Making Sense of the Leafs Line-up Conundrum

August 18, 2017

By: Gordon Brown

The Toronto Maple Leafs' have had quite the offseason after one of the team’s most memorable seasons in recent history.

That might be an understatement, as I don't think there’s been a season as entertaining as 2016-17 was, in franchise history. I mean, aside from all the Stanley Cups won so many years ago.

When it wasn’t the plethora of rookies shattering expectations, it was veteran players making key contributions, or Frederik Andersen absolutely standing on his head.

It’s evident fans have anointed the trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner as the “big 3” that will deliver this franchise from past perennial embarrassment. With a bunch of kids dictating the fate of Toronto’s hockey salvation, the spirit of Leafs Nationis alive and well.

Nobody expected the Leafs to even make the playoffs in 2016-17, and they did that too. They nearly pushed the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals to the brink of elimination for that matter.

Although it was a bittersweet Game 6 defeat, the Capitals have since dismantled and lost some very key core players.

On paper they’re nowhere near as dangerous as one year ago. Plus they have to deal with a brand new 8-year, $46M deal for T.J. Oshie, which should start looking like a colossal mistake in about four or five years.

It’s safe to say the power-exchange is well on its way in the East, with Washington declining and Toronto rapidly on the rise.

A change in culture has led many to believe the pain is mostly over for the Maple Leafs. It was around the time when Leafs management started to reward their up-and-coming powerhouse, beginning this past March with the trade deadline acquisition of Brian Boyle.

Since then, Lou Lamoriello has made a splash in the free agent market to fill in some holes and upgrade around his young core. Key acquisitions have included; D Ron Hainsey, C Dominic Moore, and LW Patrick Marleau.

Lou Lamoriello has stated Moore will take over the 4C role left vacant by the departure of Brian Boyle to New Jersey. Hainsey will retain a top-4 role in the defensive core, and Patrick Marleau is expected to play somewhere in the top-6 forward group.

Marleau is widely regarded as a rink rat with a strict nutritional regiment to keep his body at peak performance levels. It seems as though he still has a lot of gas left in the tank, and it appears the Maple Leafs have bought into his montra.

Although he still put up 46 points last season, that would be his lowest total since recording 44 points in 2001-02. Excluding lockout shortened seasons, that is.

Truthfully that’s not so bad for a 37-year-old, who has consistently put up 20-30 goals per season throughout his career. That includes 18/19 seasons of lighting the lamp at least 20 times.

He still has his legs under him and can create scoring chances with the top-tier skill that saw him drafted 2nd overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft.

Now it begs the question of who will he slot in beside come October's opener?

The dynamic left winger has proven to Leafs management that he’s worth the gamble at $6.25M for the next 3 years, and will thus be treated as an important player.

In my opinion, Mike Babcock should try the veteran with another highly skilled player — or a pair of them. I believe he will do just that while swapping out Zach Hyman in favour of the 37-year-old. Just to begin the season at least.

It's about time we accept Auston Matthews as the team's truly anointed number one centre.

Who better to play with him than a seasoned goal scorer and play maker? Which they are now lucky enough to have in Marleau.

Throw in Nylander and that’s one scary first line.

Hyman’s skill set may be better suited better somewhere in the bottom-6, despite all the great things he was able to accomplish alongside Matthews last season. I see him taking someone’s place on the third line, and it’s quite possible that someone is Leo Komarov.

It truly depends what Leafs management decides to do with the expiring contracts of LW’s, James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov.

Perhaps they address a position of need in the process. It seems more likely that Van Riemsdyk would be the one to be moved via trade, seeing as he has the most value in terms of skill and dollar. A consistent 25-30 goal scorer and a very team friendly $4.25M cap hit.

But if JVR doesn't fetch Toronto what they are looking for in return, look for Toronto to resign JVR and move Leo Komarov for picks or prospects. That's also assuming Lou Lamoriello can come to terms with another contract

The trouble being JVR could command upwards of $6-7M on the open market. So, the only way I see Toronto retaining JVR is with a discounted contract. Which he might be inclined to do considering the direction this team is trending towards.

Personally, as much as I love Uncle Leo, I like the look of Van Riemsdyk in the top-4 over him any day.

Matthews and Marner will need new contracts for the 2019-20 season, but William Nylander is also due to receive a significant payday of his own following this year.

It’s reported Willy’s deal will come in at somewhere around $6-7M per season. Likewise, Marner should be looking at a similar deal. It’s Matthews who could earn upwards of $11-12M when he’s due for renewal.

It doesn't help that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have raised the stakes with monstrous deals this offseason. Thanks again, Edmonton. I guess Hall for Larsson just wasn’t enough for Peter Chiarelli to dictate player value around the league.

As depth goes, there’s several young guns on the cusp of becoming full-time NHLers. Being stuck in line behind the immense depth on wing means you better make the most of your playing time.

Several of these players made their mark last season, but still can't find a way into the lineup.

You would think 20-year-old Kasperi Kapanen’s performance after being called up near the end of last season, and a playoff game-winning overtime goal to boot, would be enough to solidify a roster spot.

Certainly 10 points in 13 games would indicate the same for 24-year-old Josh Leivo, but apparently not until some serious moves are made by Toronto's head office.

Nikita Soshnikov seems to have fallen out of favour at the NHL level, but I expect him to stick around and be monitored closely the organization. He has an NHL toolbox, he just needs to put it all together. It might not even be with the Maple Leafs.

Ideally, I’d like to play Kapanen higher in the lineup but our depth on wing simply doesn't warrant that.

As it stands, this is how I project the opening night forward lineup to shape-up:

Van RiemsdykBozakMarner
Hyman/KomarovKadriBrown (unsigned)

Mike Babcock hasn't deviated very far from the chemistry he found with all four lines last season, but will be forced to do so this time around.

I also have faith in Nazem Kadri to solidify his position as the team's number two option down the middle, but not until later in the season.

As dominos continue to fall in Toronto many players, such as JVR and Leo Komarov, are primed to be offered up as trade bait and cleared to make room amongst the forwards. These potential events could bring about other effects, such as having to move Nylander to the middle in the event Tyler Bozak is traded.

Here are my projected defence pairings:

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
?Connor Carrick

I would imagine the newly signed defensemen out of Sweden, Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosén, will factor into the roster conversation. The Marlies also boast D Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen, who look poised to make the NHL jump quite soon.

The injury bug was good to Toronto last season, but I believe the tremendous depth possessed will prove to be more than capable of keeping the Leafs afloat if that changes.

I wouldn’t say I was able to make complete sense of this crazy conundrum, but at least it’s a start. It’s going to be one momentous ride in 2017-18, so you should probably start preparing now.

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