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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

What left wingers should play in the top-6?

Few things are abundantly agreeable in Leafs Nation, but one of those few is that our top two centres are Auston Matthews at one and John Tavares at two. Another almost certainly agreeable fact is that our top two right wingers are Mitch Marner at one and William Nylander at two.

With four of the top six forwards decided, it should be easy to pencil in the first and second line coming into this season, and yet, it definitely is not easy.

Today’s goal will be looking at some potential combinations for those lines by examining what the Leafs have at left wing depth and how they might fit in with those 4 core forwards previously mentioned.

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Nick Robertson

The first and most fun option is Nick Robertson, the Leafs late second round selection in 2019 who obviously should have been a first round pick. Roberston so far has not had a decent run in the lineup for Toronto at the NHL level, but has 10 games under his belt so far, including 4 playoff games.

Robertson is a pure scorer at this point, whose hard working nature goes into setting up great scoring opportunities for his team. However, he’ll need to settle into more time at the NHL level before he can be relied on to produce regularly. He’ll also need practice time on defensive schemes to ensure that his line can actually have time in the offensive zone to use his tools at his best.

At the AHL level, Robertson played 21 of the Marlies’ 35 games last season, scoring 16 points, including 12 at even strength, 8 of which were primary points. He also two each of powerplay goals and assists (1 primary, 1 secondary). His 0.38 EV P1/GP was fifth on the Marlies, but wasn’t enough to get him into the higher ranks of the AHL. As such, it’s hard to argue that Robertson should be inked into an NHL role, but circumstances might dictate that that’s the best option for Toronto.

Ilya Mikheyev

Next, we have the recently villainized Ilya Mikheyev, who we learned recently had requested during last season due to ice time. Well, if we want to hold on to him, slotting him into a top-6 role with Matthews or Tavares should certainly satisfy his request. In his debut season with Toronto and in the NHL two years ago, Mikeheyev flew onto the scene quite spectacularly. However, last season’s results were not so spectacular. Primarily playing a 3rd line role, scoring 17 points in 54 games (about 25 points in a full season), Mikheyev hovered on average results.

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Judging by Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement model, Mikheyev’s year last year was the worst season of any Toronto player last year, and worse than any forward with more than 10 games played in 2019-20 except for Kyle Clifford. Overall, this isn’t a very appetizing option, though for player morale management’s sake the Leafs may be forced to at least give it a try.

It’s worth noting that in almost 300 minutes of ice time with Tavares and Mikheyev on the ice, the Leafs numbers look really good; it’s a slight improvement to how they perform with Tavares on the ice but not Mikheyev. There isn’t enough ice time with Matthews and Mikheyev to make any substantial judgement.

Player 1 Player 2 GP TOI CF% SF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO
Ilya Mikheyev John Tavares 86 283.8167 53.31 53.7 56.52 6.32 94 1.003
Ilya Mikheyev w/o John Tavares 93 882.45 50.31 50.06 51.32 8.46 92.41 1.009
w/o Ilya Mikheyev John Tavares 119 1496.7 52.26 51.51 53.54 9.07 90.09 0.992

Alex Kerfoot

Another option that Toronto has would be to move Alexander Kerfoot to the left wing in the top-six. He’s looked good there in the past, and he’s probably Toronto’s fifth best forward, so there’s some logic to that. The major argument against it is the hole that it leaves in the bottom two center positions. Perhaps they intend to count on David Kampf at third line center and a rotation of Pierre Engvall and Adam Brooks on the fourth line. I would certainly caution against this, since I don’t believe Kampf is reliable enough to be a staple in the top-nine.

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Similar to Mikheyev, with about 400 minutes of ice time, Kerfoot and Tavares have looked together, but it is an even smaller improvement than Mikheyev. We also don’t have enough ice time with Matthews and Mikheyev to make a determination of whether they work well or not.

Player 1 Player 2 GP TOI CF% SF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO
Alexander Kerfoot John Tavares 114 389.9667 52.74 52.69 53.3 10.19 90.81 1.01
Alexander Kerfoot w/o John Tavares 121 1103.183 50.36 48.64 49.9 8.96 90.57 0.995
w/o Alexander Kerfoot John Tavares 119 1390.55 52.35 51.69 54.19 8.12 90.74 0.989

New Hires

One of the newly acquired options that the Leafs will certainly consider on the left wing is Nick Ritchie. His physical play is something that some would say has been seriously lacking from everyone in that top-six except the recently departed Zach Hyman. While his puck recovery skills won’t compare to Hyman’s, Ritchie’s ability to protect the puck on the forecheck could help with Matthews or Tavares in staying in the offensive zone once they get there.

The graph below from Hockey Viz shows the surprising result that the offensive chances for Boston last year came mostly from the right wing, and almost none from the net front area where things are more productive.

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Another recently brought on option is Michael Bunting, who the Leafs brought on cheaply from the Arizona Coyotes. While his salary doesn’t indicate a top six forward, he was actually used a lot in that role for the Coyotes last year, alongside Conor Garland and Nick Schmaltz. His play has been described as quite similar to Zach Hyman’s, so it’s possible that the Leafs aim to slot him in exactly in that role alongside Matthews and Marner.

Comparing his shots graph to Ritchie’s, Bunting also doesn’t dominate the front of the net, but has an overall better impact on “expected goals”, which is just a way of counting shots that gives more credit to shots from good locations.

Final Thoughts

With a number of options and none of them particularly good, it’s hard to make any solid case one way or the other. I believe that they’re likely to start Bunting with Matthews and Marner and use Mikheyev with Tavares and Nylander, at least to start. In Bunting’s case, that purely goes on play style and not quality. It should be easy to get Bunting into a similar puck retrieval role to backfill for Zach Hyman. In Mikheyev’s case, looking at the data shows that Mikheyev did play well with Tavares in the past. Hopefully that can be rekindled this year.

I could also see them wanting to give Nick Ritchie an opportunity higher in the lineup as a sort of reclamation project, but I can’t see them starting there.

For Robertson, as much as his talent should give him a chance to succeed in the NHL, I feel that he’ll most likely start in the AHL unless he really dominates at training camp. If he does stay up, it would probably be on a sheltered 4th line.

As for Kerfoot, I can’t see them wanting to sacrifice their center depth to put him on the wing when they have a pretty long list of wingers that could play this year.

Luckily, I don’t have to make these decisions, because they are certainly tough ones. It’ll be fun to see exactly what Sheldon Keefe and company come up with out of training camp. All I know is that I’ll be rooting for the best of the Leafs new and old.