Heading into this offseason, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas had a major challenge ahead. In order to be competitive and make it past the first-round in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he had to tweak his roster. Moves were going to be made, but we didn’t expect the amount and magnitude of some of the decisions such as clearing contracts for Mitch Marner while still trying to build the best roster possible.
With a number of names like Nikita Zaitsev, Patrick Marleau, and Nazem Kadri being dealt to new teams, the Maple Leafs acquired Cody Ceci, Alexander Kerfoot and Tyson Barrie. With this roster overhaul, the lineup is going to look a lot different compared to 2018-19. The top lines and pairings are set in stone but the depth roles will be a fight to the end, particularly for the fourth line. Here’s a look at what I think the Maple Leafs will look like come opening night.
First Line: Zach Hyman/ Ilya Mikheyev-John Tavares-Mitch Marner
A couple of scenarios could happen here. One, Marner needs to sign his contract. Two, Zach Hyman needs to be healthy. Typically this would be the first line and they have produced when called upon, so we’ll keep this as is. At even-strength, Hyman-Tavares-Marner combined for 112 points. With Hyman out and knowing head coach Mike Babcock’s ability to balance his lines, he needs a replacement for Hyman as he’s recovering from ACL surgery. That’s where Ilya Mikheyev comes in.
Signed as a free agent this year, Mikheyev scored 23 goals and recorded 45 points with Omsk Avangard last season. Why is he the best fit to replace Hyman? He’s essentially a more skilled version of him.
“He’s a hard worker, a great character. He’s a guy I would bet my life on,” says Mikheyev’s agent Dan Milstein during an interview on Sportsnet.
Mikheyev does what Hyman does and more. He is aggressive on the forecheck and has the ability to create and finish plays. For the time being until Hyman returns, Mikheyev will look to provide the same energy and presence that Hyman would have on this line.
Second Line: Andreas Johnsson-Auston Matthews-William Nylander
It would be a shame to not have a ready and determined William Nylander alongside superstar Auston Matthews. After back-to-back 61 points seasons, and then a prolonged contract negotiation, Nylander posted a disappointing 27 points in 54 games in 2018/19. With that season behind him, Nylander is looking to get back on track and “dominating” this season. With Matthews there again as his centre, Nylander’s production should no doubt be where it was before last season.
Add in the tenacity and speed from Andreas Johnsson, this line should be a major offensive producer. Johnsson tallied 43 points in his first full season in the NHL and seemed to play extremely well when put on Matthews’ line. It’s quite possible that Johnsson could surpass his rookie point total with both Matthews and Nylander by his side.
Third Line: Ilya Mikheyev/ Trevor Moore-Alexander Kerfoot-Kasperi Kapanen
Depending on that first line, I have Mikheyev as the third-line winger to provide speed and skill alongside Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen. This line would be built on speed and intensity no matter who is on this line. The options are endless.
Kerfoot replaces Kadri as the centre of this line providing more of a defensive game, while still providing offense when needed. Trevor Moore would replace Mikheyev until Hyman gets back from his injury. Despite his size, he’s not afraid to get into the dirty areas of the ice. Kapanen’s speed and shot would be beneficial anywhere in the line-up, but with the depth the Maple Leafs have, Kapanen will still have success on the third line.
Fourth Line: Trevor Moore-Jason Spezza-Mason Marchment
Having a great veteran presence in Jason Spezza at a cheap contract is a major addition. Plus, it helps improve the fourth centre position for Babcock. He can use him on the power play, penalty kill and in defensive situations. He knows that he can count on Spezza in any draw situation, having a 58.2 faceoff-winning percentage last season.
The wings are tough to pick as it’s anybody’s game for those spots, but I think it will go to Mason Marchment. Marchment’s play has improved tremendously and could be a key factor adding a physical element to his ability to chip in offensively.
Extras: Frederik Gauthier, Pontus Aberg, Yegor Korshkov and Pierre Engvall
Frederik Gauthier will be fighting for the fourth line but it will be tough, knowing Spezza’s experience and offensive upside. Pontus Aberg, Yegor Korshkov and Pierre Engvall will be battling it out for the remaining wing spots. They all provide speed and size that would make for a strong fourth line. Whoever plays the best in training camp will get the spot.
First Defense Pair: Morgan Rielly-Tyson Barrie
Maple Leafs management and fans have been desperately needing a top pairing right- shot defenseman to possibly play alongside Morgan Rielly. Dubas crossed that off his to-do list by acquiring Barrie, the key piece in the Kadri deal.
Both Rielly and Barrie finished in the top 10 in scoring among defensemen and both have tremendous ability to drive possession and create offensive opportunities. But the real question would be how they handle the pressure in their own end. Are they able to provide solid two-way play? If successful, the Maple Leafs have a strong go-to pairing for the first time in a long time.
Second Defense Pair: Jake Muzzin- Cody Ceci
Jake Muzzin and Ceci will look to support Rielly and Barrie on the second unit. We already know the impact that Muzzin brings, but the real focus should be on Ceci.
Ceci doesn’t have strong possession numbers (43.96 Corsi for %) and his defensive play hasn’t been that impressive. During his time in Ottawa, his Corsi for rate has mostly been below 50, which means he’s been on the other end of the puck and defending a lot. Ceci is viewed as more of a defensive player and even though he had a rough time in Ottawa, moving to Toronto could help turn his game around.
Third Defense Pair: Travis Dermott/ Ramus Sandin- Timothy Liljegren
This is where things get interesting. Travis Dermott would’ve been a lock on the left side third pairing, but he is recovering from shoulder surgery. While he may miss the start of the season, it opens up a spot for one of the Maple Leafs budding young defensemen in the making.
After making a seamless transition to the pro level, Rasmus Sandin could be given an opportunity to showcase his talent for another potential call-up in the future. While the spot could go to a veteran, if Sandin has a perfect camp he could start the season as Dermott’s replacement. He’s a perfect balance of offense and defense and thinks the game at a high level. Even if he gets sent down when Dermott is healthy, the experience will help him tremendously.
The Leafs are weak on the right-hand side. Like Sandin in being given an opportunity, 2017 first-round pick Timothy Liljegren could be given a shot as well. Head coach Sheldon Keefe leaned on Liljegren heavily with the Toronto Marlies, getting tough assignments and defensive responsibilities. Again, a spot could go to a veteran player, but Liljegren is going to make things interesting.
Goalies: Frederik Andersen- Michal Neuvirth/Michael Hutchinson
We all know what Frederik Andersen is capable of, but after a third straight season with 60 starts and close to 2,000 shots against, the Maple Leafs starting goaltender needs to have the load lightened.
After letting Curtis McElhinney walk for nothing, the Maple Leafs gave the back-up role to Garret Sparks, which failed miserably. Now, they are putting their faith in Michal Neuvirth and Michael Hutchinson to be a steady back-up. Neuvirth’s spot isn’t set in stone as he’s on a tryout basis and Hutchinson played fairly well when given the chance to be in net for the Maple Leafs. Both will fight to the end to be Andersen’s back-up.
Aside from contract negotiations and injuries, we all know the key players will have their roster spots. But it’ll be interesting to see how the depth positions will play out. There are minimal spots left for players on the outside looking in, so you can expect a lot of competition from young players proving their worth.