Often we hear the “top six” and “bottom six” in the lexicon of the NHL and its fan. This is the popular ideology that the top two lines of a team should be lines predicated on scoring goals, and the third and fourth lines should be lines filled with grind-it-out, aggressive fore-checking, defensively specialized, energy players. Some General Managers, such as former Leafs GM Brian Burke, have explicitly stated that they pursue the top six-bottom six model when building their hockey clubs.
As we take a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs for example, we see the top two lines doing their part and scoring plenty of goals, but the bottom two lines may not be pulling their weight as they’re intended to be. Toronto is ranked 8th in the league in goals for, with the 2nd ranked powerplay. Meanwhile they’re 25th in the league in goals allowed with the 28th ranked penalty kill. The poor defensive numbers cannot be attributed to the goaltending as Bernier and Reimer have combined to rank the Leafs 5th in team save percentage and 11th in the league in save percentage when shorthanded (all numbers courtesy of extraskater.com).
Despite employing defensive specialists such as Jay McClement and Nikolai Kulemin and energy players such as David Clarkson, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren (a generous moniker for the latter two), Toronto’s bottom six just isn’t cutting it. It’s gotten to the point where Randy Carlyle is playing 7 defenseman and 11 forwards, thus playing the league’s worst 4th line even fewer minutes than the already limited time they were playing.
I for one, am tired of sending out Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on limited minutes, to play hockey at a level that leaves much to be desired. We all know these guys are out there to “goon” it up and “intimidate” opposing teams so that our star players aren’t targeted, but it seems like that is a dying objective in hockey. Star players aren’t being targeted anymore in today’s NHL. To fight skill with grittiness is a dying philosophy. Even when it does happen, teams often ignore the chippy play and focus on winning the game rather than claiming retribution. For example, Phil Kessel was the victim of rough-play with Alex Burrows in the last game before the Olympic break against the Canucks. After that scuffle neither team initiated a plan to get retribution for their player. There were no fights. Each team was too focused on trying to win the game. This isn’t to say that I’m against fighting in hockey-on the contrary, I love it-but there is a time and place. We don’t need designated fighters anymore.
As for the defensive specialists, there is still a need for these players. We do need them for penalty killing and for playing out the final minutes of a hockey game. Though who’s to say that these players need to be all defence and no offence? Jay McClement has a whopping 3 goals in 59 games this season (one of those being an empty-netter). Only 3 goals and 7 points in 16:51 of average ice time per game. To put that into perspective, Nazem Kadri averages 18:39 minutes of average ice time and has 15 goals and 41 points. Of course McClement accumulates a ton of ice time on the penalty kill and in defensive situations, but that is still a rather large gap with very similar ice times. Bozak and Kulemin have reputations as being very responsible defensively and play large parts on the penalty kill, but they also provide a degree of offence. Why can’t we employ more two-way type players? The underwhelming statistics could be excusable if McClement was leading a top-ranked defensive team, but our goals against and penalty kill stats are atrocious despite exceptional goaltending.
It’s time for our bottom six to be overhauled. In fact, let’s forget this “top six” and “bottom six” philosophy all-together. Why can’t we have a “top twelve?” What I mean by that is, why can’t we just play the twelve best players? Right now, the twelve best players are not in that lineup.
Earlier this year Jerry D’Amigo was called up. He looked outstanding in the minutes he was given. Why is he not playing with the big club? Another player that has looked great when inserted into the lineup is Troy Bodie. He seems to be the epicentre of energy. And he can actually play hockey too! We need more players like these guys and less players like Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren and Jay McClement.
If it was up to me, right now a healthy forward group would look like this:
Van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Kessel
Lupul – Kadri – Kulemin
Raymond – Bolland – Clarkson
D’Amigo – Holland – Bodie
Now that is a lineup with a good mix of scoring, energy, and tenacity on every single line. That is a lineup where nobody is playing sheltered minutes. That is a lineup where I wouldn’t be scared to match any single one of our lines against any of the opponent’s lines. That is a lineup I’d be proud of and would support.