MAILCALL! Ranking defensemen, bottom six lines, and the future of the Leafs’ net

Jon Steitzer
2 years ago
As we continue to inch our way towards the playoffs and meaningful hockey, I thought it would be a good idea to get some questions from you, our valued readers for our TLN crew to respond to. You’ve come at us with three very loaded questions, and we thank you for it.
Let’s get started…
Michael Mazzei:
Oh man, that’s a tough one. Despite all of his flaws, I still think Rielly is the Leafs top defenceman but Brodie is right there at number two. The gap between the two is pretty small and both are integral to the team’s success. Muzzin and Holl go next and you can rearrange it however you want. The rest go Bogosian, Sandin, Dermott, Liljegren, Hutton, and Marincin.
Mark Norman:
  1. Brodie – Absolute stud on the back-end, making under-the radar plays all season that tend to be under-appreciated. His ability to defend 2-on-1’s has been critically important as Morgan Rielly’s partner.
  2. Muzzin – Hard as nails and consistently makes smart decisions with the puck, although his speed and agility look to have taken a half step back this season which is something worth monitoring.
  3. Rielly – Has definitely lost some of his lustre this season, culminating in his temporary demotion from the first powerplay unit in favour of Sandin last week. He hasn’t had the strongest of years and his decision making on and off the puck continues to be an issue, but there’s no denying he’s the Leafs’ most dynamic offensive defenceman and someone they need to step up in the playoffs.
  4. Sandin – He may be a surprise at #4, but this kid just oozes puck IQ out there and has been a beast in transition. He has made a few rookie mistakes, which are to be expected from, well, a rookie. In an admittedly-low sample size, Sandin is carrying a 60% expected goal share rate which places him tops among Leafs dmen. I think he’s an x factor for the Leafs in these playoffs.
  5. Holl – A valuable puck mover and penalty killer, and has formed a very solid 2nd pairing with Muzzin. He has had some tough moments this season, but he stays.
  6. Bogosian (if healthy) – Bogo has been a pleasant surprise despite many pencilling him as an extra defenceman when the Leafs signed him this offseason. He brings a physical element and intimidation factor that is in rare supply on this back end, and he has surprised me with his puck skills this season.
  7. Dermott – This is not meant as a slight to Dermott, but with Sandin’s emergence and the other elements that #1 to #6 bring to the lineup, he might be my guy on the outside.
Dylan Murphy:
  1. Brodie: just an absolute slam dunk of a signing. Brodie’s been everything we could’ve expected and more, a true defensive stalwart who has stabilized the top 4 and looks great in pretty much all roles he’s been asked to play.
  2. Muzzin: you know him, you love him. What’s left to say about Muzz that hasn’t already been said?
  3. Sandin: Lotta recency bias going in here I’ll admit, but the kid has looked great. He’s ready to step up in a big way, both in the playoffs and beyond
  4. Holl: He hasn’t been perfect but he has done an excellent job throughout most of the season, especially when it came to working with Muzzin as the shutdown pair versus the Oilers. I feel confident about putting him out there alongside any defender on this list, he’s steady defensively and even has a great shot on the occasions when he can uncork it. To quote the man himself “hammer time baby”
  5. Rielly: His ever-present defensive warts stand out pretty aggressively now on this team that is otherwise so defensively responsible. He’s continued to do what he’s always done well- generate offence, but even in that category, he’s made an unfortunate habit of shooting on the power play while Auston Matthews is wide open, which is just one of the many issues with the power play
  6. Bogosian/Dermott tie: both guys have been great, as individual players and as a pairing throughout most of the season. Pleasantly surprised by everything Bogo brings and as one of the card-carrying members of the Travis Dermott fan club, really happy to see him continue to improve.
  7. The depth chart, in my opinion: Hutton, Liljegren, Marincin, 2 Marlies rookies stacked on top of one another wearing a trench coat
Michael Mazzei: Nash is definitely going to get an opportunity in Game 1 simply due to the fact that the cap goes out the window in the playoffs. But to be quite frank, there is no wrong answer for how to construct the bottom six because a few good players will be left out. So long as the main nucleolus of Spezza, Thornton, Simmonds,  and Mikheyev is intact, I’m fine with whatever the coaching staff comes up with.
Joseph Zita: The bottom-six is pretty hard to figure out right now in my opinion given the number of depth players doing a pretty good job every time they step into the lineup when there’s either an injury or they’re just given a chance to play. However, what I can say is, I think I could probably guess what the third-line could look like given Sheldon Keefe’s desire for a shut-down third-line and I think it could honestly consist of a mixture of Ilya Mikheyev, Riley Nash, and one of Zach Hyman or Nick Foligno depending on who will play on the top-line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. A third-line of these three players is a coach’s dream shut-down line because of their abilities to play a good defensive game and just their way to make it tough on opponents to score every night whenever they’re on the ice together. I pretty much answered the question of if I think Riley Nash draws in game one, and I honestly think he will, given the reason they acquired him and the services he can give this Maple Leafs team in the playoffs. He’s a right-shot centreman that plays a very good defensive game, something that Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas have wanted for some time now and they now have it in Riley Nash. For the fourth-line, I think Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds have a lock there, and the last player to fill out the forward group will be between Joe Thornton, Adam Brooks and Pierre Engvall in my opinion. Wouldn’t be a bad idea at all if they rotate through those guys, however, with the recent play of Thornton and his seven-game point streak that just came to an end, he’s making a very strong case to remain in the lineup in the playoffs, but so is Brooks and Engvall, so it’ll be hard but I have trust in the coaching staff to construct a good lineup for game one of the first round.
Mark Norman: Part of me has wondered if the Leafs should be swapping Thornton and Simmonds in and out of the lineup to give them some rest before the playoffs, but they’ve both been playing so well lately that it’s hard to fathom not dressing them in Game 1. As Michael notes, Spezza and Mikheyev would seem to be locks to play, as would Kerfoot. The Leafs did not acquire Nash to just sit him in the press box, so the only thing keeping him out of the lineup would be conditioning or health issues. That leaves Engvall and Brooks out of the lineup.My ideal lineup:NF-AM-MM
Extras: Brooks, Engvall
Dylan Murphy: There are so many options for the bottom 6 that I’d call it an embarrassment of riches. I think both lines will change up and be adjusted not just between games, but within games as well, depending on what Keefe think they need at any given moment. Want a hard-hitting checking line to nullify other teams offence and frustrate the hell out of them? Zach Hyman on the left wing, Riley Nash at center and either Wayne Simmonds or Ilya Mikheyev on the right. Want to add offensive talent to that line for an O-zone faceoff? Put Spezza on right wing and Kerfoot in the center then move Nash between Thornton and Mikheyev/Simmonds on the 4th line. That’s just one example of what we could see.
While I don’t think it’s something we will see, I can envision a world where both Kerfoot and Mikheyev are scratched- a third line of Hyman-Nash-Simmonds, as above, and a reunion of the Thornton-Brooks-Spezza line that saw amazing chemistry and great success in their limited time together. Again, embarrassment of riches.The most common configuration I can see coming together would be:
This grouping assumes Foligno and Hyman are the left wingers in the top 6, but leaves open the possibility of doing some of the ‘on the fly’ configurations I mentioned earlier. The only downside of this lineup is that it would require bumping Galchenyuk, who I think has played excellent alongside Tavares and Nylander
Nick DeSouza: This season the Leafs have made it a point to have bottom-six lines that have specific roles. This isn’t something new for teams coached by Sheldon Keefe. With the Marlies, he had a shutdown third line and an offensive deployed fourth-line that could outscore inferior competition. This season it has been the same with the Leafs. If healthy, Riley Nash will be in the lineup as the third-line center. He is used to getting a large number of defensive zone starts and can handle playing against top competition, in the same manner, he did with Columbus and Boston. Engvall has had this type of usage as the 3C, but there are questions about his faceoff ability and his play as 3C down the stretch. My ideal shutdown line would round out with Mikheyev and Foligno. For the fourth line, the only two staples I have down are Jason Spezza and Alex Kerfoot. Spezza has been one of the league’s best 5v5 point producers this season despite receiving fourth line minutes. Kerfoot is a reliable center and is important when Toronto has the lead (The Leafs are first in the league in 5v5 time spent with a lead). To round out the fourth line, I think there will be a rotation between Thornton, Simmonds, and potentially Engvall. I’d have Simmonds in for game one. He isn’t a 5v5 standout, but I value the energy he brings to the table especially in a potentially physical series against the Habs.
Michael Mazzei: I think he is certainly in the team’s long-term plans which could explain why he has spent parts of this past season on the taxi squad. The thing is I don’t know for sure if he is indeed the future goalie for the Leafs simply because of how well Campbell has played and the likelihood of him sticking around for the foreseeable future. Woll could very much be the backup but in all honesty, we won’t get a better answer until after the playoffs are done and when the Kraken’s expansion draft comes and goes.
Mark Norman: I think this might be a bit premature and we need to give it more time. We just had Sparks, an AHL goaltender of the year and Calder Cup champion, flame out on us two seasons ago. If a resume with that pedigree doesn’t result in success at the NHL level, Woll’s current numbers at the AHL level (0.889 save percentage) don’t inspire much confidence. It’s early stages for Woll: he hasn’t even played 50 AHL games in his young career, so there’s time to learn and develop into something more. But we probably shouldn’t be having this conversation until at least 2 years from now… let’s see what he can do by then. It’s incredibly hard to become an NHL starter.
Jon Steitzer: Woll could very well be the future of the Leafs net, but I think we need to be comfortable waiting a couple of seasons to know for sure. Goalies are the ultimate project, and while the pedigree is there and the progress is also showing, it’s going to take time unless Woll is an absolute freak of nature, and all signs point to him not being that. The signs do point to Leafs bringing him along to possibly see more starts with the Marlies next year, and if that goes well he could get a taste of the NHL just to get his feet wet in the dog days of next season before transitioning him towards a backup role, again, if things look promising. A couple of years out, if Woll looks good, who knows, he could be a starter and grab the Leafs net, but it’s going to largely depend on how well he works with the Leafs goaltending coaches and consultants, and if he’s able to make that transition to facing the most incredible goal scoring threats in the world that are a significant notch above what he’s faced so far in his career.
Woll shows promise, but the counting on a goaltending prospect panning out seems like a bad idea. At one point the Stars thought that Jack Campbell was going to be their guy, and it took him a long, long time and some re-coaching to become that for the Leafs. The Habs have hung onto Cayden Primeau as the potential successor to Carey Price, and the Leafs had no problem dissecting him the other night. Slow and steady wins the goaltending race, as well as having contingencies stacked on top of contingencies.
So closes another mailbag. Let us know your thoughts below, and if you have questions for a future mailbag, feel free to send them our way on twitter.

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