With an NHL franchise that has missed out on the playoffs since 2003-04, Leafs Nation hasn’t had much to cheer about in the post-lockout era. One thing fans of the Blue and White can now hang their collective hat on is the emergence of the Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin unit — also known as the best second line in hockey.
At first glance it seems preposterous to proclaim the also-ran Maple Leafs as the greatest in any aspect of hockey.
Grabovski is not the league’s best second line center — both Ryan Kesler and Patrice Bergeron are more complete players — and there are certainly more dynamic top-six wingers than MacArthur and Kulemin in the NHL. However, as a unit, Toronto’s second line is unmatched.
The Leafs’ talented trio produced 177 points, which is quite appropriately the second-highest total among No. 2 lines in the NHL, bettered only by the now-defunct San Jose Sharks line ofRyane Clowe, Logan Couture and Dany Heatley.
Other elite second units from last season have also been ripped apart, whether it’s due to retirement, such as Mark Recchi stepping away from Boston’s excellent two-way line with Bergeron and Brad Marchand, or as a result of free-agency, which removed Ville Leino from Philadelphia’s second unit alongside Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell.
All three members of the Grabovski line were tied for the team lead with 43 even strength points, an impressive number considering Kulemin’s and MacArthur’s relatively low even strength ice-time averages.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson used the Grabovski line in all situations and especially relied on this unit against the top offensive players from opposing teams, especially because the Leafs lacked a conventional shutdown third-line.
Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur were the only team regulars to have positive possession on corsi ratings – a statistic that measures the on-ice shot differential by adding goals, saves, missed shots and blocks, and is a clear indication the trio spent much of their 5-on-5 ice-time in the offensive zone.
In short, the Grabovski line produced offensively despite starting more than half of its shifts in the defensive zone and playing tough minutes against the game’s top players.
What makes the line so effective is the fact its three members, all bringing different tools to the ice.
Grabovski is an exceptionally gifted stick-handler with a terrific shot who adds an underrated defensive game, as he led the Leafs in takeaways in 2010-11.
The centerman’s possession statistics are among the league’s best. His relative corsi, which measures his on-ice possession, or corsi compared to his off-ice possession statistics, is tops among NHL centers, which is a clear indication of the Belarusian’s importance to the Maple Leafs.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Kulemin is emerging as one of the elite power forwards in the game, has great two-way instincts and a nose for finding the back of the net, coming off a season in which he scored on 17.3 percent of his shots.
MacArthur is a relentless fore-checker, a willing combatant in front of the net and in the corners, physical beyond his 195-pound frame and is a great playmaker, amassing 41 assists in 2010-11. As The Good Point noted in April, the left winger scored important goals for Toronto. The Leafs posted a 14-3 record in games when MacArthur bulged the twine.
Not only is there not a second line intact in the NHL that produced more offence than the Grabovski line in 2010-11, but there also isn’t a comparable unit as well balanced as Toronto’s.
The Leafs trio share an undeniable synergy on the ice, though they’ve all taken extremely unique paths to arrive at this point in their respective careers.
The Leafs signed MacArthur as a free agent in 2010 after the Atlanta Thrashers walked away from an arbitration ruling with the Lloydminster, Alberta native. They got Grabovski, who had been plagued by off-ice issues, from the Montreal Canadiens for Greg Pateryn and a second round pick in July 2008. Kulemin was developed in-house, as much maligned former Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. selected him 44th-overall at the 2006 Entry Draft.
Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur all set career-highs in points last season, but with all three skaters under the age of 28 they should continue to improve their offensive output in 2011-12. The consistent two-way play of the Grabovski line along with the steady goaltending of James Reimer were the key cogs to Toronto’s impressive second half performance in 2010-11 and are the chief reasons for optimism going forward for a rabid fan base in dire need of positive results on the ice.