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Leafs playing around with their D: Leafs Camp Report

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Photo credit:Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
2 months ago
So far in training camp the Leafs have dealt with injuries to Jake Muzzin, Timothy Liljegren, Carl Dahlstrom, Axel Rindell, Jordie Benn, as well as Rasmus Sandin being without contract until early this morning. The lack of D made for the fun moments of Alex Kerfoot and Calle Jarnkrok playing some defense, but interestingly enough the Leafs have been exploring some other defensive alternatives.
Here’s the more conventional one.
Moving Morgan Rielly over to the right side seems like the best alternative of all the play on the right options, at least in my mind. The drawback is splitting up the Rielly-Brodie pairing, but given that Rielly is equally helpful in the defensive zone no matter the side that he’s on, it makes sense to open up the left side for players like Muzzin, Giordano, or Sandin to thrive. In the case of Muzzin and Sandin having them on the left side seems very much a requirement, but with Giordano it seems possible that he could the next contestant on the right side if Rielly doesn’t pan out.
It’s also nice to see that Rielly seems to be the one who stepped up to address the need and wonder if we see him cross sides of the ice when the puck crosses center ice to put him in the spot that he will thrive the most offensively.
It appears that Alex Kerfoot and Calle Jarnkrok playing defense was just the appetizer, Mitch Marner could be the main course. The Leafs are exploring the idea of situational defensive use for Mitch and it’s hard to argue that the idea isn’t intriguing.
Marner has a good head for the defensive game and often where he sets up in the offensive zone puts him in a good place to control the puck cycle in the same fashion as a strong offensive defenseman. Marner has also shown in the past during empty net situations that he is committed to getting back to break up any chances. We’ve also seen enough bad Leafs defense during the Burke and Nonis years to know there are far worse alternatives than Mitch.
I’ll have a bit more on the lines in a bit, but the main thing that catches my eye here is that Holl is now playing with Kral. This could just be Kral placeholding for Sandin until he joins the Leafs, but it also gives the impression that even in a time of defensive shortages, Holl is very much on the outside looking in. With Sandin signed and with a lack of cap relief in other places, Holl truly appears to be the odd man out.

Looking at the lines

It’s hard not to find the Malgin-Holmberg-Robertson line to be a lot of fun. Pontus Holmberg and Denis Malgin have been a couple of the best preseason performers to date, and Nick Robertson’s goal against Montreal once again has people excited about him starting the year with the Leafs. Of course, two thirds of that line don’t require waivers and that makes them a tough sell to start the season with the Leafs. Holmberg and Robertson also have cap hits above $750k, and the Leafs will likely need to lean on the players making the league minimum at least to start the year. Still, that looks like 2/3rds of a great Marlies top line, and Malgin, who most definitely seems to be a Leaf to start the season.
ZAR-Kampf-NAK is the truly NHL bound line that is going to get a lot of time together. While it seems like they’ll potentially get listed as the 4th line on the Leafs, I’m not doubting that Toronto will very much have a 3A/3B feel to it and it is going to come down to which end of the ice the puck is in that determines who comes over the boards.
Other notables from this group are that Simmonds very much seems to be out on the out, Steeves isn’t getting the best chance to show what he can do as there is substance to his game, and Gaudette seems likely to replace SDA when he’s feeling better. It’s been a tough start for Gaudette, but the fact that he’s on a $750k deal will get him plenty of opportunity to make his case in the lineup.
Also, it seems a little odd that Mete wasn’t playing with Holl as that looked like a possible 3rd pairing caliber duo.
The temporary 4th line will be a mystery. I’m guessing Gaudette, Malgin, and possibly just carrying Mete as a 7th D and going 11F/7D to start might be cost effective approach. Joey Anderson likely represents the 12F/6D option despite an underwhelming preseason so far.
The actual lines beyond the injuries seem to make a lot more sense. If you look at those three lines you can essentially roll them beyond the return of Engvall and Tavares, and simply put Engvall and Tavares on a line with Malgin. That might not be a popular combination, but certainly puts the Leafs in a situation were they are rolling four strong lines, and there is nothing to say that Nylander can’t be moved up to play with Tavares situationally replacing either Malgin or Engvall. That’s at least something I’d consider heading into the season.
It’s fun to predict what the Leafs will do and the picture is at least starting to become a bit clearer.
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