Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Malgin, Aston-Reese & Line Combos

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a shot at imagining the team’s lineup after the dust has settled from yesterday’s waiver-wire business. The team’s lineup is taking shape, but it isn’t a finished product yet. 

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Moving all the puzzle pieces together for this team might not happen that soon. A number of circumstances and issues must be considered before any team photograph will be glued into the album this season.

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I can only speculate what that might look like, which I will try to do in this post.

Item One: Surprise, Denis Malgin Makes Maple Leafs’ Roster

When training camp started a few weeks ago, the typical Maple Leafs’ fan wondered why the team would bring back Denis Malgin. Indeed, I admit that I didn’t see a space for him on the current Maple Leafs’ roster. He had done little in my memory to earn or keep a spot when he was on the team earlier.

He fooled all of us. From the team’s first preseason game, Malgin looked great. At the time I thought it was William Nylander standing out because it seemed Nylander was going out of his way to make Malgin look good – they seemed to have great chemistry from the get-go. In the end, it was Malgin – or, better yet, both together.

Malgin’s game-winning goal in Saturday’s 5-1 preseason win over the Detroit Red Wings was the goal of the preseason for the Maple Leafs. It put the icing on the cake for Malgin’s coming out party. 

Malgin earned his spot by scoring four goals and adding four assists in six preseason games. I can’t figure out if the nickname “Crispy,” generated by Auston Matthews is a description of Malgin’s goal or even his new nickname.

Yesterday, the team waived a number of players; but, when one of them was NOT Malgin, it was obvious he made the opening game roster. Congratulations to him. 

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The question is where he will play. My guess is that John Tavares won’t be back for Wednesday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. For me, that means that Nylander plays the second-line center and will be flanked by Malgin and Nick Robertson. 

Item Two: My Projections for the Maple Leafs Wednesday’s Lineup

Speaking of where Malgin will play, here’s my guess for the Maple Leafs’ opening night lineup when the team meets the Canadiens:

Forward Units

First Line: Michael Bunting–Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner

Second Line: Nick Robertson–William Nylander–Denis Malgin

Third Line: Pierre Engvall–David Kampf–Calle Jarnkrok

Fourth Line: Zach Aston-Reese-Alexander Kerfoot–Nicolas Aube-Kubel

Alex Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alex Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Defensive Pairings

Morgan Rielly-TJ Brodie

Jake Muzzin-Justin Holl

Mark Giordano-Rasmus Sandin

Starting Goalie 

Matt Murray

Item Three: Zach Aston-Reese Signs a One-Year Contract

After Malgin, I’d name Zach Aston-Reese as the find of the preseason. Since day one at the training camp, he looked like he belonged. In fact, the team’s fourth-line philosophy will be his and Nicolas Aube-Kubel’s to shape. This will be one line that I believe will add value to the team all season long and into the playoffs.

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In the end, it was no surprise to anyone that Aston-Reese earned a one-year contract with the team. The contract calls for him to earn $840,630 USD this season. [Does anyone know why it was that specific amount?]

For that money, the team gets a bottom-six, physical player who will beat on opponents from the start of the game to the end of the game. Last season, Aston-Reese laid out a total of 231 hits in 69 games (playing bottom-six minutes) between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Anaheim Ducks.

I know that it’s accepted that Aston-Reese won’t score. He only had five goals and 10 assists (for 15 points) last season. However, David Kampf only scored a single goal with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2020-21, but had a career high of 11 with the Maple Leafs. 

Zach Aston-Reese Pittsburgh Penguins
Zach Aston-Reese when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I expect Aston-Reese might see a similar upward result. It isn’t like he can’t score. During his 2016-17 season at Northeastern University, he led the team in scoring with 31 goals and 32 assists (for 63 points) in 38 games. His goal the other night against the Canadiens came off a goofy bounce; but, it shows that, like Kampf, he can bury the puck if the opposition makes a mistake.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Now that it’s clear that both Robertson and Malgin have made the opening night roster, what happens to Robertson when John Tavares (and Timothy Liljegren’s salary-cap hit) returns? Someone will be an extra forward. 

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There must be a plan for playing both of these smaller, offensive forwards during the season. I’ve heard the suggestion that, because there’s no spot for Alex Kerfoot, he should be traded. 

Perhaps that works in an industry where people don’t miss with injuries, but Kerfoot is exactly the kind of player the team needs to cover injuries that will occur during the season. And, make no mistake, there will be injuries to cover.

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