Maple Leafs playoff lineup, low budget roster overhauls, and Zach Hyman returns: Leaflets

Photo credit:Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
17 days ago
Looks like the Maple Leafs are pulling a double shift this weekend. Heading into the final stretch of the season I can’t imagine anything you’d want to see less from the Maple Leafs but if there is a silver lining it is that it likely forces an attempt to balance out the ice time and use the full extent of the roster by bringing in Conor Timmins and Noah Gregor to show their benefit as fresh legs. Gregor’s speed especially lend themselves to helping out the Leafs in this situation and perhaps Conor Timmins’ affection for stretch passes will have a similar benefit for the Leafs.
Either way, the benefit of games at hand is probably only appreciated by teams that are chasing a playoff spot they are hoping to grab instead of looking at the heavier schedule in March and April as an opportunity to be exhausted and banged up heading into the playoffs. In contrast the Bruins have played the most games of any team this season and will potentially be the most rested and healthiest team heading into the playoffs. Of course.
Here are some other stray thoughts:

Sheldon Keefe’s TOI usage hints at playoff lines

You can generally count me as one of the naysayers on Sheldon Keefe, (not that he’s a bad coach, just that the Leafs could do better) but this week Keefe made a comment that seemed encouraging in regards to the Maple Leafs lacklustre blueline. Keefe hinted at the likelihood of rolling three pairings 5v5 for the Maple Leafs and not worrying about who is on the ice against the opposition. While this is a damning statement about the quality of the Leafs blueline that shows they still have a duo that you’d want against the best of the best it is also a sign that some of the other thinking that has plagued Keefe in previous playoff rounds might be going away. It seems fairly obvious that Rielly-Lyubushkin and Benoit-McCabe will make up two of those pairings, and some combination of Brodie, Liljegren, and Edmundson will make up the third. You can see what that utilization looks like based on the ice time against the Capitals:
With the Leafs only on the penalty kill once (briefly) and on the powerplay 5 times (including a double minor) the spikes in icetime for Rielly and Liljegren are accounted for. At 5v5 only Liljegren exceeded 17 minutes and Edmundson had the lowest utilization with 16 minutes of 5v5 play. That is being 100% true to rolling three pairings and it will be interesting to see more of that in the remaining regular season games.
On the forward side the story is a little bit different, and Keefe hasn’t shared his intentions as much with this group. The absences of Marner and Jarnkrok will likely keep us guessing about the Game 1 forward lines right up to the first postseason practice.
Who plays with who will likely remain a bit of a mystery but the Leafs appear to have a very clear top 9 before getting to the bottom six that are potentially duking it out for the final three (or two if the Leafs go 11F/7D) spots in the lineup. The catch is also that the Leafs would probably like to put Max Domi on the wing heading into the playoffs and that means one of Connor Dewar, David Kampf, or Pontus Holmberg will end up being the 3C out of necessity (it also might speak to the Leafs trying to smooth themselves to being able to roll four lines but could double shift Matthews or Tavares over Dewar or Holmberg.)
By the numbers it looks like Noah Gregor has the inside track and trust with Sheldon Keefe over Nick Robertson and Pontus Holmberg and certainly come playoff time a coach is going to want a player that finishes his checks, but with Robertson there is that potential for tertiary offence and Holmberg gives the Leafs another centreman which they might desperately need, not to mention Holmberg’s SHL/AHL playoff track record showing that he is a player who shows up in the spring. Holmberg seems to have the trust of the Leafs players but the time on ice shows a coach that isn’t a true believer.
Jarnkrok and Marner being out makes it hard to understand what the full story will be but it is also a door for players like Robertson and Holmberg to make their case. And if I can drop the hottest of takes, maybe it’s just a matter of figuring out the three other lines with the personnel the Leafs already have, and then slotting Jarnkrok and Marner back into the lineup with Holmberg as their centre? That seems like a path towards balanced lines and one that you don’t mind Matthews or Tavares taking an extra shift on.

On the cheap roster overhauls

The season hasn’t ended and there is plenty of time for debating what the 2024-25 Maple Leafs will look like but there are some encouraging signs that even if the Maple Leafs run back their core there will be an opportunity for some big game hunting in free agency.
The emergence of Easton Cowan as a likely ready for an NHL top-9 role is a godsend for the cap-strapped Maple Leafs and with Fraser Minten already coming close to earning the 3C spot out of camp last season, it’s entirely possible he’ll be in the lineup as well next season.
The Leafs have put a lot of faith in Cade Webber as someone they can quickly develop into a third pairing defensive defenceman and coupled with the forwards above that would be introducing 3 entry level deals into a lineup that is already benefiting from Matthew Knies, Pontus Holmberg, and Joseph Woll as cheap assets that are outperforming their cap hits.
The Leafs also have an interesting option in Nikita Grebyonkin that they could be interested in bringing over to see if he is a fit and are among the teams interested in the 6’3 Maxim Tsyplakov, a pending KHL free agent. Both of those acquisitions would be entry level contracts as well.
The Leafs having cheaper options on players that can exceed their contract value is encouraging as is leaving the team with as close to $20M as possible to spend on a middle six centre, a pair of top four defencemen, and either bringing back Ilya Samsonov or finding his replacement.
For a Leafs team that is short on prospects, at least in the short term there are some encouraging signs that help is on the way and with the entirety of the Leafs core now being at unrestricted free agent age, it’s probably okay to treat them as the veterans and inject some new blood into the lineup rather than relying on 30+ year olds who have created a slower Leafs lineup in recent years.

Hindsight 20/20 on Zach Hyman

When you look at players the Maple Leafs would absolutely love to have back the list is fairly long. Mason Marchment gets a lot of attention in that regard, as does Nazem Kadri, and you can certainly throw Michael Amadio, Trevor Moore, Sean Durzi and Carter Verhaeghe into that group as well.
Still, the success of Zach Hyman stands out as one of the toughest ones to move on from and despite his injury history a lot of people wanted to see him return even at a steep cap hit, it’s just the term that seemed to be the sticking point as Hyman finding himself in good health in Edmonton wasn’t something that anyone who had been paying attention to his career in Toronto would have predicted.
The Leafs only getting around 75% of the games out of Hyman in his final couple of seasons and the fact that he had two significant knee injuries led to Kyle Dubas pumping the breaks on Zach despite the fact his numbers were already showing signs that he could be a 30-goal scorer in the NHL and close to a point per game player. The Leafs also weren’t in an ideal salary cap situation and much as they are today needed to put their focus towards defence and goaltending rather than having another high profile forward. If you really want to be mad about the departure of Hyman, a good chunk of the cap space his departure created was spent on Petr Mrazek. The rest on Nick Ritchie.
Initially it looked like the acquisition of the significantly cheaper Michael Bunting would ease the pain from Hyman’s success in Edmonton, but as Bunting cooled off last season and Hyman is now stronger than ever there seems to be a desire to kick rocks over Zach Hyman instead of appreciating the reasoning for moving on from him was sound and being happy for a Leaf favourite now having success and health in a new market (thankfully a Western Conference market.)
Given that Zach Hyman is two goals away from hitting 50, it seems almost certain he’ll achieve it tonight in Toronto and with it the “#shouldofkept” narrative will be in abundance. The reality of the situation three summers ago made sense for the Leafs and since that time Zach Hyman has exceeded all expectations. It’s also important to remember that Kyle Dubas acquired Hyman for Greg McKegg and was in tune with what Hyman might be capable of long before anyone else did. The salary cap and injury history made him waver from that but reasonably so.
The good news is that while Zach Hyman has been a hit for the Oilers, there are plenty of Maple Leafs retreads in Edmonton that haven’t been. Saturday night is an opportunity to enjoy playing against Cody Ceci and Connor Brown and remember that Jack Campbell’s cap hit and Connor Brown’s “performance” bonus will result in the Oilers roster being gutted over the summer. I’m not above having a few sour grapes over Hyman’s success.
Calvin Pickard and Sam Carrick will also be a couple of former Leafs in the lineup and Greg McKegg, Seth Griffith, and Noel Hoefenmayer some of the other Leafs system players that have found their way into the Oilers system. Ken Holland might be the Leafs biggest fan.

In case you missed it

We’re going to try out something new this week in Leaflets and that is highlight some of the interesting writing we’ve had up on The Leafs Nation this week and give you a chance to revisit it.
Should the Leafs adopt the 11 forwards/7 defencemen method in the playoffs? by Alex Hobson
It’s time for Bobby McMann and Pontus Holmberg to take another leap by Arun Srinivasan
Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe has some issues to iron out before the playoffs by Shane Seney
Cowan keeps the streak alive, Grebyonkin’s playoff glory: Leafs Prospect Roundup by Nick Richard
Boston University defenceman Cade Webber says he intends to sign with the Maple Leafs  by Michael Mazzei
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