I’ve never counted a sheep in my life. I don’t even understand how this was ever a thing. Instead, when I’m quieting my mind as the day ends, I make up line combos for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I wish I was kidding, but if you know me at all you know full well that’s the honest truth. I’m a lineup junkie, and I always have been. I have no intentions to kick the habit, and as a matter of fact, I’d bet most of you suffer the same affliction.
Over my many summers as a Leafs fan, a Sherwood Forest worth of trees have fallen by my hand. Hilroy named me MVP in 2012 and my face is on a Stick Notes billboard just off of Young & Eglington. By late August the chicken scratched lines and rearranged jottings of player names around the house are pretty much enough to wallpaper the place. In the end though, the writings of a madman Leafs fan are a carbon copy to that of opening day. It’s a craft I’ve honed. That and TV. I’m good at TV’ing. No, I’m not right 100% of the time, but 1 for 3 gets you in the Baseball Hall Of Fame, so… all kidding aside I’m usually close to the coach’s final scribbling more often than not. I like to think I’ve had a decent career of knowing where guys will slot in for our Leafers during the summer.
Those days are no more.
As I shred through more paper than Hillary two days before an audit, it’s fair to say I’m not as confident in my final roster as I have been in past seasons. I know it’s early and there’s still a couple months remaining to get a feel for the group Toronto will go with up front. Still, there’s assessments to make and I’m not comfortable at all with my internal indecisiveness on the 14 forwards the Maple Leafs will go with to open their Centennial. It’s sent me into a frenzy of constant juggling. I’m on a lineup bender.
So you can see why I needed to go through the roster with you all to reach a level of personal clarity. It’s this kinda stuff that keeps me up at night. My Blue & White sheep aren’t making it over the fence. I don’t really know, and I’m not okay about it.
Will you allow me then the courtesy of using this article as catharsis while I sift my way toward some sort of conclusions. As I study the players vying for a spot up front on the 23 man roster, a theme can’t help but form. The positions will come down in many respects to “Old vs New”. Maybe a bit of an oversimplification, as we weigh the concepts of trade value or players stock, LTIR, waiver eligibility, veteran presence, the exuberance of youth, chemistry, development, a myriad of factors are in play. With all this placed on the balance beams, it’s hard for the scale to settle on a lineup.
Let’s get to work here by doing all we really can, which is look closely at the personnel. There will be a test afterward, a lineup of your own, and participation is mandatory. I need all the viewpoints, opinions, and insight I can get. Get into it. If I was Mike Babcock…
I don’t want to waste much of our time on what we know, so I won’t. Nazem Kadri and JVR are likely the team’s top 2 forwards. Leo Komarov has been deemed a core player, he’s got a spot flanked on someone’s wing and they’re lucky to have him. Tyler Bozak is a serviceable NHL center who is on the team, for now at least and possibly until next year’s deadline. For me Bozak fits ATM, anyways. Matt Martin, fresh off a new four year UFA contract, undoubtedly has a role mapped out for him on the club. William Nylander has taken all the steps. The talent is there, time to let the horse run in the big race. Babcock will use accordingly and I think that could mean Slick Willy plays a lot.
The rest….get your pencils out. They’d best have erasers.
As rookies you have to play your way into the team, in most cases. Use of the word “exceptions” works twofold. These guys are exceptions to the Leafs rules, because quite simply they are exceptional. Elite skill and pedigree vault them ahead of the others and that’s why they’re written on the lineup card, in pen.
Auston Matthews was drafted from outside the CHL so he’s eligible to play for the Marlies (once he’s signed, of course lol). As an American citizen he’s also likely eligible to win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and there’s a better chance of Ed McMahon’s showing up on his Arizona doorstep than Sheldon Keefe tapping Matthews shoulder come October. A cornerstone type who by all accounts is good to go. Playing with men won’t be a problem, he is one. The 1st overall draft pick is an NHL player and I’m guessing a fairly impactful one right away. Let’s start those jersey sales already. Toronto begins its next century with a presence in the middle.
Mitchell Marner* and where he ends up this season has already been the topic of much debate. Well there’s no debate in this article. Coming off one of the greatest seasons in junior history, the next step is upon him. Yeah, yeah…his size. If he could just size a bit better and work on his scaling. If his gravitational pull towards the earth was only a slight percentage stronger, or if he was just a bit fatter he’d be a better player. I’m being facetious here but look, we all know Marner can’t play in the AHL and I’m not sure I’d recommend it anyways. So, it’s the Maple Leafs or the Knights. If you spot Marner in London this year it’ll likely be to sign some autographs and kiss a few babies. See you in Toronto, Mitchell.
*Marner is locked in for me as a familiar fan and someone thinking from a coaching mindset. Keep in mind though theme today, it’s crowded. There is a glut of forwards today and with another year of growth scheduled – shedding veterans at the deadline while “burning” a season before preparing for full fledge competition could be the course of action. Management may find an excuse to delay the start to his full time NHL career I think one thing is for sure and I’ll stand by, he’s there opening night.
The Not Yets:
Before we get into the tough decisions Leafs management are going to have to make, let’s cross off a few names that most of us will agree just aren’t quite ready to take a spot. A group who will could be in the plans down the road but will have to earn it. We won’t include the Timashov’s or Bracco’s or the ‘16 crop (Matthews aside). We’ll focus on those closer to an NHL arrival.
Kasperi Kapanen might be the closest name in this list to graduating, but despite a solid playoff run with the Marlies there’s still room for growth. More than that, consistency. He’ll be called on to produce at the AHL level before making the big jump. The talent is there, along with a knack for the big moment. Kapanen can be a valuable player for Toronto before long, but in many respects his progress will be up to him.
Tobias Lindberg, acquired in the Phaneuf deal, has shown some promise. His big frame and work on the walls could help him find his way to the NHL one day. Just not today. Loved what I saw his last year in Oshawa, and even what he brought to his quick viewing as a Leaf. He’s going to have to be one of the top two-way Marlies this year to make an impression.
Freddy Gauthier may still be in the long term plans for Toronto, however another year on the farm will be the way to go here. The Goat has the smarts, the size, but the speed to survive in the NHL is still a work in progress. This is an important year in his development and projecting if he fits down the road. If we can accept Gauthier for what he is and not expect what he isn’t, he could be a pivot for the bottom 6 for several campaigns ahead.
Andreas Jonsson could be a guy I’m caught sleeping on here. Once a much talked about prospect, the buzz has quieted in Jonsson. Possessing an NHL shot and skating prowess, Jonsson was on the NHL track. But a puzzling playoffs in the SEL, followed by a ferocious head shot during his acclimation to the North American game in the AHL, leads me to believe seasoning in the minors is probably required. Or he walks right on the team like he owns it. Guys like him make this study into who will make the squad tougher than I can handle.
These are the guys who are right there, though through no real fault of theirs, are on the outside looking in. BUT… they still have a shot. You can make an argument for all of them to be Maple Leafs. Unfortunately the reasoning as to why they won’t start the year at the ACC is just as strong.
Brendan Leipsic in my few live Marlie viewings was extremely impressive. I spoke with him after one of his better games about playing with confidence. He’s going to need that and more to crack this lineup. Leipsic requires waivers and might not clear if sent down. I like this player, but he’s in tough. He’s no one dimensional player, he has that going for him. Leipsic can be a pest, he can score, and he can skate. At the NHL level can he do all three? The jury is out.
Josh Leivo* was the subject of a story I did last year, where I asked Josh about his future in Toronto under a new regime, one who didn’t draft him. Leivo had a stellar year with the Marlies and in his limited Leafs stint, showed he can find the net. Babcock sent out a message to the power forward that he needs a big summer of training to put himself in the mix. Another who requires waivers should he not make the team out of camp. For me, Leivo belongs in the NHL. With Toronto? I’m not so sure.
*Leivo has been upgraded after signing a two year one way deal You’ll see at the bottom he’s the 14th in my final lineup.
Kerby Rychel was acquired for Scott Harrington and a conditional pick just last month, filling an organizational need for a physical winger with a level of skill. Rychel should have a shot to make it, but recent comments from Mike Babcock point to his beginning the season in the AHL. If he’s to open the year in Toronto he’ll likely have to force his way there. His make up should put him in contention and if not then certainly he’s one of the first call ups.
Here’s where things start to get tricky, for me and I’m sure for “Tricky Lou” and Babs. What is to come for the elder statesman in Leaf Land, the placeholders for the future players we’ll soon mention? A veteran presence will be required considering the youth in Toronto, but where do we find the balance? And in that same regard, how do we walk the line of boosting trade value yet stay true to yourself as an organization by icing the best team possible? Which could very well mean well respected players seeing their NHL careers, at least with the Maple Leafs, cease and desist.
Brooks Laich carries a whopping cap hit of 4.5 million, though being sent down alleviates very little of that number. His hit shouldn’t impact the decision making process. Laich is close to a lock, based on his leadership, work ethic, and experience. Having said that, he lost his roster spot in Washington when they found a cheaper replacement in Daniel Winnik. He’ll be pushed internally here now to earn his stall. It’s my belief he plays a fairly significant role off the ice as much as on, before being moved for a pick.
Milan Michalek is another guy with a fantastic reputation as a teammate, and by the same token as Laich, carries a lofty cap number of around 4 million. As I’ve said, the cap isn’t primarily the issue. It’s whether Michalek can outplay the other wingers fighting for ice. When he joined the team, GM Lou Lamoriello said he expected the former 30 goal scorer to play in Toronto’s top 6 this season. Does that statement hold true today and is that the plan for Milan? His production has dwindled and injuries have piled on, but Michalek was a good player and that may player may still be in there.
Colin Greening was essentially a contract dump coming over from Ottawa last year, but hold the phone. 15 pts in 30 games and big body in the lineup with a heavy shot may make Toronto reevaluate. Expectations in Ottawa were high, but Greening could take advantage of a situation where less is more and find himself on the right side of our 4th line. His fighting Dion boosted his odds of sticking around with me, because that’s how I roll.
Peter Holland in the veteran category might be a stretch, but it’s time for him to become one. I’m not sure how Mike Babcock feels about Holland, a scratch early on and if not for injuries maybe longer. But when he got in, the former Storm played well for a good stretch. Problem could be it takes prodding with Holland at times, and the coach has said he likes best on an already crowded wing. His best camp to date will be required to cement himself a spot. Hopefully Holland uses his offensive gifts to be productive, while giving his all night in and night out. Or quite frankly, he’ll be playing elsewhere.
Joffrey Lupul wasn’t in the year end team photo. He doesn’t have a stall, as Mike Augello discussed during the last Blue & White Tonight podcast, and as he further mentioned Lou acts like he doesn’t exist when asked for comment. Part of me wants to say maybe #19 has one resurgence left in him, but even a dreamer like me can’t get myself to believe. The writing is on the wall and Lupul’s days in Toronto are done. I’d love for Joffrey to prove me wrong.
When it was all she wrote for the Leafs playoff hopes early last year, it wasn’t long after that the brass gave fans and themselves a look at the future. Players were offered a showcase to prove their worth. Three players took that opportunity and simply said make room for us in your next drafted lineup, Jude. And Mike. It wasn’t just making us take notice, it’s how they were providing identity. Young, hard working, competitive, it’s these boys who will fill the gaps in my many sticky notes to come. And this is where we are now, trying to find room. They’ve shown enough to start the year, but pro hockey in a cap world can be a numbers game. There’s a chance regardless of whether or not they are deserving, our promising prospects may have to wait a little while longer to take home a steady NHL paycheck.
Zach Hyman might as well be be custom built for Mike Babcock. A versatile forward who is smart, can skate, play heavy (guy is physically fit), and works his ass off. Playing primarily on the wing, don’t forget Hyman can tackle the middle. Hyman doesn’t just have to be a 4th liner, he can add an element to a skill line as well. Another noticeable trait is how he takes the puck to the net and whacks away at loose pucks in the crease. The Leafs need a couple guys to get their nose dirty and I don’t think there’s any doubt Hyman’s in the long term plans. And possibly the immediate.
Nikita Soshnikov was probably mentioned more than anyone in last year’s LeafsHub.com Marlie coverage. There’s a reason. He’s a good player. You want to talk about a guy who can fit up and down your lineup? That was Sosh with the Marlies, but with the Leafs I saw someone looking to be used a lot. I loved his game all year and just before his call up you could see the offensive confidence in his shot and ability to create kick in. Once he realized his zinger could beat most goalies clean, he was off and running. Speaking of running, Soshnikov runs everything that moves. Then add the chemistry he had with 47 & 43, how can he not start the season on the charter flights?
Connor Brown is last for a reason, he’s the most intriguing to me. On merit Brown made the Maple Leafs out of camp last season, but was sent down to overripen. Unfortunately an injury interrupted his seasoning and after hard work he returned to the Marlies, where guys like Todd Crocker who covers them feel he can be a Ryan Smyth type longevity guy. A Leaf for a decade plus, and Babcock concurs. He wasn’t in the initial wave of call ups as he was likely being given more time to get back to the pace. When he came up he had a 3 assist night during his stay and was quickly sent back after his emergency recall. I would guess Toronto liked what they saw, but again I must remind you why we are gathered.
There’s competition and extenuating circumstances up front. Truth be told, I can’t tell you what the lineup is going to be so am I taking a pass this year? All this for nothing? No chance. Junkies have to get their fix. I’ll keep crumpling notes at the bedside table up until the October 12th opener of the 100th Maple Leafs season (my 39th Bday I might add). As of now, at this moment, here’s how I see it….
JVR Matthews Marner
Komarov Kadri Nylander
Martin Bozak Brown
Hyman Laich Soshnikov…
No wait, how about this…
Komarov Matthews Nylander
Martin Kadri Marner
Leivo Bozak Michalek
Rychel Holland Greening…
Nah, that doesn’t work. No more playing around, here goes….
Komarov Kadri Michalek
JVR Bozak Marner
Martin Matthews Nylander
Hyman Laich Greening
JVR Bozak Brown
Komarov Kadri Marner
Martin Matthews Nylander
Rychel Holland Soshnikov
There. Your 2016/17 Toronto Maple Leafs. Done………
Last change, I swear. So let’s go now with…
Lupul Bozak …Alright. Enough is enough.
I have to get a hold of myself before I’m sponsored by Hilroy. Leafs Hubbers and members of Leafs Nation reading, I need your help. I can’t figure this out on my own so send me your views on who will start the year up front, complete with lines, and after reading everyone’s thoughts I’ll post one consensus set of lines based on your comments and tweets in Part 2 of this whatever it is – “On The Defensive”.
One thing we’ve seen by going through all the options, Toronto has created genuine competition while offering a safety blanket of veteran support. The balance will allow the coach to either ease our youth in on the Maple Leafs timetable or let them have at ‘er. Doing what’s best for the future and present of the team and its young players is achievable based on the constitution of the roster up front. The difficulty of answering the lineup questions shows up in almost each individual above. Questions we won’t have answers to until training camp is near complete.
Until then, when it comes to the forwards…Here is my thinking:
JVR Bozak Marner
Komarov Kadri Soshnikov
Michalek Matthews Nylander
Martin Laich Greening
Hyman & Brown start with the Marlies (Waiver Exempt) and will be there soon enough, Holland/Leivo as extra forwards.