The Seattle Kraken expansion draft has come and gone. So too has the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. The first week of free-agency is now water under the bridge, as well. At this point, we thought it might be a good time to predict what the Toronto Maple Leafs’ line combinations might look like given the players who are currently on the roster – or, the players we believe will be on the roster.
Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas has worked out trades and has signed free agents, all within the constraints of a difficult upper limit for his team. Now the moves Dubas began to make have had a chance to be pondered, considered, and partially digested by diehard Maple Leafs’ fans. Obviously, we won’t know until the season begins how things will work, but considering who will play with whom and how those partnerships will work is on fans’ minds. I know it’s on our minds.
What Would the Line Combinations Look Like, If They Were to Be Formed Right Now?
In this post I’d like to collaborate once again with long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith to predict what players should make the team’s roster and how those roster players could – from our perspective – form four forward lines and three defensive pairings.
In this post, we’ll pause for a moment to see where the team stands right now. Specifically, the question we’ll try to answer is: “If the Maple Leafs were to start the season with the players they have on their roster right now, what would the combinations look like?”
The Top-Six (the First Line and the Second Line)
We believe that, in the top-six, the only two things we can count on is that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be together and that John Tavares and William Nylander will be line partners. The question is, who will be their left-wingers?
At this moment, we believe there are three candidates for the two spots, Alex Kerfoot, who Dubas specifically mentioned would have a shot to play on the Matthews’ line, Michael Bunting, and Nick Ritchie.
The First Line
We predict the Maple Leafs’ First Line will be Bunting/Matthews/Marner.
We believe Bunting is the best option to be the left-winger on the Matthews’ line. He’s only played 26 NHL games, but he’s scored 0.42 goals per game in those games. Mind you, he’s scored at a shot rate of 25.6 percentage, which seems unsustainable in the long run. That said, it’s obvious he can score. He could be a second target for Marner’s passes.
Despite being only 5-foot-11, Bunting is a solid 195 pounds and he averages more than a hit each game. He’s also not shy about going into the corners, or parking himself in front of the net. Although he’s not noted as a speedster, he can skate.
The Second Line
We predict the Maple Leafs’ Second Line will be Ritchie/Tavares/Nylander.
We believe Nick Ritchie is the best bet to play with Tavares and Nylander. Ritchie, at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, is a beast in the corners, and he loves to throw his considerable weight around. He’s recorded 1,008 hits in the 388 regular season and playoff games he’s played. He’s also a front-of-the-net presence on the power play.
As for offense, although Ritchie has never reached a level that befits his 2014 first-round (10th overall pick) potential, he did score 15 goals in 56 games last season, which would have worked out to a 22-game pace for 82 games. He’s not that fleet of foot, which might make him a better fit alongside Tavares, who’s not known for his speed either.
The Bottom Six (the Third Line and the Fourth Line)
The bottom-six is just as interesting as the top-six and could go in any direction. There seem to be countless possibilities. Here’s one way we can see it playing out, but there are myriad others.
The Third Line
We predict the Maple Leafs’ Third Line will be made up of Engvall/Kerfoot/Mikheyev
While Kerfoot could be a fit on the left-wing on either of the top two lines, I think he has more value as a third-line center. Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, and Ilya Mikheyev can all skate, and are all defensively solid players. They have all shown an ability to provide some good offense at times in their career.
The only downside with Kerfoot as the center on this line is his face-off skills, which have been lacking to this point. He has been below 50% for three of his four seasons.
The Fourth Line
We predict the Maple Leafs’ Fourth Line will be made up of Simmonds/Kampf/Spezza
David Kampf was the Blackhawks third line center last season. He’s excellent defensively but has shown little offense during his career, scoring a grand total of 17 goals and 41 assists (for 58 points) in 235 NHL games. Eight of those goals came during the 2016-17 season. We can see Kampf taking the left-hand draws, with Spezza the right-hand draws both on five-on-five and on the penalty kill.
Simmonds is, well, Simmonds; he’ll do what Simmonds does. I think we can count on him to do two things in the upcoming season. First, he’ll have a stretch of games where he’ll get hot and provide some solid scoring. Second, sadly, he’ll probably get injured.
If the Maple Leafs go with 13 forwards, we’re guessing Kurtis Gabriel will be the extra forward. He’s an interesting story and was signed to a one-way contract. He brings physicality and is the very definition of grit, passion, and determination. We also predict Maple Leafs’ fans will love him as a player.
The Maple Leafs’ Defense
Last season, the Maple Leafs iced their best defense in several seasons. In fact, for this team the usual definitions of first-pairing and second-pairing get scrambled. Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie will most likely get the most ice time, as they did last season; however, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl will draw the tougher defensive assignments.
The Top Two Defensive Pairings
We see no change in this defensive deployment for the 2021-22 season, and see the top-four most likely to be:
We believe Rasmus Sandin should be a lock for the third pair. Travis Dermott, Timothy Liljegren, and Brennan Menell are the other options and we might see a bit of a rotation between these players. Liljegren remains waiver exempt, so he can move up and down and likely will. Menell must clear waivers. For the opening game, we predict the third-pairing as:
We see Menell as the seventh defenseman and Liljegren starting the season with the Marlies.
The Maple Leafs goalies will be Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. Right now, we believe Campbell has earned the starting job with Mrazek playing a fair share of games.
We do predict that goalies will be deployed differently than in previous seasons. The way former coach Mike Babcock played Frederik Andersen was basically to give him every start except the more difficult of the back-to-backs. That philosophy will change; and, we think the new strategy will be to more equally share the net. That change will offer a greater balance for both goalies.
Further Player Moves
There’s no way to know what deals the Maple Leafs could make between now and the first game of the regular season. We can personally see them picking up another physical defenseman. We also realized we haven’t mentioned some of the players on the team’s bubble list, such as Adam Brooks and Nick Robertson. What happens with them?
However, these are our predictions for the first game of the Maple Leafs regular season. As always, we look forward to how readers see the line combinations working out. We’d be happy to share your thoughts on that in another post.
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf