The regular season is upon us, which means that the City of Toronto is likely to have their hopes crushed if they plan on watching hockey in hopes of positive results, especially in the opening weeks. Thankfully, it looks like we’re going to be distracted by playoff baseball for the first time since I was a year and a half old, and if baseball isn’t your thing, playoff soccer for the first time ever. The Marlies also look like they could make a case for the best combination of youth and talent in the history of the AHL, though we should probably wait to see how their lineup plays out.
In any event, the Leafs can’t just pass go and collect Auston Matthews, Jakob Chychrun, or Alex “Brayden” Nylander. They have to play the games. With that considered, here’s the lineup that I think would make the 82-game schedule the least miserable.
James van Riemsdyk – Nazem Kadri – Brad Boyes
It’s time to let Nazem Kadri be the top centre on the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s been one of the highest producing natural centres in the National Hockey League on a per-minute basis for a few years now, and in the same time frame, has been one of the better relative possession centres as well (a few names below him in CF%Rel, 2013-2015: Ryan O’Reilly, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg), He’s ready for prime time.
I’ve placed Brad Boyes on the first line because he’s proven to be a capable scoring chance generator; one of 45 players in the NHL to have positive relative numbers in that regard for five years running. These two should make up for the deficiencies that van Riemsdyk has defensively, that I presume come from a combination of heading to the net and having non-elite skating ability, often making him the last player back. With that said, he can continue his net crashing ways if he has players who tilt the ice into his exact favour. This will also maximise the potential trade return of Boyes come the trade deadline; at a pro-rated cap hit of approximately $150,000, his contract will be absolute gold to “buying” teams.
Joffrey Lupul – Peter Holland – P.A. Parenteau
I’d really like to see what Peter Holland is capable of in a more offensive situation, though if we’re being honest, lines 2-4 should play nearly identical minutes. Holland’s rate production has already been solid, but having a triggerman in Lupul and a secondary playmaker in Parenteau should improve that process. Just like on the top line, the two-way capabilities of our centre and right winger should make up for the inefficiencies of the left winger and allow them to be the point driver of the trio.
That is until Lupul has a season ending belly button injury. Or something to that effect. Thankfully, Holland can contribute to battles along the boards as the line’s resident big guy, lowering the risk for young Joffrey.
Shawn Matthias – Tyler Bozak – Michael Grabner
Tyler Bozak takes the most obvious crash down the lineup, though as I alluded to with the last line, I think minutes are much more evenly split at even strength this year, particularly among the bottom nine.
Unlike Jon and Cat, I’m not opting to put Bozak on the wing. Even if you believe him to not be particularly good, this is an asset that you’re looking to maximize in a few months, and putting him out of a place of comfort will likely spoil some of that value. Besides, if you’re going to put him on the wing, you don’t place him on the right.
For the most part, Bozak’s goal creation came from high-percentage scoring chances earned from Phil Kessel’s rushes, be it a rebound, a setup, or scramble in front of the net. His place of comfort is coming in to take a shot from his off-wing, even as a centre. You’d have to put him on the left side, but there’s already a logjam there. Instead, we keep him at centre, hope he has another big year in the faceoff circle (teams pay way too much for that), and place Michael Grabner on his wing.
The great thing about Grabner is that due to his electrifying speed, he’s able to carry the puck out of the defensive zone, into the offensive one, and often create rushes and chances. The bad thing about him is that his shooting ability is akin to Jason Blake’s in 2008. If you have Bozak, who isn’t a horrible skater, there to pick up his leftovers, that might be something worth taking advantage of. Matthias is also an effective point-producer at even strength, and gives them options on the left side.
Daniel Winnik – Marc Arcobello – Leo Komarov
This is your play driving “shut down” line, at least with all options considered. As noted Arcobello homer Cat Silverman mentioned in her lineup post, Arcobello has elite underlying possession numbers, and should be able to assist this line in getting the puck into the offensive zone. Komarov, besides being the most annoying (and, therefore, best) pest in hockey, is a very strong forechecker and can be a presence along the boards.
Winnik was producing decently well under sheltered minutes last year, and is a solid enough two-way player to make this the line you send out late in the game. Not to stand in front of Jonathan Bernier and block shots (aka, allow attempts); but to get the puck as far away from the net as possible and keep it there; goals, of course, being a bonus.
Morgan Rielly – Dion Phaneuf
There’s a lot of talk about sheltering Dion Phaneuf, but I’m not sure if that should mean “play him on the second or third pair”. What’s likely more beneficial is lowering his minutes per game and playing him with a more talented linemate than the ones he’s had in previous years.
I feel bad for him, really. You can’t expect a high-profile defenceman with some known deficiencies in mobility to excel when paired with the likes of Mike “Who?” Kostka, Korbinian “Who?” Holzer, and Ryan “Who?” O’Byrne. Even Carl Gunnarsson, who at the time was the best regular partner Phaneuf had ever had, has turned out to be an awful option for the Blues on both ends of the ice, even with sheltered minutes.
Morgan Rielly, on the other hand, has spent the first two years of his NHL career producing like a second pairing defenceman on a solid team, moving the puck into the offensive zone like an elite defenceman, and displaying top-end skating ability. Entering his third year at just twenty-one years old, he should be even better on the statistics side of things. From a “watching the games” perspective, he’s able to rush back into the offensive zone faster than Phaneuf, and can alleviate the pressure in those situations. He may struggle a bit at first, but if you want him to develop into a truly Norris-calibre defenceman, this will be the best way to teach him.
Martin Marincin – Jake Gardiner
Your play it safe pairing. Neither of these guys are going to take gigantic risks on either side of the game, rarely going for the Bobby Orr rush or the Scott Stevens open ice hit, but both are calm presences who have proven to be good possession players.
I know that term gets used a lot, but unless you have Vesa Toskala in net, you’re never going to give up a goal from 190 feet away. If you can spend most of your time trying to create goals, you’ll naturally spend less of it trying to prevent them. These two are both solid enough in that regard, and with Babcock employing much different strategies from the dreaded Randy Carlyle breakout, we should see fewer trademark Gardiner giveaways this year.
Roman Polak – Matt Hunwick
I’m going to go against the grain and not include Scott Harringtion in this group; he probably stands to benefit more by playing with the (hopefully waiver clearing, when it happens) AHL superstar that is TJ Brennan on the Marlies for one more year. Besides, it’s important to play the assets you want to shed; teams would likely acquire a player you don’t feel to be good rather than one you’ve confirmed your beliefs in by scratching him all year.
I don’t think much of Roman Polak. He’s tough as nails, but he displays it because he’s constantly stuck in positions where he has to make last ditch efforts to ensure the puck doesn’t go in – typically meaning he made a less visible mistake or two prior. You place him with Matt Hunwick for the same reason you play Rielly with Phaneuf, in the sense that Hunwick has very, very good underlying numbers and is mobile enough to make up for Polak’s occasional ill-positioning. You put this pairing out when you’re not looking to pick up a goal, but either want to intimidate the opponents or need to slow the game down and the first pair is too tired.
Between The Pipes
Jonathan Bernier: 48-53 Games / James Reimer: 29-34 Games
Don’t get me wrong; I still like James Reimer a lot, and maintain that when James Reimer is healthy and not dealing with concussions, he’s a stellar goalie. Unfortunately for him, his opponents seem to want to want to rip his head off and place it in a jar like a Futurama character, so we don’t get to see that very often. Bernier’s groin is typically due for a tweak or two a year, so he won’t be a full-on starter, but he’ll play the bulk of the games and hit slightly above the league average save percentage, as he tends to do.
Intentionally sheltering Reimer could work out for the best, too – instead of making this some Twilight-style battle of the vampires, accepting their roles and making sure the team is extra vigilant near the crease when Reimer is in net would likely maximize the overall performance of the team.
The Press Box
Unfortunately, a few players get the short end of the hockey stick in this scenario. Nick Spaling and Richard Panik will sit in the press box up front, at least until Lupul gets hurt and every centre falls into a wormhole like they tend to do.
Stephane Robidas is the scratch on defence. Some have suggested sending him to the Marlies, but the team has too much depth and is too young to mess with it. Honestly, scratching Robidas will create one of two scenarios. It’ll either make him work his ass off in practice to get into the lineup, positively influencing his teammates and possibly making him better. Or, he’ll be miserable, retire, and the Leafs will have his cap hit stuck to them for two years. That’s probably a more beneficial situation for the team than a buyout and rids them of an obligation.
The human in me hopes for the former because I’d love to see Robidas be good. But it’s a cold-hearted business, so if it happens, it happens.
This team is probably going to be questionable at best, but you may as well make the best out of what you’ve got. For the sake of the fans who are going to have to suffer through months of watching the team, you want to maximize the potential for entertainment, and for the sake of the team, you want your short-sell assets to appreciate as quick as possible. I believe the above lineup to be the best case scenario for that. It might pull them a little out of the Matthews race for a bit, but when half the team is traded at the end of February, they can proceed to tank like nobody has ever tanked before.