Maple Leafs Depth Players Will Be Key Going Forward

There is a lot to be said about the Toronto Maple Leafs top-six forwards. They’re the star players, they make the big bucks, they’re extremely talented and provide some of the league’s most offensive threats. With all the attention on them, the bottom-six forwards have been flying under the radar.

So much has changed in terms of what the bottom six looks like. All it took was a few short months for general manager Kyle Dubas to revamp the Maple Leafs depth and give head coach Mike Babcock the necessary pieces that he could utilize. From the preseason to the first few games of the regular season, the team’s role players are already miles ahead compared to the previous depth the Maple Leafs had.

We’re only three games in and the forward depth has been very impressive. Even with this small sample, if the Maple Leafs want to make a deep run, the third and fourth lines will have to be a key factor for them in order to have success this season.

Finding Affordable, Yet Effective Pieces

With almost 42 percent of the money going to the big three of John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the Maple Leafs needed to find cheap and reliable options on the third and fourth line. With Marner’s contract negotiations that had everyone on edge, Dubas didn’t deter from his ability to go and find excellent talent for his team. Dubas was able to unload hefty contracts and was able to find more affordable options up front.

Trevor Moore ; Jonathan Bernier
Toronto Maple Leafs Trevor Moore is one of the key depth players already making an impact on the ice. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)
Out In
Nazem Kadri ($4.5 million) Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million)
Patrick Marleau ($6.25 million) Ilya Mikheyev ($925,000)
Connor Brown ($2.1 million) Trevor Moore ($775,000)
Tyler Ennis ($800,000) Jason Spezza ($700,000)
  Nick Shore ($750,000)
  Nic Petan ($775,000)

As good as Nazem Kadri’s contract was, under $5 million for a third-line centre who can score at least 30 goals, it was putting the Maple Leafs in a cap crunch. Along with Patrick Marleau’s contract, Dubas managed to free-up $12.85 million with three forwards by trading them. Alexander Kerfoot would provide more speed and while he may not have the same offensive output as Kadri, it’s a cheaper deal knowing he has strong defensive awareness and transition game.

Among the new additions, five forwards are making less than a million dollars each, this is going to be the Maple Leafs philosophy for a number of years. The top players make the big dollars, while filling out the depth with cheaper, yet effective options.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jason Spezza
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza will be relied on heavily on the fourth line. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Trevor Moore showed he was capable of being aggressive with or without the puck, Jason Spezza and Ilya Mikheyev provide great speed and defensive stability with the possibility of putting up points and Frederik Gauthier has improved his overall game. The depth the team has will look to be efficient this year in order to try and take some pressure off the top two lines. There was a battle for the depth spots, but the Maple Leafs look to be in a good position with the players they have on the main roster and in the minor league system.

Speed and Puck Possession is on Display

While we’re only three games into the season, we’ve seen what both the third and fourth line can accomplish, most notably from the first game against the Ottawa Senators.

The Maple Leafs’ forwards went into full-on attack mode after the first period against the Senators. Once the second period started, there were no signs of slowing down. The bottom-six forward group combined for three goals against the Senators. The line of Kerfoot, Mikheyev and Moore had a Corsi For (CF%) rating of 65 percent. When the Leafs needed a spark to get going, they got it from their speed, aggressiveness and tenacity from their depth pieces.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Alexander Kerfoot Morgan Rielly Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev, centre Alexander Kerfoot, defenceman Morgan Rielly and defenceman Rasmus Sandin celebrate a goal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

The Leafs outshot the Senators 42-26 overall. In the second period, when the Maple Leafs were down 1-0, they managed to outshoot the Senators 17-3 with the third and fourth lines connecting on the first two goals of the season. Gauthier and Moore scored 2:22 apart to get the Maple Leafs back in the game, while Mikheyev continued to show what he was capable of, scoring his first NHL goal of his career. The forwards were quick with their speed to create turnovers and gain more offensive zone time.

On his first NHL goal, Mikheyev’s vision and awareness was on display. After Tyson Barrie made a nice play to set him up, Mikheyev was able to sneak in behind the defenders to the lower part of the faceoff circle for a one-time shot.

Ever since the preseason started, everyone was captivated with his ability to attack the puck, use his speed as well as getting in on the forecheck. Head coach Mike Babcock said, “You’re just seeing the start here,” after his debut.

After the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, THW’s Mark Scheig made an excellent analysis that the if the bottom six continue to play this well, then it will be a recipe for success. That success continued into Saturday when the third line scored twice and recorded five points in total, with a 58.82 CF%.

Depth Will Get Stronger When Hyman Returns

Good news might be on the horizon as forward Zach Hyman started to practice more regularly. This is a good indication that he’s ahead of schedule and could be back sooner than later.

While a demotion and less ice time for someone will happen, the overall play of Hyman will make this team much better than what it is now. Even though he plays regular top-six minutes, his aggressive third-line style benefits captain Tavares and Marner. Not to mention his ability to be a key contributor on the penalty kill. His ability to get in deep on the fore check while winning puck battles for the offensive players is a real advantage.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
When Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman returns from ACL surgery, their depth will get even better. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hannah Foslien)

Too many times we’ve seen Hyman be the first attacker to start an offensive sequence. While he may not get a lot of points, his job is to get things going. Once he returns, the overall depth of the Maple Leafs will get a whole lot better.

Even though it’s only been three games, the depth forwards for the Maple Leafs have played relatively well. They were the catalyst in the first game, continued that play style in game two against the Blue Jackets (despite not registering a point) and the third line bounced against the Montreal Canadiens which gave them trouble in their own end.

While that could’ve ended up as another win for the Maple Leafs, they’re starting to get scoring and contributions form other players that aren’t Matthews, Tavares, Marner and William Nylander. This depth will go a long way if a Stanley Cup is in their future. As we’ve seen from past winners, you don’t become champions without your depth players stepping up.