It may be hard to believe, but we are more than halfway through the season, and we still haven’t had a completely healthy Leafs team.
It started with Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman, and just before they were healthy, John Tavares was hurt for a bit, and then Mitch Marner got hurt. Then just as we got him back, it was Trevor Moore and Andreas Johnsson, and while we haven’t gotten either of them back, we’ve also lost Ilya Mikheyev (likely for the rest of the regular season) and Jake Muzzin.
But, that’s far from a bad team. Dermott’s injury gave us a hint of Rasmus Sandin. Johnsson and Hyman’s injuries provided us a chance to see Mikheyev excel in a top 6 role. Moore’s injury has seen the emergence of Pierre Engvall. At the very least, we’ve gotten good use out of our depth, and it has allowed us to deal with these injuries without missing a beat (that wasn’t Babcock-inflicted).
But, there’s a good chance that we can enter the playoffs with an actually healthy lineup (*knocks on wood*), but the emergence of said depth has led to a lot of lineup positions being up for grabs. So, what would the Leafs lineup look like when healthy? Let’s dive into it.
Hyman – Matthews – Marner
I never would’ve thought I’d put Hyman on my top line three years ago, but here we are. Hyman continues to prove me wrong, as this season he is on pace to surpass his career high despite missing the first month of the season, and continues to be a solid defensive player, and an excellent puck battler, which is much needed on the top line.
Matthews and Marner have proven to be quite the duo (amazing what happens when you put your best passer with your best shooter), and Hyman makes up for where their defense lacks. Matthews and Marner are elite first line players, and Hyman is a complimentary top six forward on the line, and it’s probably the one line that should stay the same when the lineup gets healthy.
Johnsson – Tavares – Nylander
Andreas Johnsson hasn’t exactly had the greatest season, as through the 30 games he’s played, he only has six goals and 16 points, all while he was playing on the top line with Matthews and Nylander, and getting top unit power play time for most of the time Babcock was there.
While you could argue that he probably shouldn’t be on this line because of that, I think he should at least be given the opportunity to prove that he can play in the top six under Sheldon Keefe, who he’s only played seven games for. If he can’t, I’d have no problem dropping him to the third or even fourth line, but I think his performance last season has at least earned him the opportunity to get a chance.
Tavares and Nylander are a no-brainer. They’ve been lights out since being put together, and the only way they wouldn’t be together is if Nylander is with Matthews instead.
Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Kapanen
As much as Kerfoot has excelled playing with Tavares and Nylander on the wing, the Leafs don’t really have any options down the middle to move Kerfoot to the wing (barring a trade). Spezza is fine, but it’s not something you want him doing long term, Gauthier and Brooks are nowhere close to that, and Engvall probably isn’t ready to be a third line centre yet. The only other option would be moving Nylander down, and that would be a terrible idea.
And while Kapanen’s season hasn’t been great either, he always manages to surprise when played well, and on the third line, he is played well. I’m certainly comfortable with him on the fourth line as well, but I don’t think he’s done anything wrong to not be in the top nine.
Mikheyev definitely deserves a top nine role, and if Johnsson doesn’t work out on the second line, I’d move Mikheyev to the top six as well.
Engvall – Spezza – Moore
This would be a solid third line, never mind a fourth line, and really speaks to how many options that we have. Timashov, Gauthier, and now even Brooks have proven to be solid players that could be in the lineup, but these three are no brainers.
Engvall is scoring at a 44 point pace over a full season in limited ice time, and a great penalty killer. Spezza is scoring at a 43 point pace, and has really excelled under a coach that doesn’t hate him. Moore is a really flexible player, and could probably play on the top line and be decent, although the scoring hasn’t been there as much for them. This is the kind of fourth line that could be a difference maker and provide some offense for a playoff run against other teams much weaker fourth lines.
Rielly – Holl
When the blueline is healthy, I want to see them try something different, for Rielly’s sake. He needs a defensively responsible defense partner, and Justin Holl is the closest the Leafs have to that on the right side. It’s a pairing we haven’t really seen up to this point, so it be interesting to see if that could help Rielly bounce back (or if, you know, he stopped playing through his injury).
I guess it would depend on what Sheldon Keefe wants to do with the pairs. If he wants a shutdown pair and an offense pair, stick with Rielly-Barrie and Muzzin-Holl, but if you want to spread it out a bit more, this might be the way to go.
Muzzin – Barrie
WE’RE BRINGING IT BACK! But in all seriousness, Muzzin-Barrie wasn’t too bad, and it would probably be even better now that Barrie is actually decent again. If it works where Muzzin is more stay-at-home while Barrie jumps up in the play, it could work well.
Like I said with Rielly-Holl, this kind of depends on what Keefe wants to do with the pairs, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea to spread out the pairings a bit more.
Dermott – Marincin
I know not everybody likes Marincin, but a lot more people don’t like Cody Ceci, and it would be cool if he stopped playing games for the Leafs. If anything, it doesn’t have to be Marincin. Maybe Sandin comes up, then you can move Dermott to the right side. Maybe Liljegren comes up, and you still have a decent right shot defenseman. Maybe the Leafs trade for a depth right shot defenseman (like a Nick Jensen, not a Adam McQuaid).
Just for the love of God, get Cody Ceci off this team.
Andersen – Hutchinson
While Hutch seems to have gotten his confidence back (goalie controversy???), there’s no doubt that Freddie will be the guy come playoff time. Hopefully Hutch at least plays well enough that if Freddy gets pulled, he can still win us a game. This has been the tandem for most of the season (save for Kaskisuo playing a game), and it probably will be come playoff time.