The Leafs will be in tough to begin the season. Two of their primary depth players, Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott, will be out for a period of time when they start a crucial year after a disappointing end to the previous one.
Zach Hyman is the most important forward for the Leafs next season https://t.co/Xi3eBzmyep
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) August 30, 2019
Dermott will have his spot taken by a player previously not on the Leafs — be it Kevin Gravel or Ben Harpur — for the early part of the season. But with Hyman’s absence, there is a massive opportunity for a player to take on more responsibility and shine next to an elite centre like John Tavares.
Last year it was Kasperi Kapanen that took advantage of William Nylander’s contract negotiations and was highlighted next to Auston Matthews, earning his first 20-goal season in the NHL.
That eventually led to Kapanen having more of a role later in the season when Nylander returned, instead of returning to his fourth-line role from the 2017-18 campaign. His surge in importance grew his reputation and gave more of a spotlight on the rest of his season.
Whoever the Hyman replacement will be, might have more of an opportunity to raise the general awareness of their play and abilities. It’s a rare opportunity to be able to play with John Tavares — and hopefully Mitch Marner — so the winger chosen could get a major benefit.
It would make the most sense logically to just place a winger that’s already in the top-six to replace Hyman. But Johnsson was able to finish out the season next to Matthews and Nylander, a line that was able to have a 57.14 CF% and a 64.58 xGF% — dominating competition through the 173 minutes they were able to play with each other.
But of course, that was in a relatively small sample size and the roster is still flexible enough that nothing is really cemented on the left-wing side. Johnsson could be another goalscoring threat on the Tavares line, especially considering that Hyman doesn’t necessarily have the same ability to put the puck in the back of the net as the Swedish winger.
It all depends if Mike Babcock wants to keep his already existing relationship between Matthews, Nylander and Johnsson, or he wants a different type of player next to Tavares, just to try it out.
The new guy in town could be pushed right into the limelight if he was given the role to replace Hyman right away. But that’s the tricky situation right now, since he’s still new and fresh to the team, it might not be the best idea to immediately throw him to the dogs and in a prime role like that.
What many fans assumed — myself included — when he was acquired by the Leafs this summer after hurrying to his stats page and saw the “C/LW” under his position, was that he would for sure be the third-line centre and replace Kadri in some capacity. While he could still do that, Kerfoot only played a minute portion of his season last year as a centre for the Avalanche, he was mostly a left-winger.
With that in mind (and the anecdotes I’ve heard from Avalanche fans how he performed much worse down the middle) his best option might be as a left-winger for the Leafs. The only problem is that this team doesn’t really have a centre capable of taking control of that third-line spot that’s glaringly obvious.
What Kerfoot can certainly do is defend and get physical towards the net to generate high-danger scoring chances. That might be the perfect blend to replace Hyman for the beginning of the season. Providing him with enough support and letting him get off on the right (Ker)foot in Toronto.
One of the more intriguing options would be putting a winger with the same high work ethic that Hyman has, while keeping some (or more) of that scoring touch. Moore would be the winger that would stabilize the lines the most to begin the season.
Since he was on the fourth line in his rookie year, putting him into the top-six would mean an easily replaceable spot in the lineup that would be vacant. One of the many late-summer free agent signings (Aberg, Wilson, Agostino, etc.) could take Moore’s spot on the fourth line while Hyman is out; another opportunity could be created for a player that wants to start their career in Toronto performing well.
Moore certainly impressed last year. He spent the most time with Frederik Gauthier and Tyler Ennis, while those are capable players, he had a better CF% away from them than he did with them. Of course that could be a lot of different factors, but to have a jump of 15 percentage points for the 45 minutes he played without Gauthier at even-strength, it might show that Moore doesn’t belong to be on the bottom rung of the lineup sheet.
Similar to Kapanen, if he is able to hold his own and get a small hot streak going while with Tavares, this could mean a higher place in the lineup when Hyman returns. All in all, Moore would still provide all the things that the regular winger next to Tavares does, but with an added touch of scoring some goals.
Again, a player cut from a similar cloth as Hyman, Mikheyev was destined to be a favourite of Babcock the minute there were highlights of him forechecking extremely hard and crashing the net in the KHL.
Of this group, his ability to play with high-level players is the most unknown. He will still have to play his first NHL game, regardless of who his centre is, and having Tavares next to him could either be beneficial or slowing down his transition to finding his right footing.
Depending on what happens in the next month or so and if Babcock likes what he sees from the 24-year-old winger, he might be given this opportunity on opening night. It will all unfold in the coming weeks.
Regardless of what player replaces Hyman for the month or so that he remains out with an injury, the Leafs top-six should remain one of the most offensively-gifted groups in the entire league. Whether it’s another hard-nosed player like Moore taking the reigns or more of a finesse player like Johnsson, Tavares will still score goals no matter what.
There is the big, massive, loud elephant in the room though. If Mitch Marner signs a contract in the next few weeks, then this is a fun exercise for the third player on a powerful line. If he still remains out when the puck is dropped on Oct. 2, then there will be a need for two replacements to begin the season and it could either be an enjoyment to watch Tavares work his magic with two new players, or seeing the chemistry not entirely work right off the bat.
He’s known to be one of the top players that is able to make his linemates better, so I doubt Tavares will start the season not performing at his level, regardless of his wingers.
But to make the line work like it was last season, the player replacing Hyman needs to be able to do all that dirty work that won’t be rewarded with points. All four of these wingers could be an option and they all have the ability to succeed.