Maple Leafs Have Options to Play Alongside Matthews & Marner

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a ton of questions regarding their lineup heading into the 2021-22 season. One of the biggest holes is the one left by Zach Hyman, who signed with the Edmonton Oilers this offseason after making himself at home on the Maple Leafs’ top line for five seasons. With no surefire bet to fill his role, management will be looking for a new candidate to take Hyman’s place on the left wing alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

The good news is that head coach Sheldon Keefe will have lots of room to test different players with different styles to see which combination works best. Hyman’s game worked perfectly with Matthews and Marner, as he was always the first one in the corners, retrieving pucks and creating space for his linemates. It would be a safe bet to think whoever replaces Hyman will mirror his game, but that shouldn’t limit the candidates. Here are some players who could fill that role on the top line.

Michael Bunting

Bunting is, in my opinion, the most intriguing player to keep an eye on heading into training camp. He signed a two-year contract with the Maple Leafs in July with an average annual value (AAV) of $900,000, which could become one of the better value contracts on the team. While he only has 26 games of NHL experience to his name, Bunting scored a whopping 10 goals in 21 games for the Arizona Coyotes last season. Of course, his shooting percentage was 26 percent, so that likely isn’t an indicator of his production over a full 82 games.

The Scarborough native took less money to come to Toronto because of the opportunity to challenge for top-six minutes, and, as it stands, he’s probably the closest thing the Maple Leafs have to a Hyman-type player. He’s compared his game to Brad Marchand’s and has that ability to make noise offensively while getting under his opponent’s skin. I don’t know if Bunting will start in the top six, but he’ll get a look there at some point.

Nick Ritchie

If you are anything like me, you expected Toronto to draft Ritchie eighth overall in 2014. While management selected William Nylander instead, they now have both players under contract and could have both in the top six. Coming off a 15-goal season in 2020-21, the Orangeville native is locked up for two years with an AAV of $2.5 million.

Nick Ritchie Boston Bruins
Nick Ritchie with the Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Placed in the right situation, Ritchie can score goals, even if they aren’t pretty ones. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he’s the type of player who stands in front of the net and makes a goalie’s life difficult. He also plays a physical game that lines up with his power-forward style. But his primary concern is his speed. Whether he can keep up with Matthews and Marner will determine if he has a role on that line, though I’m sure Keefe will try him there at some point regardless.

Ilya Mikheyev

Mikheyev is a bit of a stretch, but I’ve included all options here. You might be wondering why the Maple Leafs would put a player who scored seven goals last season on their top line? It’s a valid question. The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t thinking about last season when I added him to this list. Mikheyev was snakebitten for the better part of the 2020-21 campaign, but the season before, he had eight goals and 23 points in 39 games. That is, of course, until he caught a skate blade on his forearm and had to miss the remainder of the season.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the 6-foot-3 Russian is in a contract year, so he will be heavily motivated to bounce back. There’s no better way to boost offensive numbers than by playing alongside two of the best offensive players on the team. Having said that, Mikheyev’s speed and defensive ability make him a prime third-line candidate, so Toronto may keep him there unless they’re in a pinch.

Dark Horse: Nick Robertson

Make no mistake, Robertson is destined to play in the top six eventually, but I don’t know what his role will be to start the season. The Maple Leafs are oozing forward options, so they may be more inclined to start him in the American Hockey League (AHL) and call him up as an injury replacement. But whether he starts in the NHL or the AHL, there’s some sneaky potential for him to take the top-line left wing spot and run with it IF he impresses.

Nick Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Robertson showed signs of being a late second-round draft steal for the Maple Leafs in 2019 after he scored a whopping 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games for the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes in 2019-20. He also impressed with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies last season, putting up 16 points in 21 games. He has a shot to get some looks with Matthews and Marner, and potentially stay there.

Overview/My Pick

I think most if not all of these players will get reps on the top line at some point this season, but Bunting is the most likely to stick there once he gets his shot. He has everything from the edginess to the goal-scoring ability, and he’s the closest thing to a Hyman-type the Maple Leafs have this season.

While Toronto didn’t really sign any big-ticket free agents upfront, they did sign a bunch of players looking to bet on themselves and maximize their value, which sometimes proves to be the better option. If even half of them pan out, management will have a roster full of players who can be regular contributors at a cheap price. There’s no better motivation than to play alongside two top-five NHL scorers.

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