95 PPG,
    Hossa – 0.96 PPG, Franzen – 0.83 PPG, Hudler – 0.70 PPG, Samuelsson – 0.49 PPG,

    Complete List

    1. Ovechkin – 1.39 PPG
    2. Semin – 1.27 PPG
    3. Datsyuk – 1.20 PPG
    4. Savard – 1.07 PPG
    5. Backstrom – 1.07 PPG
    6. Thornton – 1.05 PPG
    7. Marleau – 0.93 PPG
    8. Hossa – 0.96 PPG
    9. Zetterberg – 0.95 PPG
    10. Krejci – 0.89 PPG
    11. Kessel – 0.85 PPG
    12. Franzen – 0.83 PPG
    13. Blake – 0.80 PPG
    14. Setoguchi – 0.80 PPG
    15. Ponikarovski – 0.74 PPG
    16. Pavelski – 0.74 PPG
    17. Michalek – 0.74 PPG
    18. Antropov* – 0.73 PPG
    19. Clowe – 0.73 PPG
    20. Stajan – 0.72 PPG
    21. Ryder – 0.72 PPG
    22. Hudler – 0.70 PPG
    23. Hagman – 0.65 PPG
    24. Laich – 0.64 PPG
    25. Grabovski – 0.62 PPG
    26. Kobasew – 0.61 PPG
    27. Kozlov – 0.61 PPG
    28. Lucic – 0.58 PPG
    29. Wheeler – 0.56 PPG
    30. Fleischmann – .051 PPG
    31. Samuelsson – 0.49 PPG

    If you factor out elite talent (say, 0.90 PPG and above), which no one is claiming the Leafs have, there are 17 different scores for PPG. Using a halfway point (top eight scores vs. bottom nine) the Leafs have five players in the top group. So, they have pretty good second line talent, but no elite level talent using PPG as a yardstick.

  6. Side note – the * beside Antro’s name indicated only games he played with the Leafs.

    His season long PPG was 0.72.

  7. If they dont start the season with Stralberg up with the big club they have no clue…can Wilson not see that this guy has ALL STAR written all over him. Incredible speed, puck control, excellent passing great shot and sees the ice well. He is as good as any player in camp…all the noise about Kadri..this power forward is light years better than him and Kadri can play…wake up management! The way he cuts around defencemen reminds me of all the greats I have seen..Howe and Richard included!

    This guy is destined for Stardom!

  8. Just another remark Kessel when its all said and done will be second fiddle to Stralberg except he will be have a much larger ego..dumb dumb move to throw away 2 firsts and one second for a guy that has one decent season being set up by Savard and playing the PP with one of the top NHL teams…overated at this point. Management makes all these great moves on defence then signs this guy to a top heavy contract and a top heavy ego..bad move that has ruined what has been done so far!!

  9. Well now we know who is the back up goalie for the Leafs ta da MacDonald as the Monster is #1 and Toskala can take his Pee Wee style of laying on the ice down to the American League where he will with time find that he is a back up down there.

    While Im on-board here a little prediction ViKTOR STALBERG will be Rookie of the year score 30+ goals and eventually given the right line mates (Kessel and someone with a little muscle) a 100 point per season player…he is (and I have been around since the early 50s) or I should say has the same sort of full speed strides as Bobby Orr…dont underestimate this guy he is the real deal and if the Monster is what many think he is…the glut of defencemen (and very solid NHL qualified guys) plus KADR and a whack of guys ready to jump to the biggs…agressive Coach and GM…can you say Stanley Cup within 3-4 yrs. Only move that I disagree with KESSEL for 5.2 mil and 2 firsts and a second from a 36 goal guy for 5 yrs…and a guy with an attitude apparently, seems to me we gave away huge contracts to guys who gave about 60%…..TOSKALA does NOT fit into any Leaf scenario….”and the beat goes on”…

  10. Well I think that the Leafs finishing 10th in scoring last year was a bit decieving. A lot of goals the Leafs scored where when they were trailing and were forced to open it up or simular to Saturday, when they added three meaningless goals long after the game was decided.

    Here are the numbers from last year…

    The Leafs scored 146 goals in the 1st two periods, and had 195 scored against. This means they were outscored by 49 goals after two periods. This is 30th in the NHL as the team with the next worst deficiet after 2 periods was Tampa Bay at -37. So it is safe to say, no team was further behind in games after 2 periods then the Leafs.

    But lets take it a step further, the Leafs also lead in 26 games going into the third period, assuming that those leads were by one goal, so that would mean that in games they trailed after two they were actually down by at least 75 goals. Yes you guessed it, worst in the NHL again, next team closest was Tampa Bay at -62.

    Here are the bottom five in the same category, lets see which team scored the most goals of the three in the third.

    Nashville -51, 73 third period goals
    Phoenix -52, 67 third period goals
    Colorado -53, 55 third period goals
    Islanders -57, 63 third period goals
    Atlanta -60, 94 third period goals
    Tampa -62, 64 third period goals
    Toronto -75, 94 third period goals

    Only Atlanta was close to the same 3rd period production, long after the game was over, but the trailed going into the 3rd period 6 less times then the Leafs.

    The Leafs appear to have scored most of there goals in garbage time as they call it, long after the headsets have been put away and the trainers have started packing the gear away.

  11. Sorry, that should say the bottom seven, not five in respect to which teams I was comparing.

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