Overreacting to the Maple Leafs preseason line combinations: Leaflets

Photo credit:(Photo from Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Jon Steitzer
8 months ago
We’ve gone four months without seeing Maple Leafs line combinations and given that it is probably the most frequent topic of discussion outside of who the Leafs should trade for (despite not having the cap space or assets required to acquire said player), it seems only fitting to spend the entirety of this Leaflets post complaining and complimenting what Sheldon Keefe up with over his summer vacation. The lines are clearly not as good as the ones I dreamed up, but we’ll see if he gets a passing grade nevertheless.

Kids will have to fight their way in

Despite players like Nick Robertson, Conor Timmins, and Pontus Holmberg all having interesting upsides and notable NHL experience the entirety of the younger and tweener group seem to be sitting on AHL lines and will require an absolute stand-out camp in order to play their way into consideration for the Leafs. I don’t think I’ve seen a camp with as defined a top 12 group before this year.
The Minten and Cowan lines seem to be entirely about players just showing up and enjoying an NHL camp, but the Holmberg and Gambrell lines will be the most interesting ones to watch throughout the preseason as these are 12 players who will be looking to make cases for why they belong on a NHL roster. The Holmberg line seems to be a bit more about pushing for a scoring role while the Gambrell line seems capable of fighting for fourth-line duties and might be better suited to grabbing the 13F spot assuming the Leafs have the cap space to carry players beyond their 20 players.
Of the group, the player I want to surprise the most is Roni Hirvonen. I think he’d be an incredibly fun addition to the Leafs lineup if he is ready for that spot, but the reality is probably that it is Gambrell’s to lose given the veteran preferences we are seeing in the top two lines of each of the groups.
On the blue line, it seems equally straightforward when it comes to the youngsters, but it does seem interesting to me that Villeneuve is paired with Lajoie instead of Niemela. Maybe it is as simple as the French players together and the Finnish players together to help with the language barriers but I was hoping that the Leafs would put Niemela in a position where he could push aggressively for a roster spot rather than starting from the back of the pack.

The defensive pairings are uninspired but make sense

I don’t know what I expected. Maybe it was giving Timothy Liljegren a better shot. Maybe it was hoping to see Giordano and Brodie go on one last ride together this season. Maybe it was flipping either McCabe or Rielly over to the right side so they could keep Morgan tethered to a stay-at-home partner, since that has shown to be an effective strategy for him. Nope. It’s Giordano with Liljegren, Rielly is back with Brodie, and the obvious decision of tethering John Klingberg to a reliable defensive partner was made.
The Leafs have some interesting depth options to keep an eye on and I think that Lagesson and Timmins might make the case together that they could easily be a bottom pairing in the NHL if the need is there. Niemela will certainly make things interesting and I remain incredibly curious about Lajoie too. All of that being said, it looks like the Leafs’ blueline is pretty much set and Timmins will likely get his chance to be the 7D if the cap works out.

That Tavares line

Here’s the thing, we’re so used to calling the Tavares line the second line that I think we’re ignoring the fact that his wingers are a rookie and 3rd/4th line tweener from last season. In contrast, William Nylander was given Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok. Sheldon Keefe doesn’t really like labeling his lines but having seen the Tavares line constantly mentioned as the 2nd line seems a little bit false. Sam Lafferty is not on the second line, but he is playing in the middle six and that’s a great start to the year for him as well as a great start to Matthew Knies’ proper rookie campaign. In his younger days, Tavares showed he could do a lot on Long Island with less-than-stellar linemates and he’s been a bit spoiled in Toronto. While the Nylander experiment is going on it looks like Tavares will be asked to do more with less (with the acknowledgement that the Leafs lines seem to be built for situationally shortening the bench later in the game.)
It seems like this approach will get Tavares a lot of friendlier defensive matchups in contrast to what he’s seen in the past couple of seasons. It might be a good test to see how he operates independently of Nylander and Marner. The powerplay has already become his bread and butter so as long as he still has his opportunities there, giving up a bit of 5v5 skill isn’t too big a deal.

Bertuzzi’s golden opportunity

The Matthews line is interesting. It seemed like there was zero chance that Matthews wouldn’t get one of Marner or Nylander on his wing still, and given the plans for Nylander it makes sense that Mitch is with Auston despite him potentially being a huge upgrade for the Tavares line, but I digress. Keeping Marner with Matthews also makes for a very responsible 200-foot line that Sheldon Keefe can throw over the boards in any situation. That isn’t something that comes as easy with the other two lines and he’d want to preserve that.
As for Bertuzzi, this is the spot that any incoming free agent to Toronto should dream about, but the expectations for him just went through the roof. Bertuzzi’s 30 goals and 62 points in 68 games just very much became what everyone is envisioning for him if they weren’t already and that could be a lot to live up to. Given that Bertuzzi is a go to the net player and that should be an area ripe with Marner passes and rebounds from Matthews’ shots, there is a good reason for optimism.

The fourth line that isn’t

If I may be so bold, I’m not seeing the fourth line as a fourth line as much as a collection of parts. Ryan Reaves is going to come over the boards for seven random minutes a night when the Leafs are looking for energy, that might not always be with this group. David Kampf is going to see a lot of spot duty in the top nine, likely taking every defensive zone faceoff they can throw at him and potentially being deployed as a shadow for certain opposition players. Noah Gregor, who may or may not be a Leaf when camp is done is a good fit to round out that line but is also an easy exclusion if the Leafs are looking to run an 11F/7D lineup which it is starting to look like they might try.
Given Kampf’s value as a penalty killer and the Leafs’ desire to insert Reaves as an enforcer, they make sense in the lineup, but it is hard to see much value in a regular Gregor-Kampf-Reaves shift.
We’ll leave it there for now and it will be interesting to see if these lines survive into the second week of camp.

Check out these posts...