Back in March, Bob McKenzie did a segment on a hockey broadcast where he projected next year's Leafs lineup. We talked it over, and a lot of people were unhappy with a lot of his ideas. And yet here we are, with a few more things nailed down, and the chart hasn't changed much.
|Goalies||Frederik Andersen||Jonathan Bernier|
|Pair One||Matt Hunwick||Morgan Rielly|
|Pair Two||Jake Gardiner||Nikita Zaitsev|
|Pair Three||Martin Marincin||Connor Carrick|
|Line One||Nikita Soshnikov||Nazem Kadri||Leo Komarov|
|Line Two||James van Riemsdyk||Auston Matthews||William Nylander|
|Line Three||Brendan Leipsic or Josh Leivo||Tyler Bozak||Zach Hyman|
|Line Four||Milan Michalek or Kerby Rychel||Brooks Laich||Peter Holland or Connor Brown|
|13th Forward||Mitch Marner|
The Leafs have a new goalie, as McKenzie predicted, and they have Auston Matthews, so we know which second line option to look at, and indeed, Mike Babcock has said he will play William Nylander on the wing to start the season.
The Leafs have at least issued qualifying offers to all of the appropriate rookies who needed them, and they have done not much else.
I moved Marincin and Carrick into place as the third pair on defence simply because that seems to be the way the wind is blowing. I added Kerby Rychel in as a potential option to replace Michalek.
And before anyone shouts themselves hoarse again over Mitch Marner as the 13th forward, I think that can cover a lot of minutes in a lot of games played and is a good way to feel out what the guy can and can't do.
So where are the Leafs?
They could walk into next season with this lineup exactly as it is. They can wait out the contracts on Laich, Greening, Michalek, and they can get Joffrey Lupul's closer into decent buyout range. They can play all these guys on rotation and see what each of them are made of for real.
My, that's a lot of wingers isn't it?
|Name||One-Way Contract||Waiver Exempt|
|James van Riemsdyk||Yes|
That is 17 wingers for eight or nine NHL jobs. And seven of them are not waiver exempt, including Josh Leivo, so decision time is upon the Leafs there, but Colin Greening is likely waiver proof because of his contract.
The Leafs have some flexibility to rotate players in and out, but they also have too many non-optimal choices locked in to contracts they might not want to bury if something juicy comes along they need cap space for.
They need to move some of that excess. Colin Greening might be the easiest one to move, perhaps with retained salary. If Milan Michalek plays well for the Czech Republic at the World Cup of Hockey, he might suddenly be movable too.
But forget about excess! How good are they? If you're going to run a centre depth of Kadri - Rookie Matthews - Bozak - Laich, I think you want the best damn wingers you can find to make up for what is not a soul stirring list.
There's one real elite winger there in van Riemsdyk and two potential future elites in Nylander and Marner.
There's a couple of really good solid guys in Komarov and Holland and some potential future solid guys in a lot of the other youngsters the team has too little room for right now.
That is not a list that stirs my heart, soul or brain. Not with that crop of centres. It's an overgrown blowsy hedge that needs trimming and pruning and in a few years it might impress.
How deep should the Leafs prune now? How much should they cut? And is it worth taking a loss to get rid of some of the dead wood?
My feeling is they should wait it out. Sit and feel the pain for a year and be in a position this time next year to make better decisions on the half of the list who have unrealized potential.
Shall we look at the defence?
Should the Leafs continue playing Hunwick with Rielly and treating them like a top pair? Will one more year of that hone Rielly into an elite defenceman? Should they work their new man Zaitsev in more gently with the comfortable partner in Gardiner?
Or should they go big game hunting like Joe Sakic is said to be doing?
Should they even go modest game hunting?
This is where I think the Leafs have to put their minds and spreadsheets and Lou's Rolodex to work.
That's a very underpowered crew, and it's better than it was last year by a long chalk! But moving Hunwick down to the third pair where I think we'd be pleasantly surprised with his performance and bringing in a real, honest to goodness top ranked defenceman seems like a very important step this team needs to take.
And while I'm not suggesting we should calibrate our trade calculators by the Taylor Hall deal, defenceman are not cheap. Good defencemen are not cheap at all, and excellent defencemen, well, sometimes they cost you Shea Weber, but sometimes they cost a lot more than that. And where is this mythical beast? Particularly one younger enough for the Leafs?
That's got to be the top job now that the goaltending is sorted out for a bit.
Who do you want? What is going to take to get him. Is there any free agent out there even worth a look? Should they game all this for the expansion draft or not try to get too cute?
Opine at will!