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Maple Leafs see glut of forwards as a good problem

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

TORONTO -- If the Toronto Maple Leafs are able to stay in the picture for a Stanley Cup Playoff spot deep into the season, they'll likely be able to look back at the competition they created in training camp as a big reason why.

"Players are going to have to perform or they're not going to get the ice time they expect," Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis said.

Some might not get any ice time at all with the Maple Leafs if it works out the way Nonis, president Brendan Shanahan and coach Randy Carlyle have it planned.

The Toronto Maple Leafs know they have an issue coming, with 17 forwards on one-way contracts. Rather than worry, they see it as a positive and hope it leads to a competitive training camp. (Photo: Graig Abel/NHLI, Gregg Forwerck/NHLI, Jeff Vinnick/NHLI, Jeff Vinnick/NHLI, Jamie Sabau/NHLI)

In the post-mortem to the Maple Leafs 2013-14 season, Toronto executives and Carlyle deduced lack of depth and experience were two correctable reasons for why the team fell short of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot.

The Maple Leafs lost 12 of their final 14 games to fall out of the postseason spot they had occupied for most of the first 68 games. They had four points in their final 14 games after gaining 80 in their first 68.

Toronto tried to address those issues during the offseason by acquiring forwards David Booth, Daniel Winnik, Mike Santorelli, Matt Frattin, Leo Komarov and Petri Kontiola, and defensemen Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas.

Robidas has played in 885 NHL regular-season games. Booth, Winnik and Polak each have played in more than 400, though Booth would be over 500 if not for a string of injuries. Santorelli has played in 257. They're all at least 26 years old; Robidas is 37.

The acquisitions definitely give Toronto more experience, and ideally a more balanced attack up and down the lineup.

The acquisitions also created a surplus of forwards in training camp. Toronto has 17 forwards on one-way contracts when logic and roster limitations suggest no more than 14 will be on the roster when the Maple Leafs open the season Oct. 8 against the Montreal Canadiens at Air Canada Centre.

Nonis said the excess is by design to foster greater competition in training camp so nobody, especially the players competing to be in Toronto's bottom-six group of forwards, feel safe at any point.

"There's no reason a player should have his spot on the team determined by a one-way contract or the size of his salary," Nonis said. "We've made it clear to our players and coaches that all the players need to compete and there's other players that will take their jobs if that doesn't happen."

Realistically, the Maple Leafs have five certainties in their top-six group of forwards in Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul. They have one hopeful in David Clarkson, who is banking on rebounding from a dreadful 2013-14 season.

Carlyle is experimenting to see what makes the best two lines, but was hampered at scrimmages Saturday because of injuries to Bozak and Clarkson; each is listed as day-to-day.

"We're into the meat of where people have to earn the opportunity to play on the second line, where people have to earn the opportunity to play with Phil Kessel, where people have to earn the opportunity to play with Nazem Kadri, or Nazem Kadri has to earn the opportunity to play on the second line," Carlyle said. "We think that's a healthy environment that we feel that we can create the competition for the position."

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Toronto has as many as 12 forwards competing for the remaining seven or eight spots, but Nonis said a lot of those spots are already occupied, at least on paper.

"There's no jobs open, and that's going to make it more difficult because there are people that are expecting to be here that are probably on one-way contracts that aren't going to make our team," Nonis said. "We need the competition in this group to be as high as it's ever been if we're going to maximize the skill level and the talent level that we have."

Translated, that means what the Maple Leafs really need is for the competition in training camp to turn into the depth they'll need in the regular season. Toronto didn't have enough of it last season and it was costly.

When the top-six group of forwards was shut down, there rarely was a scoring response from anyone in the bottom six. The Maple Leafs had six forwards with 44 or more points (only the Boston Bruins had more), but only one more with at least 20.

When injuries or suspensions kept players such as Lupul, Bozak, Kadri and Clarkson out of the lineup, Carlyle had to elevate players he didn't trust into more important roles.

Kessel, Bozak and van Riemsdyk each played more than 20 minutes per game; the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks were the only other teams to have as many as three 20-minute-per-game forwards. Like the Maple Leafs, those teams missed the playoffs.

"I think that was pretty apparent that we didn't quite have the energy it required down the stretch and other teams did," Lupul said. "I think having a little more depth and a little more balance up and down the lineup will certainly help that."

Carlyle's job is to use the depth to create a balanced lineup that allows the Maple Leafs to play four lines consistently. He wants to have three legitimate scoring lines and a fourth line that can provide energy and handle some of the penalty-killing duties.

If in the process Carlyle can keep Bozak and van Riemsdyk off the penalty kill, that would be ideal, just as it would be if he can use players like Winnik and Komarov to protect one-goal leads.

"There's a lot of contracts out here; 17 one-way contracts out here," Carlyle said. "There's going to be competition, and we welcome our younger players to step up and challenge too."

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