Training camp is right around the corner and once again expectations are high for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The team is stocked up on forwards and head coach Sheldon Keefe has a lot of options to figure out who will be his 12 guys going over the boards on opening night. There are lots of questions heading into the season. Of course, the core four will be there, but will they still be matched the same way? What will Keefe do with his new players?
Toronto currently has 27 rostered, non-rostered, and professional try-out forward contracts vying for 12 spots. This number doesn’t include minors or those attending rookie camp. So, there are a lot of possible line-up combinations. With that said, here is my educated guess:
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Alexander Kerfoot||Auston Matthews||Mitch Marner|
|Michael Bunting||John Tavares||William Nylander|
|Nick Ritchie||David Kampf||Wayne Simmonds|
|Nick Robertson||Jason Spezza||Ilya Mikheyev|
|Pierre Engvall||Adam Brooks||Kurtis Gabriel/Ondrej Kase|
Last season, Sheldon Keefe shocked many people when he announced Joe Thornton would be on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. That combination didn’t last long. Zach Hyman was the go-to for the top line, but he is gone, and now there is a huge opportunity for a player to get ice time with one of the most elite scoring duos in the NHL.
I think Keefe might surprise everyone again and give the top spot to an unexpected winger. Alexander Kerfoot deserves a crack at the top line after his playoff performance. When John Tavares and Nick Foligno went down, Kerfoot was the guy who stepped up and filled every role he was assigned. He has the speed to keep up with the dynamic duo and the smarts; he went to Harvard. There is another angle to this assignment. Kerfoot was trade bait last season. If he gets first-line minutes and performs well, his value on the trade market goes up. He has two years left on his contract.
Some are calling for Matthews and Marner to split up. I don’t see Keefe messing up a pairing that teams have to game plan around. I’ve also heard some suggestions of moving Nylander to the top line. While he would add an interesting wrinkle, it may put too much offence on the ice at once, allowing teams to better prepare for the top line. Keeping him with Tavares on the second line spreads out the threats.
Again, there have been calls to break up Tavares and Nylander. There are so many other question marks with line combinations that Keefe is unlikely to add to the complications by splitting up what is working. I think Keefe will try his old Soo Greyhounds player, Michael Bunting, on the second line. You’ve likely heard the comparisons of Bunting to Brad Marchand. Marchand is successful because of the players around him. He has a cerebral centre in Patrice Bergeron and a fast, exciting winger in David Pastrnak. Tavaras and Nylander fit those descriptions.
Bunting Before Ritchie
Nick Ritchie got paid more than Bunting to sign in Toronto, which may lead some to conclude the Leafs had Ritchie pegged for a top-six assignment. I don’t think he has the speed to keep up with the core four for 60 minutes. However, Ritchie is likely to get a lot of powerplay time set up in front of the net. Keefe is also likely to try Ritchie on the top lines more than once this season.
Keefe had an interesting strategy around his lines last season. The top six were given more leeway to be creative and use their skills a little more freely. But he demanded the bottom six play his system. He didn’t consider a third and fourth line, just lines he expected to play their assignments and stick to the plan. So don’t get caught up on the line numbering here.
Toronto needs the Wayne Simmonds, who started last season and earned the nickname Wayne Train. Unfortunately, that guy disappeared after a wrist injury.
Simmonds has worn a letter in his NHL career, and I expect his leadership to come through on this line with two new guys. Simmonds has a season under his belt playing Keefe’s system, and he can keep his new linemates honest. David Kampf is known for his defensive capabilities, while Nick Ritchie can punish players. This line could be a shutdown line that other teams won’t like seeing coming over the boards.
So the first half of the bottom six will wear a team out physically, then the following line pops out and has the speed to burn. Last season, Nick Robertson fought his way onto the NHL roster, but an injury in his first game derailed his season. The kid will be hungry to get back with the big club. It would be a bonus if he were able to play alongside Jason Spezza. The more you hear about Spezza, the more you know he is an on-ice coach. Keeping these two together would benefit Robertson long-term. It’s hard to forget when Ilya Mikheyev beat Connor McDavid in a foot race. He would be the perfect addition to the line to give it extra speed that teams would have to chase.
There are options on this roster for Keefe to gameplan accordingly and to fill holes when injuries happen. In addition, Toronto has more than enough to ice the fifth line if there was a sudden rule change.
I’m not expecting Ondrej Kase to start the season. Toronto is likely to hold him back and ensure he is concussion symptom-free before he gets game time. He is likely to get subbed in for Robertson.
Adam Brooks had a few moments last season on a line with Thornton and Spezza. He will get NHL ice time again, but he is unlikely to get his chance until injuries show up. Keefe did rest Spezza at times last season, Brooks could get in at that spot.
Pierre Engvall did not make the opening night roster last season, and he will not get in this year. Instead, Toronto signed players like Ritchie and Bunting to fill roles that Engvall should’ve been able to play. The team hasn’t seen enough from him.
Kurtis Gabriel will get his NHL minutes this season and will make the highlight reel when he does. He is a heavyweight enforcer who will stir it up.
Even if I somehow got in Keefe’s head and predicated his lines, it’s doubtful these matches will remain. Instead, he is likely to audition several players in different spots. He experimented all last season with line combinations, and this year he will have a full 82 game schedule to tinker with his lines. The first Toronto preseason game will be against the Montreal Canadiens on September 25.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.