Leafs forward depth provides Sheldon Keefe with plenty of options

Photo credit:© Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Richard
2 months ago
The Maple Leafs’ forward depth has been tested in recent weeks with star forward Mitch Marner and one of Sheldon Keefe’s most trusted forwards in Calle Järnkrok on the injured list, and they have risen to the occasion. Now, with Marner’s return against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night after missing the previous 12 games, Keefe and his staff have been forced to make some tough decisions, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Nick Robertson, who was reinserted into the Leafs’ lineup a couple of games into Marner’s absence, was the odd man out when Marner returned on Saturday, but he took advantage of the opportunity and proved to be a valuable offensive contributor while Marner was out, raising his stock with the team in the process. In the 10 games he played while Marner was on the shelf, Robertson tallied four goals and added an assist while playing limited minutes alongside Matthew Knies and Pontus Holmberg – impressive production given the circumstances.
Holmberg is another player who has made good on his latest opportunity to carve out a spot in the playoff lineup, providing much-needed depth down the middle while putting up three goals and two assists while Marner was out, playing mostly on the Leafs’ newly dubbed “kid line.” Keefe even made a point of testing them in difficult situations in an effort to gauge their ability to withstand difficult matchups ahead of the postseason. The results were mixed, and their inexperience in those situations came to the forefront on a couple of occasions, but they held their heads above water and showed the ability to contribute at the offensive end. Knies has been a fixture in the lineup all season, but Robertson and Holmberg have both been on the fringes at various points, so it has been an encouraging sight for the Leafs’ staff to see them step up during this stretch.
There has been little in the way of news regarding Järnkrok’s injury, but assuming he is healthy to begin the playoffs, another forward will be joining Robertson in the pressbox to open up a spot for him. Just who that player is remains to be seen, but like Robertson, it will be someone who probably doesn’t deserve to come out of the lineup. It’s an unfortunate situation for the players involved, but it’s a great problem for the Leafs to have heading into the postseason, where their forward depth has let them down in the past.
Brad Treliving recognized those past problems and sought to rectify them in his first season at the helm of the Leafs, investing in the likes of Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi in the offseason and ensuring a path for players like Knies and Robertson to capitalize on their offensive potential. It has all started to come together in the second half following some early season struggles, and it finally feels like the Leafs have surrounded their top group with a supporting cast that can contribute in a variety of ways.
In an effort to spread out the offensive attack, Keefe went with this lineup against the Canadiens on Saturday night:
Bertuzzi – Matthews – Domi
McMann – Tavares – Marner
Knies – Holmberg – Nylander
Dewar – Kämpf – Reaves
Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Bertuzzi, and Domi are all obvious locks who will be expected to carry the offensive load. Knies and McMann have also cemented their places in the lineup, and it would be a shock to see either of them replaced at this point. Kämpf hasn’t had his best season, but he has been better as of late, and he has traditionally been one of Keefe’s most trusted forwards. Those factors, coupled with the Leafs’ lack of centre depth, make Kämpf a virtual lock as well. Counting Järnkrok, that’s nine spots accounted for up front, leaving the likes of Robertson, Holmberg, Connor Dewar, Ryan Reaves, and Noah Gregor battling for just three spots.
Internal competition is never a bad thing, and the Leafs are in a good spot in terms of the number of viable forward options they have at their disposal, but the versatility that group of depth players provides could prove to be extremely valuable in the postseason.
Dewar, who was acquired at the trade deadline, is a safe bet to be in the lineup in game one. He is a responsible defensive presence who has been a nice addition to the Leafs’ penalty kill, which has shown significant signs of improvement recently, and his ability to play with speed on the wing or down the middle adds to his value.
Holmberg is similar to Dewar in a lot of ways, but he has shown a greater ability to be disruptive and create pressure off the forecheck, and it looks like he will be given a chance to lock down a job in an important role as the third line centre. Holmberg has also played the wing for long stretches this season, so Keefe has the option to move him around the lineup.
After signing on the first day of free agency, Reaves’ Leafs tenure didn’t get off to the start that he or the team had hoped for. He was borderline unplayable in the first few months of the season, but after working his way back from injury, he has been a revelation in recent weeks. Reaves has provided everything the Leafs could have hoped for when they signed him, and that goes beyond the heavyweight fights that he’s taken on. He has brought functional physicality to the Leafs’ fourth line, pressuring opponents and freeing up pucks to help sustain pressure in the offensive zone. In 22 games since the All-Star break, Reaves has a 58.4 xGF% and has chipped in three points while being an imposing physical presence every night.
Gregor has fallen out of favour after a solid start in his first season as a Leaf, but he can fill a role on the fourth line with his high-end speed and willingness to engage physically. He has his warts defensively, but he plays with tenacity, and he has a sneaky good release. You could do a lot worse in a fourth line winger.
Robertson has made a strong case as well, proving capable of providing offence in a limited role. He is a better skater than he is given credit for, and he has shown an ability to force turnovers with his speed and quick hands. He has greatly improved his ability to slow the game down and make plays under pressure, and his shot is amongst the best on the entire team.
The versatility among that group not only provides the Leafs with a level of insulation from injuries throughout their lineup but also gives Keefe plenty of options to deploy his lineup based on the situation.
Looking to set the tone physically? Ryan Reaves is your man. Feel like you need more speed on your fourth line or another option on the penalty kill? Noah Gregor is chomping at the bit. Someone in your top six suffers an injury or you’re in need of more offensive firepower down the lineup? Nick Robertson is ready to go.
The players battling it out for those last few lineup spots all bring a different skill set to the table, but one thing they all have in common is that there is some degree of tenacity in how they play the game. The Leafs’ depth forwards have faded into the background all too often in years past, but there is reason to believe that this particular group will still be able to contribute when things tighten up, and there is less space to work with in the postseason.
With just six games to go before the playoffs, there is still plenty to be decided regarding the Leafs’ lineup, but Keefe has no shortage of options to look at in search of his team’s optimal deployment down the stretch.
Statistics from Evolving-Hockey.com

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