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Who leaves the lineup when Matthews and Nylander return?

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The work only gets more complicated for Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock when William Nylander signs, but that’s a good thing.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils
NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 05: Patrick Marleau #12, Auston Matthews #34 and William Nylander #29 of the Toronto Maple Leafs prepare to play against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on April 5, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 to clinch a playoff position.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In case anyone isn’t aware, the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander have until 5pm ET on Saturday December 1st to agree on a salary pleasurable for both sides, or the 22-year-old won’t see the ice in Toronto this season. Auston Matthews is also due back as soon as today in Toronto against the San Jose Sharks.

In past years when the Leafs always had to make sure they were under the salary cap. This year, that’s going to be less of a problem because the current 22 active players on the roster only account for $67,333,064 with the cap ceiling at $79,500,000. This leaves the Leafs with $12,166,936 in space. (All numbers courtesy of Cap Friendly)

There are a lot of questions as to what Nylander’s number will be. Chris Johnston of Sportsnet says a contract in the neighbourhood of $6.9 million for six years is on the horizon. Elliotte Friedman, also of Sportsnet, added that Nylander and the Leafs “are around $300,000/year apart.” These numbers shouldn’t worry the Leafs, they have tons of space.

The Leafs have been carrying 12 healthy skaters with them pretty much all year. As a result, no one’s had to come out of the lineup. But once the two third-years are back on the roster, the Leafs will be carrying 24 skaters: 14 forwards, 8 defencemen, and 2 goalies. Not only will two forwards be bumped from the nightly lineup, but the Leafs will need to remove a player from their roster in order to be within the 23-man limit.

This 23-man roster is different from the 50-man contract limit. That limits the number of NHL contracts a team can have signed to 50. The Leafs are currently at 44 (45 when Nylander signs), so there’s no worry they exceed that number either.

The two questions this article will hope to answer is:

1. Who comes out of the lineup at forward?

2. Who gets cut?

The Leafs have been playing incredibly well this season, especially of late. All four forward lines have been contributing both offensively and defensively ;ate in games and on the penalty kill. The team is humming like a well-oiled machine. Just look at the numbers each line has put up this month (13 games):

First line: 14 goals, 18 primary assists

Second line: 12 goals, 6 primary assists

Third line: 7 goals, 4 primary assists

Fourth line: 5 goals, 3 primary assists

There’s no obvious solution here. No Matt Martin-type who clearly doesn’t belong. Each forward in the lineup has been doing their job and doing it well.

This will be a tough decision for Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock, so let’s go through the players one by one and see who left out.

Babcock’s Bubble

Matthews, Nylander are in. Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, and Patrick Marleau will also be in the lineup. No questions here.

From here, Babcock will have to pick four from the following wingers and centres: Andreas Johnsson, Par Lindholm, Connor Brown, Tyler Ennis, Frederik Gauthier, and Josh Leivo. Which two sit? Let’s go through the names.

Andreas Johnsson

Johnsson better send Calvin Pickard a bouquet of flowers and chocolates or something because his stat line (5g, 1a, 20gp) was looking a lot less impressive before his hat trick on Saturday night. Not only has the 24-year-old gotten out of his early-season funk offensively, but he’s played a style that Babcock is more comfortable with.

He’s using his speed with the puck effectively, he’s hounding players in all three zones, and whether you value it or not, his blocking shots late in games to protect leads hasn’t gone unnoticed. His diving block late in the third period of the Boston game (that I can’t seem to find video of) was a huge moment at the time.

Johnsson is a point-per-game AHL winger with NHL upside and definitely shouldn’t be taken out of the lineup just as he’s heating up. Heck, he might play with Matthews and Nylander on the first line by the end of the week. He stays.

Par Lindholm

I’m pretty sure Babcock has loved Lindholm ever since he saw him play at the 2018 Olympics, and I can’t say I blame him. A key penalty killer (third in PK TOI), takes on heavy defensive minutes at even strength (38% offensive zone starts, 54% faceoffs, even penalty differential), and is a feisty SOB to play against every shift. Perhaps there’s a chance he moves to the wing — and we can get into that later — but if he’s a centre, there’s no way Babcock scratches him. He stays. (all numbers via Natural Stat Trick)

Connor Brown

This is when things get interesting. During the second intermission of the Bruins game, I threw out a poll: who comes out of the lineup for Matthews and Nylander (assuming Gauthier is scratched)? The first poll had Ennis, Leivo, Johnsson, and “other” as the option. The consensus was very unclear other than Johnsson not being an option the fans wanted to entertain. Only 5% wanted him out of the lineup. Ennis 37%, Leivo 31%, and “other” 27% appeared to be fairly even.

After the game, I threw out another poll with Connor Brown’s name in there instead of Johnsson and the majority of voters (50%) wanted to take the 2012 sixth-round pick making $2.25 million out of the lineup. What gives?

Obviously, recency bias played a major factor here. Leivo and Ennis combined for the game-winning goal, and Johnsson was a game removed from a hat trick. Brown has been a good soldier for Babcock over the past three years and does a lot of things for him (mainly on the penalty kill that unfortunately went 0/2 on Monday) that don’t appear on the scoresheet. He and Lindholm have been the steadfast players for Babcock on a third line that has taken on a lot of tough minutes, been out-shot a lot of the time, but has not been out-scored.

It’s fair to have a discussion as to whether Brown — and more importantly his salary — will fit on this roster next season, especially if he does find himself missing games as early as next month. It’s a no brainer to get maximum value for him. Unfortunately, I think the premise dies with Babcock’s unwillingness to part with his second-most used penalty killer and most dependable defensive winger in close game situations. He stays.

Frederik Gauthier

I thought Gauthier would slot in the 3C spot for the Toronto Marlies next to Colin Greening and that would be that for him. However, to my surprise, Gauthier has taken opportunity to play 4C on the Leafs and looked positively competent doing it.

Unfortunately for him, Gauthier was the healthy scratch from the start of the season that joined the everyday lineup with Matthews out, and now that he’s back, will most likely be the one to take a seat.

So, does Goat get placed on waivers? I think Dubas is smart enough to know that Gauthier would absolutely get claimed, and his center depth in the AHL is shaky at best.

Gauthier can be first player to leave the lineup, but he can’t be taken off the roster. This solves half of one problem, but not the other. He goes, but let’s keep looking.

Josh Leivo and Tyler Ennis

I’m going to talk about Leivo and Ennis together here because their seasons have been intertwined a lot this season.

After years stuck in the press box, Leivo has become an NHL regular. He’s played in every game this season for the Leafs (bringing his grand total to 82 career regular season games), and he has goals in back-to-back games. He’s been on the second power play unit and he has played well. It would be cruel to sit him.

Tyler Ennis has been the little engine that could this year. Ennis chose Toronto to revive his career, and gosh darn it, it looks like he has. Just look at his drive to the net in the Bruins game yesterday: speed, skill, and confidence. It would be cruel to sit him, too.

One of these two players has to sit, it’s just how the numbers work. The best solution I can come up with is to alternate between the two until someone noticably slows down, some sort of chemistry sticks, or there is another injury. It shouldn’t be too hard to rotate them in the 4LW spot in the lineup since Leivo can play both sides and Ennis is a left shot.

Part of me wonders if one of these guys will make the decision for Babcock and ask for a chance in a different organization. Dubas isn’t Lou and might oblige if he can find a trade that works. The only hangup with that solution is that it appears both players really love it here. Ennis chose Toronto to revive his career and has a good thing going on here. We know Leivo’s story all too well; he sacrificed his most important years to the pressbox of the Maple Leafs because he wants to be a Leaf. I can’t see him asking to move on either.

Getting to 23

Okay, so Ennis and Leivo alternate nights in the lineup, and Gauthier sits in the press box as centre depth. That’s not too bad of a plan, but after all that work, the team will still be stuck at 24 roster players. There’s only one place left to look: the defense.

Who’s the defenceman with the fewest games played this season? Who wasn’t the potential replacement for Nikita Zaitsev should he have been too sick to play the Bruins? Who seems to have firmly lost the 3RD job to Igor Ozhiganov? It’s Justin Holl.

Again, it breaks my heart to say this. After everything Holl has been through — after everything Kyle Dubas and the Marlies did for him — it just looks like he’s once again on the outside looking in and I feel bad for him after covering his play all of last year.

He’s the most likely player to clear waivers if sent down, and the Leafs have several depth options should one of the other 30 teams want to give Holl a chance. Travis Dermott and Martin Marincin can both fill in for spots on the right side of the defence, with Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman a few minutes up the road at Coca Cola Coliseum.

Rosen has especially looked ready for the NHL ever since the second half of last season. He’s been the #1 defenceman for the Marlies with Timothy Liljegren, taking the bulk of 5-on-5 minutes along with a heavy prescription on the penalty kill. He’s ready to play in the NHL, and play well if called.


So there it is, “The Plan”. What do you think? Does this work for you? Do you think it will happen? Do you have a better idea? I would love to hear it in the comments or on Twitter!