The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t exactly had the season you’d expect from a first-place team.
A lot of their problems have been overblown, but there are also definitely areas of concern. Recently, their lack of health in goal, and in general, has many wondering what their lineup will look like come playoff time.
With less than a month until the postseason, the answer to that question will hopefully arrive sooner rather than later. For now, speculation is all we have, so let’s have some fun.
Some perspective:#Leafs have lost two (2) games in regulation since March 19.
So they’ve earned 21 of a possible 28 points in the last month, while tied for second-best points % in the NHL.
This isn’t their best stretch of the season, but the sky isn’t exactly falling either.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) April 19, 2021
The second line has naturally featured John Tavares and William Nylander—flanked by the ‘winger of the week’. Nylander missed roughly two weeks of action before returning against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night, so even his spot has been a bit of a carousel lately. The ride may even continue for another game. Willy was late for a team meeting and may miss the Leafs’ second game against the Canucks on Wednesday.
Zach Hyman, another on-and-off second-line regular, will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained MCL. Lately, Nick Robertson and Ilya Mikheyev have seen time there as well. Both had solid showings, but neither seems like a permanent option. Mikheyev may also be out of the lineup indefinitely after leaving Monday’s practice with an apparent injury. The team has not yet provided an update on his situation.
For now, Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe appears to be going with Alex Kerfoot. Nylander skated with Kerfoot and Tavares during Monday’s practice, despite the fact that he was wearing a grey sweater donned by those on the taxi squad. His availability for tomorrow’s game will be assessed during another team meeting. Hopefully Willy Styles isn’t late for this one, too.
William Nylander was late for the team meeting because he was doing karate in the garage.
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) April 20, 2021
Another name that comes to mind is trade deadline acquisition Nick Foligno. His game is somewhat similar to Hyman’s, and he could temporarily (or permanently) fill the void. He’s scheduled to join the Leafs in Winnipeg on Wednesday but isn’t expected to suit up and play just yet.
So what does all of this mean for the rest of the lineup? The third line is certainly the biggest question mark. It will likely feature some combination of Pierre Engvall, Mikheyev, and eventually Kerfoot. Ideally, Foligno looks good with Tavares and Nylander so that Keefe can put Mikheyev-Engvall-Hyman back together. That line has been very effective when deployed this season.
That combination would, however, leave Kerfoot as the odd man out. The fourth line feels a bit low in the lineup for him, but it’s also hard to break up the Joe Thornton–Jason Spezza–Wayne Simmonds line. They’ve played well together lately, although the collective foot speed of that line is a tad concerning.
Another factor to consider in this equation is Riley Nash. He will likely be on the shelf until at least the playoffs, but his defensive prowess is well-documented and something the Leafs are very interested in. If he were to get a fair shake, one of Thornton/Engvall likely sits.
In a recent interview, Jumbo Joe spoke about how good he’s been feeling these days. It may be difficult to convince a player of his prestige to rest, when he seemingly has absolutely no interest in load management.
At the end of the day, having a surplus of players like this is a good problem. It’s a problem the Leafs counted on having, which is why they acquired more capable bodies than roster spots. Injury protection is more important than ever right now, for obvious reasons, and there’s one simple cure for every issue—winning.
I know that shutting down golf doesn’t matter to a lot of people in Ontario. And that this wretched pandemic has brought much worse in the way of heartbreak and hardship to too many. But golf matters so much to my dad, 83, who has just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
— Kathy English (@kathyenglish) April 20, 2021
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The Defence & Goaltending
There isn’t nearly as much to be said for the back-end side of things. Despite the regular public outcry for his head on Leafs Twitter, Morgan Rielly continues to have a productive season alongside new fan-favourite T.J. Brodie.
Travis Dermott and Zach Bogosian continue to function as a reliable third-pairing. Bogosian’s ability to stay healthy has been both a miracle and a blessing all season long (*knocks on nearest wood*).
The trade deadline acquisition of Ben Hutton is an interesting one. The Brockville, Ont. native looks to simply be 7D insurance, and it’s nice to have him and Rasmus Sandin/Timothy Liljegren ahead of Martin Marincin on the depth chart.
The crease continues to be the murkiest place of the lineup. Frederik Andersen is skating again, but his struggles over the last year-and-a-half have been under a microscope and the franchise’s future plans for him remain uncertain.
Jack Campbell‘s recent Cinderella run came to an abrupt end, as he’s 0-2-1 with an .833 save percentage in the three games since. David Rittich has performed well in his abbreviated sample size with the Leafs, posting a 2.28 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in two games (one start).
Toronto is going to need at least above-average goaltending to go on a serious playoff run. This team still struggles with mental toughness and becomes deflated after allowing a bad goal or two. That’s a separate problem in itself, but consistently solid goaltending is definitely a part of the end solution.
The Leafs have all the pieces and more. Will they finally solve the playoff puzzle?
You should be celebrating and also enjoying the chirping that comes along with it
— ian bagg (@SirBagg) April 19, 2021