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Photo Credit: © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Revisiting my projections for the Leafs Opening Night Lineup

The Leafs are finally back and they kicked off the new season with a big win over their longtime rivals. There are few things in hockey sweeter than beginning the campaign with a victory over the Canadiens, especially in overtime.

All throughout the game, I was reflecting on the lineup projections I made for this very game way back in October shortly after Joe Thornton signed with the Leafs. I wanted to know if my guesses were right on the money or hilariously wrong. I was aware of that when I wrote the piece:

Until that date comes, all we can do is speculate our best guesses for what the Leafs might do with their lineups for the coming season and who might fit best in other spots. We are quite removed from when the campaign could potentially start so it’s entirely possible that my projections could be well off the mark. Add to the fact that there remain questions of whether the AHL season can be played and if there will be expanded rosters, you have a perfect storm of an article that may one day end up being mocked for being completely wrong.

But we’re going to try and guess anyway because brainstorming is fun dammit!

So let’s go back to see my lineup projections and determine just how completely wrong I was.

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Forwards

Projections:

Hyman-Matthews-Marner

Mikheyev-Tavares-Nylander

Robertson-Thornton-Kerfoot

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Vesey-Spezza-Simmonds

EXTRA: Anderson-Engvall-Barbanov

Actual Lines:

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Thornton-Matthews-Marner

Vesey-Tavares-Nylander

Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman

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Barbanov-Spezza-Simmonds

EXTRA: Robertson, Boyd, Brooks

Safe to say that while I had all but one of the correct players in the lineup, where I had them placed was a bit off.

There weren’t many people who could have envisioned Thronton beginning the season alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, but the trio seemed to have worked well together despite such a small sample size of one game. Having Jimmy Vesey in the top six instead of Zach Hyman was another move that caught me off guard though the former did score the tying goal off a feed from William Nylander. The second line will be really intriguing to watch this season and I wonder if having Vesey play alongside two talented forwards will unlock his potential.

It’s the third line where I am the most off on my projections since Nicholas Robertson didn’t even play in this game. Alexander Barabanov ended up playing instead and we have little to go off of how he will do since his TOI was a little over five minutes.

One thing to note is that Sheldon Keefe did seem to switch up the lines a bit throughout the game, including bringing Hyman back to the top line. It might be a common trend used throughout the campaign in an attempt to give all the players chances to generate offence or to change things up in an attempt to throw off the opposition.

Defence

Projections:

Rielly-Brodie

Muzzin-Holl

Dermott-Lehtonen

Extra: Sandin-Bogosian, Marincin

Actual Lines:

Rielly-Brodie

Muzzin-Holl

Dermott-Bogosian

Extra: Sandin, Lehtonen

My projections for the defensive pairings were nearly on the nose with the exception being Mikko Lehtonen’s absence. By all accounts, he had a solid training camp and showed flashes of what he can provide during the scrimmage game last weekend. It is true that this is his rookie season and the nod usually goes to the established players, which in this case was Travis Dermott and Zach Bogosian. However, Lehtonen played well enough to earn himself a chance to play in the opening night lineup.

I assume he will eventually get some playing time (possibly as early as tomorrow night), but his absence was a bit of an odd choice. Similarly, Rasmus Sandin should find himself in the top six at some point this year but will likely need more seasoning before gaining a full-time spot.

Goalies

Projections and Actual Lines:

Andersen

Campbell

Dell

This was by far the easiest projection to make so it came as no shock that I got this one right. One thing worth monitoring is who will be getting the majority of the starts by the time the season concludes. Frederik Andersen did not play well as he gave up four goals on 32 shots against with a few of them being stoppable pucks. Jack Campbell has not played a meaningful game in over 10 months and will likely be rusty but he showed enough promise to warrant more starts. As for Aaron Dell, he likely won’t slot into the lineup unless there are injuries or Keefe has a plan in store so Dell doesn’t get rusty.

Special Teams

Power-Play Unit Projections:

Marner-Tavares-Nylander

Rielly-Matthews

Robertson-Thornton-Simmonds

Spezza-Lehtonen

Power-Play Unit Actual Lines:

Marner-Thornton-Simmonds

Rielly-Matthews

Hyman-Tavares-Nylander

Spezza-Brodie

The choice to have the power play units balanced out was an odd one given the evidence that loading up the top unit is a more successful strategy. To their credit, both units played well and generated a number of quality scoring chances along with a goal from the second lines.

On John Tavares’ goal, the Leafs went back to the front-loaded combination that I projected to be the first unit and they also had many dangerous looks. Whether the reason Keefe went to it was to try and tie the game or the situation being a five-on-three, the move paid off in spades. The man-advantage unit was one of the team’s bright spots in the game and all signs point to it remaining one of the league’s best this year.

Penalty Kill Unit Projections:

Hyman-Mikheyev

Muzzin-Brodie

Marner-Vesey

Rielly-Holl

Penalty Kill Unit Actual Lines:

Hyman-Mikheyev

Muzzin-Holl

Matthews-Marner

Brodie-Bogosian

We also saw Vesey and Alexander Kerfoot get some reps on the penalty kill throughout the contest. But it’s hard to look past how rough of a game the shorthanded unit had in this one, with the most egregious errors being allowing two breakaways and giving up two goals. Bogosian also didn’t get much of a chance to show what he can provide when down a man since he was sent to the box twice.

Matthews showed some promise on the PK unit but will need to see some more reps before he can settle into the role. The broadcast mentioned that he only played nine minutes of shorthanded hockey in his career heading into the game so don’t be surprised if there are some growing pains along the way.

This unit remains the biggest work in progress and Wednesday night was not a good start for the penalty kill.

Summary

For the most part, my projections did not really match what the Leafs actually went with on opening night. The line combinations I was the most off on were the special teams while I correctly guessed the goalie depth.

There are a few things to take away from all of this. A lot can change in three months and what might make sense back then may not be so now. Having Thornton start the year in the bottom-six seemed to be the logical conclusion that many expected would occur, but few could have envisioned him starting the season on the top line. Robertson and Lehtonen being the odd men out was something strange but I doubt it will be a permanent thing. And while the lines may look a certain way going into the game, Keefe showed that he was more than willing to change things up midway through.

While I don’t own a crystal ball, brainstorming the lines three months ago and looking back on them afterwards was a fun exercise. Just don’t come to me if you are looking for the lottery numbers.

All stats unless otherwise noted are from Hockey-Reference.com.