Who should play with Kessel and Bozak?

Like it or not, there’s a strong chance that the Toronto Maple Leafs enter 2013-14 with Tyler Bozak manning the pivot on the top line alongside Phil Kessel. The Leafs Nation has beaten to death why that’s not the optimal situation, but it’s high time the focus turns to making the best out of a bad situation.

So, if Bozak and Kessel are on the top unit, who should be the winger alongside them?

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The two pimrary options are Joffrey Lupul, Kessel’s running mate in 2011-12, and James van Riemsdyk, his primary winger from 2012-13.

Lupul did nothing to lose the job, if it were ever his definitively. He simply got injured and when he came back, played primarily with Nazem Kadri on an effective second unit. The argument in favor of Lupul on the top line would be the immense success he found with Bozak and Kessel in 2011-12, while any argument against him starts with his durability and moves quickly to how successful he was off the top line. If the line-up is meant to optimize the entire group, perhaps Lupul and Kadri as a pair is best for the team.

van Riemsdyk didn’t look too out of place, either, although in an admittedly small sample size last year. The key issue with dropping van Riemsdyk would be the uncertainty of playing him with relatively new linemates (he played almost exclusively with Kessel in the regular season), although he showed a bit of chemsitry with Kadri in a short playoff stint.

Another way to look at it, though, is who can get the most out of Kessel? WOWY analysis can be helpful in this regard, showing how Kessel did with and without each linemate in the past two seasons.

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It’s clear that Kessel played better offensively with Lupul than with JVR. Defensively, the difference is smaller but still apparent. The Corsi numbers speak even more to this, showing a strong preference for the Kessel-Lupul pairing over alternatives.

The discussion could end there, but it’s worth looking at Lupul’s WOWYs as well — since Kessel is still slightly better with van Riemsdyk than without, perhaps bumping Lupul to a line with Kadri can maximize the entire roster.

Interestingly, Lupul has been best with Kadri and basically the same player otherwise. Of course, some of Lupul’s strong performance comes from some extreme on-ice shooting percentages and, in the case of the Kadri pairing, a still small sample. However, this indicates that Lupul may be less succeptible to the effect of linemates on his scoring, though his Corsi numbers drop off without Kessel (it’s difficult to strip that out from usage changes).

Your preference between Lupul and van Riemsdyk likely comes down to whether you’d prefer to maximize all lines or the top line. There are arguments in favor of both and there’s no way to know the overall impact until games start counting.

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Randy Carlyle can play around with the new lines in training camp — and he will, with new faces in the fold — and it’s unlikely he’s made a choice given that Kessel split time equally between Bozak, Kadri, Lupul and van Riemsdyk in the playoffs. My initial guess would have van Riemsdyk on the top line and Lupul pairing with Kadri to spread the scoring around, leaving the Daves (Bolland and Clarkson) as a more defensive-minded unit.

There’s also the possibility that Clarkson gets a nod with Kessel and Bozak, but it’s unclear how Clarkson would transition to the left side. His ability to get to the net and draw defenders could be helpful if he can manage the switch.

And finally, there’s the Colton Orr option.

Mad skills.

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    • Set Theory

      Because, as nearly all stats comparisons have shown, Bozak is a 3rd liner without Kessel. If you’re not playing Bozak as #1 centre, you should really give the #2 job to Bolland, who has filled that role before on occasion in Chicago (albeit temporarily), and let Bozie be a checking C with Kulemin & McClement.

      That said, I wouldn’t get too worked up about any hypothetical preset lines. Like most coaches with most teams, I suspect that the Leafs under Carlyle won’t have many 3-player lines. There will be pairs (Bozak-Kessel, Kadri-Clarkson, Bolland-Kulemin) with a third winger TBD based on the need for each individual game. Against the Pens, you might see Lupul on the top line; against Boston, JVR or (if he gets his game back) Kulemin, to give Kessel more room against those big D-men.

      • Set Theory

        Sound Logic. What about:

        Kessel – Kadri – Lupul

        JVR – Bolland – Clarkson

        I agree, getting worked up on lines isn’t incredibly productive, but seeing how that is the title of this article, I think it’s a fitting place.

        • Set Theory

          Kadri is a bit of a shift-disturber; he needs someone riding shotgun that can cash the cheques his mouth is writing. In other words, someone who is less important to the team that can step in to keep Kadri from missing too many 5 minute stretches of the game. Clarkson can do that. Unlike Orr, he can also skate well enough to keep up, and is not a liability in the attack zone–in fact, he’s a decent shooter. So, if you’re looking to assign lines, I’d suggest keeping Clarkson & Kadri together.

          If a Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson line works, then that takes a lot of the pressure off Bozak to be a #1.

          • Jeremy Ian

            I agree, I think the Kadri-Clarkson combination may be the decider. I can see Lupul doing very well on this unit, which suggests a good JVR fit with Bozak and Kessel. Like running 2 No. 1 lines.

  • Set Theory


    More like, Who should play with Kessel and Kadri. Don’t care as long as the Super-Sniper and the Amazing-Passer are on the same line.