It’s very evident that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas made a major impact at the NHL trade deadline. He was able to address the team’s depth by bringing in a top-six forward, a shutdown centre, a reliable goaltender and a steady defenseman.
It’s great to have this kind of depth, especially when the general manager thinks this is the perfect time for the team to go all-in and win a championship. With the additions of Nick Foligno and Riley Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets, roster decisions are going to have to be made at the forward position.
When the playoffs start, head coach Sheldon Keefe is going to have to ice the best possible lineup in order to have a successful playoff run. This means that some players may have to take a seat as the newly acquired could see more ice time than some currently on the roster. Here are the Maple Leafs whose roster spot is on the line after trade deadline.
When the Maple Leafs signed Thornton to a one-year, $700,000 contract, many were excited at the prospect of bringing someone of his caliber in to help be a vocal presence on a young team. As he got older on the San Jose Sharks, he still seemed to play relatively well with the Maple Leafs two youngest stars.
He has since been demoted seeing time on the third and fourth lines. Thornton’s production has taken a hit in the process after a strong start. He currently has 12 points in 32 games, a 0.38 point per game rate. While we know that his production wouldn’t be where it was previously, the Maple Leafs probably expected more than two assists over his last 21 games played. Thornton saw time with Jason Spezza and Alexander Kerfoot, yet they continue to make an impact as they have 22 and 18 points respectively.
Thornton was recently placed back in the top-six against the Calgary Flames and he did not look good in that role. While the team’s power play has gone cold, he has been ineffective all season despite playing with two elite level players. His age is starting to show as the 41-year-old’s inability to keep up in a fast paced game is evident as he’s always a step behind on the rush or in the offensive zone, no matter what line he is on.
Once Foligno arrives, he could very well be in a second or third line role, pushing someone like Thornton off the roster. It’ll be difficult for him to keep his spot over someone like Ilya Mikheyev who has speed to burn and is an asset on the penalty kill. Toronto Sun’s Michael Traikos mentions that Maple Leafs have better options and that Thornton isn’t “good enough to warrant a roster spot in this improved lineup.” (from ‘TRAIK-EOTOMY: Does Joe Thornton still have a place in the Maple Leafs’ lineup?’, Toronto Sun – 14/04/21)
Everyone loves Thornton. Who doesn’t? He gives this team a personality and energy that wasn’t present before. Though, they’re going to need to get more out of him. If he can’t find the level of play he had early on, he might be sitting out come playoff time.
Like Thornton, things were going well for Simmonds at the beginning of the season. He recorded five goals, three of which came on the power play. He was physical and even got in the occasional fight every now and then. It was all going well until he sustained a broken wrist that sidelined him for six weeks.
Since returning from injury, he has one goal and two assists in 14 games. While the production is low, he has consistently been playing in a fourth line role and has good possession numbers for the season. He has a 52.21 Corsi For percentage and has a high danger goals for percentage of 75% when he is on the ice. But there are some inconsistencies that have stood out in his game recently.
There are times where he makes great plays and gets in on the forecheck. Then there are ones where he has the puck and it amounts to nothing. Even when pursuing the puck, he doesn’t have the speed that was noticeable early on in the season. When the puck is on his stick, it seems like he’s trying to do a bit too much and takes an extra second or two to make a decision and then the play is dead. Plus his presence on the power play, like Thornton, continues to be a problem.
Simmonds may be safe for now, as the logjam appears to be happening on the left side, putting Thornton’s job in jeopardy. In addition, when William Nylander comes off the COVID-19 list, it could create some movement on the right side. The fact that Mikheyev can be shifted to the right side brings in the idea that he can move down into a fourth line on either side. The possibility of taking Simmonds out of the lineup isn’t entirely out of the question.
Engvall earned a contract extension in 2020, signing it in February after having a good rookie season with 15 points in 48 games. We knew that he was going to be seeing minutes as a bottom-six forward, but it seems like he’s taken a step back this season as he has eight points in 35 games and been inconsistent in his overall play. This seemed to be the case from the beginning of camp as Keefe wasn’t happy with his play during an inter-squad game.
While his speed is great, the drive and effort seems to be lacking compared to last season, where he used his size to his advantage to win puck battles. While we’re seeing him going into the corners, he’s not using his big frame to intimidate the opposition. His positioning in his own end and defensive play has also been a concern.
He’s an asset on the penalty kill as he’s proven to be effective in that role. However with the addition of Nash, once he comes off the injured reserve list, the chance of Engvall losing the fourth line centre position just got higher. There’s no doubt that Nash serves as a better option over Engvall up the middle. Both players have similar offensive production, but Nash would serve as a player who wouldn’t be afraid to use his body to make a hit and engage in battles in the offensive zone.
Engvall could probably be moved to the wing and won’t be relied on heavily up the middle as his struggles have shown. Though he’s still in the same situation as Thornton and Simmonds, as all three lines seem to be set in stone going forward. Though, if there was one forward to still be in the lineup Engvall would provide more value over the other two players.
With the depth that the Maple Leafs have, difficult decisions are going to have to be made when the newly acquired Maple Leafs return to the ice. They look to have a solid top-nine, Thornton, Simmonds or Engvall are going to see their ice time cut. They could be rotated periodically, but the Maple Leafs are at a point where they might be better off without these three players.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.