It wasn’t hard to spot the Leafs number two line at the end of Monday’s pre-game skate.
While players drifted off the ice or took extra shooting practice, Clarke MacArthur
, Nikolai Kulemin
and Mikhail Grabovski
were taking a knee near the south blue line. They were in a tight circle with no hint as to where the trio began or ended.
It is often that way with effective lines. There is an alchemy all but impossible to predict. Units that should thrive do not while unlikely combinations flourish. It’s like trying to synchronize three different watches and Leafs coach Ron Wilson would love to hear any sure fire system to determine who will work with who.
“Just put them together and see if it works,” Wilson said. “If it works quickly, keep them together.”
Members of the Leafs second line were talking, something you would not expect from one player from Russia, another from Belarus and a third from Alberta. Later, MacArthur would break up the media scrum later by saying “honestly their English is really well,” before recovering.
“I mean really good. I’m the one who needs the English lessons.”
Grabovski’s English is passable, Kulemin struggles. Grabovski and Kulemin are from similar systems but MacArthur is from Lloydminster. So how is it that the line talks more than most others MacArthur has encountered in stops Buffalo and Atlanta?
“I think maybe in past life I played with them,” said Grabovski. “We understand each other.”
It’s as good a theory as any. MacArthur has scored five goals in three games. No Leaf has ever scored in his first four games with the team before. The unit has produced six of the Leafs 16 goals, one more than the number one unit of Phil Kessel
, Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak
Each brings different tools. Grabovski is all flash; a speedy centreman who can distribute the puck and forecheck effectively, but who sometimes struggles to find the rhythm of the game.
Kulemin has comparable skating speed combined with a low centre of gravity and a defensive mindset. He can pass the puck but scoring might be the weakest part of his game. Kulemin is the Leafs’ most determined grinder. His ability to recover the puck is without peer on the club.
Kulemin likely maxes out as a player who will score between 20 and 30 goals and the coaching staff has tinkered with the idea of installing him at centre. MacArthur is a scorer counted on to deliver 20-plus goals.
As a group, they operate with surprising synchronicity and they have one more thing in common. Each has something to prove.
MacArthur came to the Leafs after Atlanta walked away from his arbitration settlement.
Grabovski is coming off a 10-goal disaster and Kulemin needed to prove he could play as well as he did in the second half of last season.
Apparently you talk a little more, not less, when you are hungry.
“We are all working hard,” MacArthur said. “We all want to show we can be full timers and top six forwards in this league.”