There’s not a lot to complain about this season, but as Leafs fans we have to find something, and the fact that no one has stepped in and immediately replaced Zach Hyman as a bargain, but capable top line winger seems to be one of the few very visible issues that although not needing an immediate solution, will eventually require something better than a stop gap.
That’s why I asked the TLN contributors to weigh-in on the issue. And when I asked the question the Leafs were still riding their 10-1-0 streak, and while I can’t imagine the past two games have radically changed anyone’s opinion, there might be a greater sense of urgency around the position following Saturday’s shutout which can emphasize the need for top six scoring.
Here are the responses to “Who should be on Auston Matthews’ left wing?”
Zach Hyman. We could go back in time, not sign Nick Ritchie or Petr Mrazek, and have Zach Hyman on this roster instead. In seriousness, of the options we have, Michael Bunting makes the most sense. I like Ritchie, but I think he makes more sense lower in the lineup. Bunting isn’t going to be at his best every night, but he’s going to try his damnedest every night, and that’s something that a Matthews/Marner line desperately needs.
Honestly, I don’t know that it matters that much, and it may make the most sense having Nick Ritchie play in that spot anyways. Ultimately, the Matthews-Marner pairing is going to feast. We’ve seen it before, and while they’ve underperformed to an extent this year, I’m sure they’ll get going sooner than later. Simply through sheer star power, the duo should be able to lift whoever they need to and carry them along for the ride. Don’t forget, last year Joe Thornton had an expected goals percentage of over 60% playing on the “M&M” line, and a paltry 50% xGF% away from them. Given that information, wouldn’t it make the most sense to put a player like Nick Ritchie, who appears to be the weakest of their LW options, on the wing to be carried? It may not be the sexiest of options, but having seen Alex Kerfoot’s breakout alongside Tavares and Nylander, as well as Ondrej Kase’s chemistry with David Kampf, the odd duck set for the “thankless” job of riding shotgun looks like it should be Nick Ritchie’s to lose.
At this point, it seems like the best fit with Matthews’ left wing would be Michael Bunting. He has the ability to win puck races, battles and has enough scoring ability to keep up in a top-six role. In Arizona, he played with good players like Conor Garland and posted strong numbers, albeit in a small sample with a high shooting percentage. Bunting-Matthews-Nylander didn’t seem to click as a line but I do think Bunting-Matthews-Marner would do well together. The challenge after that would be finding a left-winger for Tavares and Nylander. Ritchie has looked poor there. Mikheyev has been injured but hasn’t really thrived in a top-six role and Kase, who usually plays right wing anyways, seems to have found a nice fit on the checking line. A trade deadline acquisition for a good left-winger could be the books to solidify Toronto’s top six.
On paper, I would put Ondřej Kaše on Matthews left wing. I think out of the depth forwards, he has the most potential to be a legit top six forward, and on top of the tenacity that is needed for the role, he also has a decent shot that would complement that line well. But, I also really like him with Kämpf and Engvall on the third line, so instead my actual answer is Michael Bunting. He definitely gives me the most Zach Hyman vibes on the team, and I think he fit in nicely in his time alongside Matthews. I know he had a goal drought while there, but honestly, his play still looked really good, and that Bunting-Matthews-Nylander line is one of the best play driving lines in the league so far this season.
I liked Bunting’s game when he was with Matthews, he emulates Hyman well and can keep up with Matthews and whichever of the top 2 right wings are on the top line on a given night in a way that Ritchie seemingly can’t. He also knows his role (get to the net and be a rat) and plays it to perfection. I also wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Kerfoot get a chance on the top line, as he’s been excellent throughout this last stretch of games.
I feel like I need to come in hot with a few different options, although I’m not opposed to much of the Bunting/Kaše appreciation above either.
I wouldn’t rule out William Nylander as an option, and at least see what happens when the Leafs truly go with a top heavy lineup. That might seem like hanging Tavares out to dry, but he’s done well with Kerfoot, and there are potential options that could support him on that line as well perhaps with situational use of Spezza or Bunting with him.
If the Leafs are still wanting to commit to heavy hockey presence on the top line, I think you can’t ignore the strong play from Wayne Simmonds of late. He’s far more engaged in the play than Nick Ritchie has been, and has been aggressive on the puck. He’s still not going to add much in the way of puck cycling like Hyman did, and will struggle to keep up, but that’s been the case with Ritchie as well, but Simmonds is playing the power forward style much more effectively for the Leafs of late, and he could be the best option.
The final option I’m going to suggest is the long shot option that isn’t likely to come to fruition for some time, and that’s Josh Ho-Sang. If the Leafs sign Ho-Sang and bring him up to the Leafs, they would be certainly be adding someone who wants to be a fit in the top six and has been effective in that role in a short time in the AHL this year, but is still a big question mark for what he’ll be at the NHL level. There would also be an acknowledgement of his defensive deficiencies, but that is largely true of any LW option the Leafs could throw in there not named Kase, Kerfoot, or eventually Mikheyev.
Tell us what you think. Do the Leafs need to try something new? Who should it be? Let us know in the comments below.
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