Unlike my colleagues, I see an untapped potential with the talent the Leafs have assembled. I really do. It just requires someone forward-thinking enough to put the pieces together the right way. So that’s what I did.
Van Riemsdyk – Kadri – Grabner
It’s time to put the two best experienced offensive talents on the same line. JVR and Kadri will be responsible for making up for the loss of Phil! and will get the best out of each other. Kadri owns the puck in the offensive zone, and JVR is a danger off the rush and in front of the net – it’s a good combination. Add Michael Grabner’s speed to that and he kind of helps replace Phil on the right side, albeit with much less offense but much more defense. He will help make up for JVR’s awful D-zone play.
Nylander is the most offensively gifted player in the organization right now. Despite that, he shouldn’t be thrown to the wolves on the first line just yet. Flanking him with Matthias – who can put the puck in the net will help Nylander focus on owning the puck and making slick plays. On his right side is Rich Clune, who isn’t a total goon but will protect Nylander from the rats on other teams who will try to pull on his hair. While this line would be considered the second line, I’d shelter it and give this trio extensive offensive zone starts.
Instead of a “checking line” as the third trio, I went with a group that can further contribute to the offense. Lupul, when healthy, is still a strong offensive talent. Holland deserves the opportunity to be treated as a scoring line player instead of a checker, and Boyes can score goals. This line could really surprise people, and would give the Leafs three semi-dangerous lines to roll consistently.
In the modern NHL, your 4th line should be able to handle some defensive responsibilities while also being able to contribute. These three together would be able to push play the right way, and would be dominant when engaged in the cycle. They wouldn’t score much, but their contributions would allow the other three lines to focus on offense.
As much as I want to run a Gardiner-Rielly pairing, Phaneuf gets top billing still because he is the captain. Plus, it is good to be able to roll Gardiner and Rielly consistently. I put Gardiner ahead of Rielly right now because his defensive game is stronger, and his Stralman-esque playing style should compliment Phaneuf better.
Rielly is the star on this pairing, pure and simple. This is the year when he becomes a 4th forward on the ice ala Erik Karlsson. But like Karlsson, Rielly’s d game isn’t quite there yet. That’s what human bear Roman Polak is for. Literally just leave him in front of the Leafs net all shift long, no matter where the puck is. Leafs transitioning the puck and skating up ice? Polak doesn’t move. If you yell “stay” in a stern voice and stare him in the eyes – this is important to assert your dominance – Polak will listen.
For once, the Leafs have a 3rd pairing that can handle some tough shifts. Marincin was great with Edmonton, and while he will never put up big numbers, he pushes the puck in the right direction. Despite talk that he could pair will with Phaneuf, Matt Hunwick will be more effective playing 3rd pairing minutes alongside Marincin. Don’t expect many goals to happen against the Leafs when these two are on the ice.
Goalies are voodoo so play who is less voodoo more than the guy who is more voodoo.
MISSING THE CUT
Despite a lack of top-end talent (although starting next year that won’t be the case), this Leafs roster was hard to put together. There are a lot of NHL ready bodies – too many for an 18 man roster. Five names were considered for inclusion, but just missed the cut.
Connor Brown is ready for the NHL as far as I am concerned. And while I’d love to put him on Nylander’s right side, the protection of Clune is just too important. As soon as one of Boyes, Matthias, Komarov, Winnik, Arcobello, etc, etc is moved for a 2nd round pick, Brown takes that spot.
Zach Hyman could step in as a 4th line centre right now, but the Leafs have too much bottom six depth. Holland undoubtedly deserves to be in the lineup, and Arcobello is a solid NHLer. Hyman could potentially be the 13th forward and rotate with Arcobello on a night-by-night basis.
I didn’t include Tyler Bozak because as soon as Phil was traded, TyBo’s inclusion as an NHLer was rescinded.
Stephen Robidas is too old and bad to play on the ice, but keep him as an off-ice player/consultant hybrid for his old-man wisdom and leadership. That stuff is important.
Stuart Percy is ready to be a bottom-pairing guy, but I’d rather him get extensive minutes in the AHL and develop properly for an entire season.
The way I have structured this team sets them up for success. If Babcock goes with my lineup, the Leafs will make the playoffs. And if they get into the playoffs, their character and compete (hi Rich Clune) will help them go on a miracle run.