Projecting the Leafs Opening Night Lineup for the 2023-24 Season
Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
You know we are deep into the dog days of summer when we are already discussing what the Leafs’ lineup may look like to start the forthcoming season. Even though it is over a month away from commencing, how Sheldon Keefe may set his lines for the first game is fun to consider, especially given some of the new arrivals that will be considered.
There is the narrative of a revenge game for Max Domi for his first contest donning the Blue and White, Tyler Bertuzzi potentially beginning life in Toronto on the top line, and the hopeful emergence of Nick Robertson as a full-time option just to name a few. While some questions are easier to answer than others at this moment (such as Joseph Woll clearly being the number two over Martin Jones), there is still plenty of factors that could impact how these lines will look once it is time to drop the puck.
Injuries, poor play, or cap constraints will no doubt impact how much different things could look by October, but for now lets take a way too early projection into how the Leafs may set their lines for opening night.
Up front, the Leafs could have as many as six players who weren’t present in their opening night lineup a year ago. This will definitely be a meaner group to play against and it would not surprise me if we see the collective group be more scrappy than in years past.
With Michael Bunting gone, Bertuzzi should have no trouble taking over as the third member of the top line alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. So long as he can stay healthy, I would imagine this line carries over a similar offensive output at the very least, if not more so than Bunting could ever provide. Matthew Knies should now be fully recovered from his concussion suffered at the hands of Sam Bennett and he will likely find himself in the top-six for most of the season, so I believe he will slot in with John Tavares and William Nylander.
The bottom six is where things start to get interesting because there are so many aspects that could make my projections be completely wrong in six weeks’ time. Robertson’s health is the biggest question mark entering what will be a critical season for his development, but he could begin the year on the third line if he is fully fit to play. This particular line that I projected could score a few goals and is a bit leaky defensively, but Keefe will likely stick with some form of this line all season. As for the fourth line, expect to see the trio lay a couple of hits and barely provide any offence. At least Ryan Reaves will make them entertaining to watch.
Pontus Holmberg is not quite ready to lock down a spot in the lineup full-time yet, which is why he is one of the extras for my projections. But given the fact he got an extension this summer means Brad Treliving believes the Swedish forward is part of the long-term plan, so expect Holmberg to get in no more than 50% of the Leafs games.
Morgan Rielly is definitely going to miss having Luke Schenn as his defensive partner, but Timothy Liljegren is ready for a bigger role with the Leafs and should fill in quite nicely. While it’s also possible that Keefe elects to put TJ Brodie beside arguably Toronto’s most consistent playoff performer this past spring, I would imagine he sticks with the shutdown pairing that worked wonders in him and Jake McCabe.
Mark Giordano showed signs of regression in the postseason and will need to have a defence partner who has the footspeed to mitigate some mistakes. As it stands, that leaves John Klingberg by default as his likely partner for a good chunk of the forthcoming season. Longevity is definitely going to play an impact on how many games Giordano plays, hence why Connor Timmis makes the most sense as the seventh defenceman.
Should the Leafs run into injury trouble before the start of the regular season, I could also see William Lagesson being used as an extra body given his prior NHL experience with the Oilers and Canadiens. Their other options down in the AHL still need some time to refine their game, so there is also a chance that some blueliner they sign during training camp could be in the mix as well.
As always, this section is the easiest one to guess because the choices are obvious.
The starting net is Ilya Samsonov’s to lose, even if he only got a one-year extension in the offseason. His play against the Lightning was a key factor in Toronto finally winning a playoff series for the first time in nearly two decades and his absence was felt once he got injured during round two. Questions will surely emerge about durability and if he can handle the workload, but Samsonov should have no issues securing the starting role.
Woll made huge strides in his development last season and even stepped up as best he could in round two when Samsonov got an ailment as mentioned earlier. He no longer has waiver protection and has nothing left to prove in the AHL, so the time is right for him to take on the backup role.
Jones was brought in for goalie insurance and will come in to be the third goalie option. While his stats from the past few years leave a lot to be desired, his experience and ability to step up when it matters should allow him to stick onto the roster if they have the room. Otherwise, they will try and sneak him to the Marlies and hope no one snags him away.
Power Play Unit 1
Power Play Unit 2
This one was a tough one to call due in large part to how the Leafs may think of Klingberg’s role on the man advantage and his ample experience running the power play unit. For now, I will go with the safe bet of Toronto starting off the year with the top unit that can be both amazing and frustrating to watch.
My projected second unit definitely has an interesting combination of players and could do some damage, so much so that perhaps they finally don’t be utilized as a throwaway line when there are 30 seconds left on the power play like in years past. There is no doubt that Keefe now has more reliable offensive weapons at his disposal to potentially spread out the core four and even out the playing time if he chooses to do so.
Having said that, expect him to stick to what he knows to start and then get more experimental as the year progresses. That means expect guys like Liljegren, Timmins, and Jarnkrok possibly get some power play time.
Penalty Kill Unit 1
Penalty Kill Unit 2
The departures of Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly, and Noel Accirari will be felt here given how much value all three provided on the defensive side of the game. Even though they are long gone, the Leafs should still be able to ice a quality shorthanded unit.
It goes without saying just important Marner is to the penalty kill and will see the bulk of the minutes among the forwards. This is where David Kampf is going to need to show that he was worthy of the pay raise this summer as he should have no trouble being the primary guy taking draws down a man. Sam Lafferty took a while to get comfortable after being traded from Chicago, but if he could regain his prowess as a shorthanded scoring threat then that could make the second unit tougher to break down.
The shutdown pairing will also get a bulk of the minutes down a man, but the other pairing will be a topic of discussion for the majority of the season. For as much flack as Justin Holl got for his inconsistencies, he was always a presence on the PK so filling his spot with a quality defender is going to take some time to figure out.
Depending on how things shake up in the coming weeks, the Leafs could see as many as seven new faces in their opening night lineup. And while this may be considered a downgrade by some when compared to the lineup they used in the playoffs three months ago, there is certainly a lot of intrigue about how things will fare in a crucial year for the franchise.
With so much turnover from last season, there are bound to be some adjustments and growing pains with this new crop of players entering the fold. But with some better offensive talent and a few new adds that come in with a mean bone in their bodies, this will definitely be a group that opposing teams may loathe to square off with.
These projections may not match up with what Keefe will actually use on October 11th given a number of factors that will impact his decisions. But if there are no surprising developments and everyone is fully healthy, I have a good feeling that this is the way things could go for the first game of the 2023-24 campaign.
Salary information from CapFriendly.
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