logo

Projecting the Leafs Lineup for Game 1 of the 2023 Playoffs

alt
Photo credit:Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
10 days ago
The start of the 2023 Playoffs may be a little over a month away, but theorizing how the Leafs may put together their lines for Game 1 is a hot-button topic among fans.
With Kyle Dubas adding many new faces to the roster in the leadup to the trade deadline, debates immediately emerged for who will make the final cut once the second season kicks off. These past few weeks have seen Sheldon Keefe make good use of the line blender to come up with different combinations and see what could work if needed. And if a certain player from the University of Minnesota makes his way onto the roster towards the end of the campaign, that will generate even more speculation as to what the Leafs may go with.
A lot of factors go into how they may shake up once the regular season comes to end. Some of the regulars might be injured, others may not be with the roster at the start, and a few may see themselves in the press box. We have no guarantees that the optimal lineup will be the one that the Leafs end up going with come mid-April and all we can do is speculate. But that is exactly what we will be doing today because it’s fun to brainstorm ideas.
For reference, here is how the Leafs’ lines looked heading into Game 1 of the 2022 Playoffs:
Keep this lineup in your mind as we go through the projections to see how vastly different the Leafs are now compared to around this time last year.

Forwards

Bunting-Matthews-Nylander
Tavares-O’Reilly-Marner
Knies-Kampf-Jarnkrok
Kerfoot-Acciari-Lafferty
Extra: Aston-Reese, Simmonds
Nylander has been the Leafs’ undisputed MVP this season and it should come as no surprise that he finds himself alongside Matthews and Bunting. I can also see him and Marner swapping places depending on matchups and if Keefe wants to shake things up in an effort to throw off the opposition. Matthews is having a down year and Bunting is experiencing the sophomore slump, but having both fully fit for the postseason should go a long way.
When O’Reilly first arrived, he was inserted between Tavares and Marner which paid immediate dividends as the trio worked extremely well together. While O’Reilly’s versatility should make him an option for the third-line centre if needed, I would imagine the Leafs decide to go with the GTA line at the start because the strong on-ice chemistry was quickly apparent.
This lineup is assuming that the Leafs are able to get Knies signed to a contract and he is able to make the team. Should he not get a contract, Kerfoot would move up to the third line and Aston-Reese would slot right onto the fourth. With that being said, that third line is vastly different from what Toronto had last year in a good way. While the Mikheyev-Kampf-Engvall line was a success during the regular season, the majority of their offensive output came in garbage time during Game 3 in which Mikheyev scored two empty netters while Kampf was the only one of the trio who scored on a goalie. They were effectively neutralized by the Lightning and Toronto cannot afford to have that happen again, so perhaps this new combination could do the trick.
Since arriving from St. Louis, Acciari has been a godsend on the fourth line and has made the group together to play against. Lafferty’s speed, forecheck, and physical play have quickly made him an integral component of the lineup. And Kerfoot being here is a luxury given he makes $3.5 million against the cap.
Aston-Reese has been a reliable option all season while Simmonds’ locker room presence has been integral, so both remaining with the team despite being health scratches should come as no surprise. The Marlies are well on their way to clinching a birth in the AHL playoffs so we will not see many of their players join the Leafs until their run is done. I would imagine that should the Marlies get eliminated early, the likes of Steeves, Holmberg, and McMann get called up.

Defence

Rielly-Liljegren
McCabe-Brodie
Giordano-Holl
Extras: Schenn, Gustafsson, Timmins
The defensive pairings that the Leafs used on Tuesday against the Devils provided a sneak peek into what they may use to kick off the postseason which allows them to dress their six best blueliners right off the hop.
Rielly’s struggles have been well documented and Toronto really needs him to get rolling heading into the spring, but pairing him with Liljegren should be a big help. The latter has taken massive strides in his development this season to the point where he is all but a lock for the lineup going forward. However, Keefe and the coaching staff don’t fully trust him yet so I would not be surprised if the Leafs paired up Rielly with either Brodie or Schenn for Game 1.
Speaking of Brodie, he and McCabe played well together against New Jersey and provided some critical defensive stops to help secure the win. McCabe has done wonders in replacing what Muzzin brought to the fold while also being under contract for the next two seasons at $2 million. I would imagine that this will be the shutdown pairing so you can expect the duo to be thrown out there when Toronto is trying to defend a late lead.
Much like the Leafs’ $7.5 million defenceman, Holl has come under fire by the fanbase for his defensive lapses and boneheaded mistakes that have cost the team at times. For better or worse, the coaching staff has a lot of faith in Holl and will likely be slotted into the majority of the games. Holl has been decent when paired with Giordano so they will certainly be the Leafs’ third pairing.
Schenn’s sandpaper playstyle and steady presence on the backend should easily make him Toronto’s seventh defenceman. Tampa Bay had him in a similar role when he was on their two Cup wins in 2020 and 2021, so unless Keefe grows attached to the Human Eraser much like Lyubushkin, the Leafs will likely follow the same path. Gustafsson has struggled since being acquired in the Sandin trade and should be on the outside looking in. His offensive prowess and effectiveness on the power play should give him a leg up over Timmins, who is playing in just his second season where he appeared in double-digit games.
Benn and Mete appeared in a handful of games early in the season but have otherwise not seen much game time due to various injuries from both. They will likely be the two other extras that join the Leafs if the Marlies have an early exit.

Goalies

Samsonov
Murray
Woll
I won’t spend too much time talking about the goalies because the tandem going into the playoffs was established the moment this season began. There are two big questions when it comes to Toronto’s netminders: can Samsonov be a reliable option in the postseason and will Murray be able to stay healthy?
Samsonov likely gets the start in Game 1 barring any setbacks down the stretch and his effectiveness at Scotiabank Arena makes him the ideal choice should the Leafs secure home-ice advantage. Murray is the only one of the three goalies listed that have won an NHL playoff game and he has two Cup rings to show for it, so his experience will be vital if Samsonov starts to struggle. Woll has propelled himself past Kallgren up the depth charts and will easily slide in if one of the top two options goes down.
Toronto has plenty of depth in the crease but is likely going to have the second-best goalies in the majority of the series on paper. We shall see if this will be enough to get them over the hump.

Special Teams

Power-Play Unit 1
Matthews-Tavares-Nylander
Rielly-Marner
Power-Play Unit 2
Janmark-O’Reilly-Bunting
Liljegren-Giordano
The first unit remains practically the same as it has been since the start of the 2018-19 season when Tavares originally joined the Leafs. It has been frustrating to watch given their tendencies to look for the perfect shot instead of firing it at the net in the hopes of creating a rebound, but their power play being the third-best in the NHL at the time of writing means that it has been working.
One way that Keefe can get more out of the top unit is to have Rielly be encouraged to pinch in when he has the puck. Rielly does not possess a point shot and that makes his attempts from around the point too predictable for the goalies to stop. He can instead rotate with Matthews and Marner to go further in to attempt a shot from a better spot because he can be a threat starting from near the top of the circle. This one simple adjustment could go a long way in making this unit even better.
Toronto does not seem to put much thought into the second unit so they will likely just throw together their next best options. I would imagine the likes of O’Reilly, Bunting, and Liljegren get swapped onto the first if need be as they have used there in the past. If Timmins or Gustafsson are in the lineup, I would imagine one or both are on the second unit as well.
Penalty Kill Unit 1
O’Reilly-Marner
McCabe-Brodie
Penalty Kill Unit 2
Acciari-Lafferty
Giordano-Holl
What isn’t taken into account for these shorthanded units is that Keefe likes to throw out a third one, which will certainly include Kampf and Jarnkrok.
At the time of writing, the Leafs sit 13th in the league on the PK with an 81.15% success rate. It is certainly an area that the Leafs would like to improve which is why the additions of O’Reilly, Lafferty, Acciari, and McCabe should be a massive help in that department. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Schenn was utilized here if he was inserted into the lineup because he is a stay-at-home defenceman.
One thing that is prevalent with these two units is the strong possibility of them becoming a threat for shorthanded scoring chances. The Leafs currently are tied for 11th shorthanded goals and they have Lafferry who currently leads the NHL with four shorties. Samsonov and Murray’s lives will be a lot easier with the players in front of them because Toronto should be able to limit quality looks and test the opposition’s goalie while down a man.

Summary

When compared to the lineup that the Leafs used in Game 1 last season, this is a vastly superior group and should give Toronto their best shot at making a deep run since the Matthews, Marner, Nylander era began seven years ago.
Altogether, there are 11 different players on the projected roster for Game 1 with seven new forwards, two new defenders, and a brand new goalie tandem. The biggest changes come from the bottom half of the lineup which is an area that the Leafs have struggled in over the past few seasons due to a lack of secondary scoring. Regardless of whether or not Knies joins the team for the playoff run, this new look group should be an upgrade over the last iteration.
As I said off the top, there is no guarantee that this will be the lineup once the postseason kicks off because a lot can obviously change between now and then. This is purely my prediction of how they may set things up if everyone is healthy and the playoffs were to begin tomorrow.
No matter what happens next, there is no denying that Dubas has given the Leafs their best chance at overcoming their playoff demons with the roster assembled. We shall see if this combination is the group that gets it done or if it’s the prologue to sweeping changes in the summer.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com and Natural Stat Trick.
Salary information from PuckPedia.com.

Check out these posts...