All of Leafs Nation collectively cringed on Sunday night as Zach Hyman was the recipient of a reckless knee-on-knee hit from Vancouver Canucks defenceman Alex Edler. The hit targeted Hyman’s right knee which was surgically repaired for a torn ACL just two years ago, so there was definitely a concern that the 28-year-old could miss significant time once again.
But fortunately for Hyman (and the Toronto Maple Leafs), it appears that the injury isn’t as serious as it might’ve looked, with the rugged winger expected to miss about two weeks with a sprained MCL. With just three weeks left in the regular season, that should give him enough time to make a full recovery in time for the playoffs in mid-May.
While Hyman’s absence will certainly hurt the team, it could also be a blessing in disguise for a few forwards who may want to make their mark by stepping up in his stead. The Maple Leafs don’t seem to have their forward lines set in stone just yet, and the newly opened top-nine slot will give several players a chance to prove that they deserve more minutes come playoff time.
Which Leafs forwards could take advantage of the opportunity? Let’s take a look.
With Hyman’s physical presence removed from the lineup, the most obvious replacement has to be trade deadline addition Nick Foligno. The 33-year-old was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets just over a week ago and is set to make his Leafs debut on Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets. It remains to be seen where exactly Foligno will fit into Toronto’s top-nine, but these next couple of weeks could give us a better idea about what he’ll bring to the table and where he should play.
With seven goals and 16 points through 42 games this season (a 14-goal, 31-point pace), Foligno doesn’t bring nearly as much offensive punch as Hyman, who is currently putting up his most productive campaign ever with a 29-goal, 62-point pace. Context is key, though, and in Columbus, Foligno’s two most common linemates were Alexander Texier (on pace for 29 points over 82 games) and Boone Jenner (on pace for 34 points). You have to think that if he were given some runtime alongside either Auston Matthews or John Tavares, his scoring clip would improve at least a bit.
Realistically, though, Foligno was not brought in by general manager Kyle Dubas to light up the scoresheet; rather, the Leafs traded a first-round pick for his defensive acumen – an area where he ranks as one of the best forwards in the league.
As you can see from his isolated impact charts courtesy of hockeyviz.com, Foligno is a league-average player when it comes to driving the offense for his team. In his own zone, however, there is a huge blue pool in front of the net, indicating that the opposition rarely generates high-danger chances when he’s out there.
That kind of two-way utility makes Foligno a versatile and intriguing option up front. Are the Leafs better off playing him in a strict shutdown role on the third line, or can they strengthen their top-six even further by complementing their stars with a defensive stalwart? I think I prefer the former with a fully healthy lineup, but there should be a fair amount of experimentation before the playoffs to sort out what makes the most sense.
On pace for his least productive NHL season yet, I don’t have to tell you that Alexander Kerfoot has had a disappointing year in Toronto. Since being acquired along with Tyson Barrie in exchange for Nazem Kadri in the summer of 2019, Kerfoot has struggled to really find his identity with the Maple Leafs, bouncing around from position to position and line to line. Over the past few games we’ve even seen him demoted to the fourth line, and he played just 11:33 in Toronto’s overtime loss to the Canucks on Sunday.
Where we have seen Kerfoot succeed in the past, though, is on the second line flanking Tavares and William Nylander. The trio played 195 minutes together at five-on-five last season, boasting an impressive expected goals share (xGF%) of 56.48 percent. In 80 minutes this season, the line has an eye-popping xGF% of 65.15 while outscoring the opposition 2-0. For reference, the Matthews-Mitch Marner duo has an xGF% of 61.33 while the Tavares-Nylander combo is at 59.34 – it seems like Kerfoot really gets that second line going!
If head coach Sheldon Keefe wants to go back to a tried and true combination, it makes a lot of sense to put Kerfoot back on that second line while Hyman recovers. If they do click once again, it frees the team up to run a heavy-duty third line of Hyman, Foligno, and either Pierre Engvall or Riley Nash at center come playoff time. And even if Kerfoot isn’t the long-term answer in the top-six this season, a brief stint there could at least give him a much-needed confidence boost as we head into the postseason.
At just 19 years of age and with only five games of regular-season experience to his name, Nick Robertson isn’t under the same kind of pressure to perform as Foligno and Kerfoot. He is under pressure to perform well enough to keep a roster spot down the stretch and into the playoffs, though, and as one of the Maple Leafs’ top prospects, you know he intends to do just that.
Through his five games this season, Robertson has collected one assist while averaging just 9:27 of ice time, though that average has bumped up to nearly 14 minutes over his last two outings. After collecting his first NHL point last Thursday against Winnipeg, Robertson was promoted to second-line duty alongside Tavares and Nylander against the Canucks on Sunday night. The trio generated seven shots at five-on-five – the most of all four Leafs’ lines – and posted a sterling 66.77 xGF%.
The rookie’s streak of solid play has earned him praise from the coach and teammates alike, so look for him to get a good look in the Maple Leafs’ top-nine over the next few weeks. While it’s unlikely that Robertson keeps a spot in the top-six when the team is at full capacity, he may be able to play himself into a permanent roster spot, setting himself up to contribute in the playoffs once again.
While Hyman’s skill set and work ethic is impossible to replace, the Maple Leafs have built up so much depth that the loss won’t hurt too much. By the time he’s healthy and back in the lineup, the team should have a much better idea of what their lines will look like heading into the playoffs.
Only a few more weeks until the real show starts.
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.