Now that Mitch Marner has signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, hockey commentators like myself can get down to the business of reporting what’s happening on the ice and with the players who man their team’s rosters. That’s refreshing, given the extended drama of the summer.
In today’s post, I’ll review news about the Maple Leafs’ captaincy, take a first look who might be in the team’s top-six forward line combinations, share what we’re learning about teams that had interest in Marner before he signed, and consider how Jason Spezza might contribute to the team.
Item One: Babcock Teases the Press About Who’ll Become Captain
When head coach Mike Babcock was asked on Wednesday when the team would name a captain, as he often does he toyed with the press by asking the reporter who asked the question: “When does the season start?”
When the reporter said Oct. 2, Babcock responded: “See you guys then.” Then he pretended to walk away. He then explained himself more broadly, although still giving nothing away.
First, he noted about Marner: “Well I think Mitch is one of those guys with his enthusiasm, with his energy and the way he plays, he’s leading anyway, but as he grows into a man and Mitch has been around winning before. He knows how to do things right. That’s leadership.”
Second, he noted that Matthews was “a different guy, he’s playing in the middle but he’s really evolved. I think the biggest thing with Matty is how comfortable he is now compared to what he used to be with all this. With the guys. He was always comfortable on the ice but it’s bigger than that when you’re leading, and so I think that’s been the biggest thing is sharing himself.”
Two interesting things about Babcock’s long responses. First, he reinserted Marner into the conversation about the captaincy. Second, he mentioned neither John Tavares nor Morgan Rielly. Most people believe that Matthews, Tavares, and Rielly are the three top contenders for the position.
For my money, although fans are happy Marner signed, I believe a large segment of the fan base believes Marner’s agent held the Maple Leafs hostage as leverage to gain more money. The fans I talk to aren’t currently that happy with the newly-signed young winger. To me, that means Marner must be content to be an informal, on-ice leader – just as he did all last season.
Item Two: Regular Season Line Combinations [Top-Six]
Predicting the Maple Leafs opening game line-up is both more interesting and more difficult given recent additions to the roster. What will the top-six lines look like when Oct. 2 comes around?
Pat, the blogger responsible for “The Centre of Leafs Nation,” suggested the top forward line combinations for the first game of the season. He believes the top two lines will include:
Line One: Kapanen – Tavares – Marner
Reports from training camp suggest that Kasperi Kapanen will move permanently to Tavares’ line, at least to start the season. In fact, during an interview last week, Kapanen noted that he needed to, and was going to, play more “nasty.” That statement seems to support his belief that he needs to fill Zach Hyman’s role as the mucker on the top line.
I like Kapanen assuming Hyman’s fore-checking role on the first line. Hyman was invaluable chasing down pucks and getting them to the other forwards. Babcock has often called Hyman the best fore-checker in the NHL.
As important as that role is, it’s also pretty simple. It’s as much a matter of combining Kapanen’s speed and his will to work, which I believe he has in spades. I like moving Kapanen’s speed to the top line and see him as a potential outlet for Marner’s passing.
Line Two: Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander
The Maple Leafs second line is a no-brainer. Putting Matthews back with William Nylander will likely spur both young forwards to career seasons. If Matthews were not injured last season, there’s little doubt he would’ve been the team’s scoring leader.
Nylander needs his mojo back, and he had a good start this summer with Team Sweden, where he led all players at the World Championships in scoring with 18 points in eight games (five goals, 13 assists). He even changed his number back to #88 (his Team Sweden number), which signifies he wants a new beginning in Toronto.
Andreas Johnsson will add speed to the threesome, and that group has the potential to become an offensive juggernaut. There’s no doubt in my mind that Matthews will score 50 goals this season. And, if Johnsson and Nylander can carry the puck into the offensive zone, Matthews will have more chances for one-timers, which is something he’s been working on.
Item Three: Interest in Marner During Last Offseason
MyNHLTradeRumors.com reported that the Minnesota Wild were interested in Marner, but wanted to trade for him rather than prepare him an offer sheet. It’s hard however to figure out whom the Wild might have traded for Marner. After defenseman Matt Dumba, who would the Maple Leafs have cared about?
During the summer, there were rumors the Columbus Blue Jackets were going to offer sheet Marner on a long-term deal; however, Marner’s team wanted only three or four years. So, no go.
Item Four: Jason Spezza Wants to Contribute However He Can
I have to admit that, when I heard Jason Spezza had signed a bargain contract with the Maple Leafs, I was pleased. I value veteran leadership on a team, especially when it’s well-priced. Basically, general manager Kyle Dubas replaced Patrick Marleau with Spezza for a much cheaper salary-cap hit.
When Spezza was drafted second overall during the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, he was a flashy centre with the reputation for having great hands and loads of potential. Now, 18 seasons later, Spezza has plenty of hockey knowledge that he’s willing to pass along to the young Maple Leafs squad. As Spezza acknowledged, he was fortunate to play with great leaders in Ottawa, citing Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips. There, he learned to be an “everyday pro.”
Now, on a roster that includes a surfeit of young stars, Spezza suggested that “it’s almost like a ‘pay-it-forward’ thing.” Adding that he wanted to help “show the way.”
There’s no doubt Spezza is past his prime, and he won’t be scoring close to the point-a-game clip he used to as a first-line centre. But, he did admit that he wanted one last chance to play on a Stanley Cup winning team.
Babcock noted, “There’s a role here for him, but he’s got to be able to do it.” Most hockey commentators believe that role includes being good in the faceoff circle and helping run a second power-play unit that, based on last season’s lack of success, could use help.
In two preseason games so far, we know that the ex-Maple