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Do the Maple Leafs prefer a certain type for their fourth-line winger?

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
27 days ago
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As a function of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top-heavy lineup, Zach Aston-Reese and Noah Gregor were able to crack the roster on player tryout options (PTO) in consecutive years. Toronto essentially encouraged open competition for the team’s final roster spots and due to strong training camps, both Aston-Reese and Gregor made an impact early during their lone, respective seasons in Toronto.
Is there a common trait the Maple Leafs are looking for in their fourth-line winger? We’re now well into The Summer of Change as promised by emperor team president Brendan Shanahan and it’s worth exploring the team’s roster construction once again, perhaps through process-of-elimination. Auston Matthews and William Nylander aren’t going anywhere while Mitch Marner and John Tavares appear to be on the block despite no formal indication from the Maple Leafs to move either Ontario-born star.
Aston-Reese and Gregor’s roles were both reduced significantly during their Maple Leafs’ tenure. Gregor slumped offensively and his defensive impact waned, posting six goals and 12 points in 63 games after an excellent start to the year. Toronto quietly acquired Connor Dewar at the trade deadline and appear to set on revamping its fourth line, after Brad Treliving offered David Kampf and Ryan Reaves long-term deals last summer and both players were arguably Toronto’s worst forwards last season.
This may be overly simplistic, but speed is of paramount importance. Aston-Reese, as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, ranked within the 77th percentile of skating speed via NHL Edge data. Gregor ranks in the 84th percentile of skating speed, while ranking in the 90th percentile of speed bursts over 30 kph.
Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Tavares, Kampf, Reaves, Calle Jarnkrok, Bobby McMann, Matthew Knies are all assured roster spots — we’ve already gone through the volatility around Marner and Tavares but for now, count them in — while Pontus Holmberg’s $800,000 contract easily slots into any optimal lineup. Nick Robertson should get another shot. Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi are UFAs, while the team is likely accounting for a prolonged stint from Easton Cowan, and perhaps Fraser Minten, who cracked the roster out of camp.
What does this mean for Gregor and the Maple Leafs’ fourth line design? Gregor was not tendered a qualifying offer from the San Jose Sharks following the 2022-23 season and the Maple Leafs evidently were attracted to his near-elite level straight-line speed, which put pressure on defenses — it was a nice asset but Gregor also routinely struggled to help the Maple Leafs retain possession, although when the entire line fails, with sub-par performances from Kampf and Reaves, it can hard to isolate blame in a vacuum.
It can be difficult to bridge the tendencies that Treliving and his predecessor, Kyle Dubas were looking for at the bottom of the roster. Treliving has placed an emphasis on toughness — or ‘snot’, if you’re so inclined — and that was apparent when he signed Reaves to a multi-year deal. Connor Dewar also ranks below the 50th percentile in speed via NHL Edge as well. So maybe we’re parsing through a few crumbs, as one is want to do in June, but it appears that the Maple Leafs will try to find value in a player who can play at hyperspeed and then see how it aligns during the early stages of the regular season. If Gregor returns, this is all moot, but seeking a player who can put defenders on their heels in transition appears to be a priority.

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