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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

A very early prediction of what the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup could look like on opening night

The 2021 NHL off-season was a pretty big one for the Toronto Maple Leafs, given that they parted ways with a couple of Leafs that were a part of the organization for half a decade. They departed with a handful of players and they brought in a handful of new players as well, and with that being said, next season is going to be a very interesting one to watch, to say the least.

From bringing in new forwards to new depth defensemen to even a brand new goalie to partner up with Jack Campbell, next season’s opening night lineup is still very much in the air right now, but this is how I could see them line up come opening night on October 13th against the Montreal Canadiens.

Now, before I jump into my lineup prediction come game one of the regular season, I strongly believe Nick Robertson will become a full-time player with the team next season, I just don’t know if it’ll be right out of the gate because I honestly don’t know who he would take out of the lineup. You obviously have guys like Ilya Mikheyev that could come out of the lineup, but recent reports came out that the Maple Leafs didn’t accommodate his trade request because they think he will be valuable for the team this coming season.

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There’s also Wayne Simmonds who could definitely be replaced by Nick Robertson come opening night but I just don’t see that happening either. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the lineup, but as I said, I believe Robertson will end up playing a lot of games for them this season, I just don’t know if it’ll begin game one of the season, but hey, I could definitely be wrong.

 

Forwards

Line 1: Michael Bunting – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner

The first line for the Toronto Maple Leafs is more than likely going to feature two players who we saw on the first line last season in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. However, instead of Zach Hyman on the left wing given he’s no longer here, I think it could be newly signed winger, Michael Bunting. Bunting in my opinion is a similar version of Hyman in the sense that they both play similar styles when they’re out there on the ice.

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Bunting isn’t the tallest of players, but standing at 5’11 and just under 200 lbs, he’s a guy that is hard on the puck, someone that is willing to go into the corners to retrieve the puck, and someone who will crash the net to score those greasy goals. Sounds a lot like Hyman if you ask me, and that’s why I think putting Bunting on the first line or even the second line, to be honest, if that’s what they’re feeling, is a good choice.

And as for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, we all know what these two players can do in the regular season, they’re two of the league’s best players and will continue to dominate as they continue to grow. The only thing they have to prove next is their play in the playoffs, and here’s to hoping this is the year they prove everyone wrong after five straight years of disappointment, especially last playoffs when both players were just brutal for the majority of the series offensively.

 

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Line 2: Alex Kerfoot – John Tavares – William Nylander

Just like the first line, the second line shouldn’t really be a surprise either as two of these players had second-line duties last season. John Tavares and William Nylander will more than likely serve as the team’s second-line centre and second-line right-winger heading into next season, the only other position to fill on this line is left-wing and I have someone who has played with these two players in the past before, it’s Alex Kerfoot.

I felt like Kerfoot was one of the better options to slot in at second-line left-wing simply because he has history playing alongside Tavares and Nylander, and to be honest, they’ve played pretty well together as a line so might as well throw all three players together again and see what you got to start next season. If it ends up not working all of a sudden, then in reality the only move you’ll be making is finding a new left-winger to play alongside Tavares and Nylander because I don’t feel like Sheldon Keefe is ever going to split Matthews and Marner up so I doubt he’ll split Tavares and Nylander up.

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Having a guy like Kerfoot on this line isn’t a bad idea either. Kerfoot has shown that he is capable of playing the wing on a scoring line rather than acting as a centre on more of a shut-down line like the third-line we saw at times last season. Having Kerfoot on the wing just gives him less responsibility and allows him to play the role he is best at, which is passing the puck which he is pretty decent at, and helping to produce offence which he did a great job at when he was on a line with Tavares and Nylander last season.

 

Line 3: Nick Ritchie – David Kampf – Ondrej Kase

This potential third-line for the Toronto Maple Leafs next season will consist of all first-year Maple Leafs in Nick Ritchie, David Kampf, and Ondrej Kase. Now, I don’t know if this will exactly be the third-line that Sheldon Keefe and staff goes ahead with, but what I could tell you is I have a feeling one or even two of these players might be on this line given how the other three lines may shape up heading into next season. This line has a little bit of everything and to be honest, I like it, however, if Keefe and staff want to go the route of having a third-line shut-down line then I’m not too sure this is the line he may want to shut-down other team’s top lines, but we’ll have to wait and see for that obviously.

For starters, Ritchie is a big boy and brings a lot of size out there on the ice and he’s also someone who can score those net-front goals, especially on the power-play. For Kampf, he’s someone that has gotten overlooked ever since his signing because people look at his point totals and the type of contract he got and immediately thought, why? Well, there is some hope for a guy like Kampf given he was a pretty good defensive centre with the Chicago Blackhawks, even though the Blackhawks as a team arent too known for being a good defensive team, so that should say something to you.

Lastly, for Kase, he’s someone who has a tremendous upside offensively, but he’s also someone who is constantly injured and has a lot of head/concussion history so he’s someone they have to be careful with next season. In only 207 career games, Kase has 97 points and put up a decent 0.46 points per game throughout his career. Kase is the type of player who can generate a lot of offence and can put the puck in the back of the net, the only thing stopping him from doing that is his countless injuries. If he can stay healthy for the full season which honestly sounds like a major stretch or at least 70-75% of the season while having pretty good production, I think that’ll be good for the team and especially the player himself.

 

Line 4: Ilya Mikheyev – Jason Spezza – Wayne Simmonds

Lastly, the fourth-line is a line of Maple Leafs we all saw on the team last year, Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza, and Wayne Simmonds. The only player here that rarely played any fourth-line minutes last year, if any, was Mikheyev who was the team’s third-line left-winger for the majority of the season last year. However, with the recent additions and subtractions to this team, it seems like Mikheyev might be a player that gets pushed down the lineup, but we might just have to wait and see for ourselves.

This line really doesn’t have too much to it, two veterans and a bottom-six winger that came to the NHL from the KHL in 2019. However, what this line could have over some other team’s fourth-lines is a line that can actually put the puck in the back of the net and produce offence. With a guy like Jason Spezza who is ageing like fine wine and a guy like Wayne Simmonds who may not put up the same point totals as years past but he’s someone that can definitely score those greasy goals in front of the net, just like we saw last season.

And for Ilya Mikheyev, well, we know what we have in him, he’s someone who is really fast and really only generates his offence off the rush, however, he can barely finish those chances and that’s the one major concern with him. It seems like he took a decline ever since the injury he sustained in New Jersey in December of 2019 and it honestly sucks because he was having a good rookie season that year too. Other than the concern for his offence, he’s still a player that is somewhat responsible defensively and makes it hard on you when you’re out there on the ice with him, but it’d be nice if we could get the offence going for him because with his speed it could be dangerous for other teams.

 

Defence

Pairing 1: Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie

This honestly shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, and to be honest, the other two pairings shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone either because this is the exact same defence that we saw last season, minus Zach Bogosian. By adding TJ Brodie to the team the last off-season, it finally gave Morgan Rielly a legit right-side partner for the first time in his career and it felt good.

Although Brodie shoots left, he plays the right side and he did a fantastic job at it last season and was arguably the team’s best defenseman, up there with Jake Muzzin. These two players complement each other and it allows both of them to play their own game and it definitely benefits the team a lot when they’re both playing at a high level out there on the ice. Rielly’s offensive abilities mixed in with Brodie’s two-way game and high hockey IQ, it was fun watching them last season, but it also got pretty rough at times for both of them when they would have breakdowns.

However, Rielly was never known for his defensive abilities but he played a tremendous two-way game in the first round of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens and was by far one of, if not, the Maple Leafs best defenseman that series. I hope to see that carry along into next season when he’s most likely paired with Brodie yet again and can help lead this defence along with the other two pairings we’ll see.

 

Pairing 2: Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl

So here is another pairing that shouldn’t come as a surprise to many given that this was the team’s shutdown pairing the entire year last season. Although Muzzin carries Holl heavily on this pairing, this pairing can honestly be a great one when Holl is playing to the best of his abilities. Last season Holl started off hot and was by far the Maple Leafs best defenseman and was actually carrying Muzzin on that pairing for the first month or so, and then in fashion, Holl fell back down to Earth and was brutal for some time and Muzzin then stepped up and was an anchor back there for the majority of the season.

Both guys, as we know are two giants on skates that aren’t afraid to throw the body around whatsoever and will play the physical game when needed. They’ve also shown that despite them being more known for their defensive abilities, they can also rack up a decent amount of points on the board. Last season, Muzzin registered 27 points in 53 games, putting him on pace for a 40 point season in an 82 game campaign. For Holl, he racked up a career-high 20 points in 55 games which would put him on pace for 29 points in an 82 game campaign as well.

I hope next season Holl bounces back to the same Holl we saw in the first month of last season, or at least a very close version to it that can pair beside a Jake Muzzin that we all know what we’re getting in him whenever he steps out onto the ice. If that does happen, this pairing could be very, very important to the Maple Leafs next season along with the top pairing on this team too.

 

Pairing 3: Rasmus Sandin – Travis Dermott

The last pairing I have here is the third pairing that sees Rasmus Sandin taking a step and becoming a full-time player paired with another left-shot defenseman that can play the right side in Travis Dermott. The Maple Leafs’ third pair last season was kind of a revolving door for players like Sandin, Dermott, Bogosian, and even for a short time Lehtonen. However, this season may very well be the year that we could see Sandin play a full season and have a guy like Timothy Liljegren come in and out of the lineup more often next season so he can start getting some more NHL games under his belt.

This third pairing could also be a very sneaky good pairing for the Toronto Maple Leafs next season given that both defensemen looked good in a third pair role last season, however, they were paired with Zach Bogosian for the majority of it whenever they came into the lineup. We all know what Sandin can bring when he steps on the ice, his skating and offensive ability along with him growing into more of a two-way player with more NHL experience will go a long way and not only help him but will help the team too.

For Dermott, we all know he could be a very streaky player too, he’s either playing great or he’s struggling at times, but just like Sandin, Dermott is still young and for defensemen, they sometimes take longer to figure things out compared to forwards. But for Dermott, he was playing some very good underrated hockey at times last season when he was paired with Bogosian on the third pairing, so here is to hoping he can continue that and bring that in for next season if he’s paired alongside Sandin.

 

Goalies

Starter: Jack Campbell/ Petr Mrazek

Backup: Petr Mrazek/Jack Campbell

Next season I don’t think we will be seeing a legit starter and backup for the team unless one goalie is playing at an unbelievable level and the other one is struggling heavily. Next season we’re going to be seeing a 1A/1B tandem with Jack Campbell and newly signed goalie, Petr Mrazek. I am all in for a tandem for this team, especially with these two goalies because both goalies have recently had seasons where they played at a high level and were important to their teams. Given that, if they could repeat that and share the crease, it’s going to be very fun to watch next season.