After defeating the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 last Wednesday, the Maple Leafs secured their spot for the playoffs for the fifth time in the last five seasons.
While the previous appearances resulted in early exits, the Maple Leafs are poised for a deep run. They’re in the midst of a five-game winning streak and have led the North Division for majority of the season. After making key additions at the trade deadline, they look to secure their first division title since 1999-00.
As they get closer to the playoffs, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe is going to have to make tough roster decisions as he has many options at his disposal. Since the arrival of Nick Foligno, the attitude surrounding the team has gone into another gear. With injuries to roster players, others have stepped up and could be key factors in the postseason. Here are some decisions that Keefe can make to ice the best roster possible when the playoffs start.
Keep Foligno With Matthews and Marner
When Foligno was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets the first game he played was alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Since then, he hasn’t looked out of place.
In four games played on the top line, Foligno is a point per game player recording four assists. Not to mention they’re a perfect 4-0 with him in the lineup. With Zach Hyman injured, he’s serving as a perfect replacement as he plays with the same mindset. He has the speed to keep up and still make an impact in the offensive zone.
As a line, their underlying numbers at five-on-five paint the same picture as what we’re seeing in game.
|Statistic||Matthews-Marner-Folgino||Matthews-Marner w/o Foligno|
|Corsi For %||51.35||54.00|
|Shots For %||63.41||55.02|
|Goals For %||100||63.93|
|Expected Goals For %||66.86||61.65|
|High Danger Chances For %||84.62||65.88|
While the shot attempts are lower compared to without Foligno, the other categories show that Foligno’s presence on the top line hasn’t diminished their ability to generate chances and be an offensive threat. This line hasn’t been on for a goal against, which shows the defensive mentality that Foligno has and the impact he has to be a key factor at both ends of the ice. Whether or not this keeps up remains to be seen as it is a small sample, but it’s still impressive.
Foligno has been vocal on playing with the two Maple Leafs’ superstars and loves the way they play the game. “It’s evident every time you step on the ice against them, but to really hear the terminology or the way they look at the game has been fun to have the kind of behind-the-scenes look of,” Foligno said according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.
“So I’m enjoying that and I’m just trying to bring my game along with them and getting that chemistry going.”
It’s very early, but that chemistry has gotten better with each and every game. That’s going to be crucial heading into the postseason. While Foligno could stay in the top-six and play with John Tavares and Willaim Nylander -both him and Hyman can fit on either line- it would probably be best to keep him on the top line.
Sandin Could Have Stolen Roster Spot
In his first game of the season, Rasmus Sandin played only five minutes while recording an assist. He was then sent to the Toronto Marlies but sustained a broken foot while blocking a shot. He played his second game of the season on April 20th against the Vancouver Canucks and has since continued to impress, gaining more ice time as a result of an injury to defenseman Zach Bogosian.
Since returning, Sandin has made his mark and could be very difficult to take him out of the lineup if he continues to play like a top pairing defenseman. He has two assists since his return but the 21-year-old’s play with and without the puck has garnered the attention of many. While he was logging third-pairing minutes, he was given an audition for the top pair, as Morgan Rielly was a late scratch before their first game against the Canucks. It’s safe to say that the 29thoverall pick in 2018 didn’t disappoint when given an increased role.
In that game, Sandin played 21:39 with T.J. Brodie and seemed to have developed some great chemistry as a pairing. But it’s his underlying numbers that jumps off the page. At five-on-five, he led all defenseman in CF% with 74.07 (fourth overall) and had the fourth best xGF% of 87.65. It also should be noted that when he was on the ice, there wasn’t a shot on goal. All this from a young defenseman jumping into a prominent role is absolutely impressive. Sandin garnered positive reviews of his play, especially from Matthews.
The way that Sandin played proved that he can handle the minutes and responsibility that comes with being on the top pairing. With his emergence, the possibility of moving on from Rielly has come into the picture. Rielly has shown his inconsistencies over the past few seasons, while Sandin seems to have more poise and confidence in his game than Rielly at this point.
I doubt that Sandin would be on the top pair when the playoffs start. However, if Keefe needs to put someone there, he knows Sandin would thrive in that spot. The impact that he’s had at both ends of the ice, he deserves to be in the lineup when it starts.
Galchenyuk Will Be Odd Man Out Up Front
This topic came up on the latest episode of Maple Leafs Lounge. There was some potential in acquiring Alex Galchenyuk and the hopes of revitalizing his career. While that seemed to be going in the right direction, things seemed to have stalled for him.
Even though he recently scored against the Canucks, Galchenyuk only had one goal and three assists in his previous 12 games. While there were positive signs- his shot and ability to get in on the forecheck- there was a good possibility that he might be a top-six player. Lately, his decision-making with the puck, production and missed assignments defensively has been noticeable.
A lot of factors are coming into play that Galchenyuk maybe the odd man out. First is the play of Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds. After recently writing that they could possibly lose their spot, both players have started to throw the body more and get in on the offensive by providing a strong forecheck.
Thornton has points in five straight games (two goal, three assists) while also becoming the seventh player to get 1,100 assists in the process. While Simmonds’ production isn’t as great as Thronton’s, his mentality is in playoff mode and his physical play is what this team needs for when that season starts.
Both Zach Hyman and Riley Nash have started to skate and very well in line to be back before or just in time for the playoffs. Hyman has been out with an MCL sprain he suffered against the Vancouver Canucks. Nash who was acquired before the trade deadline has been on long-term injured reserve with a sprained knee. When both players return, expect to see Hyman be back on the top or second line, with Nash assuming the third or fourth centre line duties.
While Adam Brooks could also be seeing less ice time as a result of Nash’s return, should the team need a replacement, he should be an option over Galchenyuk. A natural centre, he would be a better option over him on the wing considering his impressive play since being recalled by the Maple Leafs. He has four goals and brings more value being on the penalty-kill and can provide more consistency in his play.
The Maple Leafs’ depth gives Keefe multiple options up front and on the blue line for when the playoffs start. Players are going to make it difficult for him to keep them in or take them out of the lineup. No matter what happens the Maple Leafs are poised for a deep run as now is their best chance to push for the Stanley Cup.
Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.
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.