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.