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First world roster problems: solving some of the Leafs’ lineup troubles

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Who plays center after the first PP unit comes off? Who can help transition the puck on Kadri’s line? What in God’s name is going on with the third pair?

NHL: Preseason-Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

With the Toronto Maple Leafs having just played their first pre-season game with most of what will be their main roster for the regular season, some questions have started being asked — on the broadcasts, on social media, etc.

Real hockey is still some ways away, and all the good PPP writers have gone on strike until their demands for a shorter pre-season are met. So, scab that I am, I’m here to run through them all with the speed of a mongoose.

What if Nylander misses part of the regular season?

While that will suck, it won’t be the end of the world. It may also be a little bit of a blessing similar to if Zach Hyman misses some time (more on that below). Look, barring a series of catastrophes like what happened to the Lightning a few years ago, the Leafs are making the playoffs. At worst him missing some games will mean the Leafs may have a harder time winning the division or home ice in round one.

But for all of you who keep saying the Leafs need to give Josh Leivo, Trevor Moore, Mason Marchment, Pierre Engvall, etc a real shot on the team to see what they are or might be? Aren’t they supposed to get rewarded for all their good play and hard work in the AHL? Well, this is how it will happen — when guys who are blocking them on the roster miss time due to injury/suspension/contract talks. So, now we get to have a good look at what we have in Tyler Ennis AND Josh Leivo. Hooray!

Similarly, if Hyman also misses the start of the season due to his injured hip, how will that affect the lines? If it’s just Hyman missing and Nylander comes back to start the year, you can just shuffle the chairs like you would if just Nylander was missing. But what if they’re BOTH missing to start the year?

Well, we got one sneak peak at that in the last game vs Montreal, where Babcock penciled Trevor Moore onto the line with Tavares and Marner. He only played 9:43 though — the lowest total ice time of any other Leaf, but he also saw no time on any special teams and did play more 5 on 5 than Babcock reportedly mentioned the other player he thought about using there...

That seems a bit surprising, but perhaps not. If Timashov makes the NHL it will likely have to be in that sort of role on a top-six, offensively-minded line. He may be better suited for it than Moore, Engvall or Marchment. Or, it may just be Babcock’s way of pumping Timmy’s tires for having a good training camp so far.

The lineup will undoubtedly be weaker without Hyman AND Nylander, replacing them with Leivo and one of Moore/Timashov/[insert other AHLer here], but this is exactly what we have all that AHL depth for — to serve as at least competent replacements in the NHL for when a regular misses time.

How can the Leafs follow up a powerplay when all three of Matthews, Tavares and Kadri have to come off the ice?

During the broadcast of the Leafs-Habs game, Ferraro brought up a potential problem with having all three of their best centers on the same powerplay unit. Namely — you always have to play the fourth line after the PP is over if they were all still on the ice, because you have no other centers! And obviously the other team will follow up a successful PK with their best line, so it creates a mismatch!

Justin Bourne jumped on that bandwagon too:

But in my mind, this is not such a black and white issue. It’s not all or nothing, where you HAVE to always have all three of those centers to end the PP or you HAVE to play Lindholm after every PP like that. Here are some scenarios I’d like to throw out there:

  1. Some of the time the Leafs’ top PP unit will score a goal — and they did it twice in that game to prove that point. That will reduce the exhaustion of the three, and maybe sometimes they do it so fast one of them can start the next shift. Maybe sometimes the goal is followed by a commercial break and they all get a breather.
  2. Some of the time, the Leafs’ second PP unit will be on the ice to end a powerplay, and all three of those centers will be ready go right afterwards.
  3. The Leafs’ also have some guys who can and have played center for the Leafs last year: Patrick Marleau and William Nylander. If you don’t want to always run Lindholm out right after, why not throw Nylander out at C with two of your better wingers who were not also out on the PP? If Willy can play flexible with taking faceoffs on his strong side, you can use him to give a reprieve to the other three with not much sacrificed in the way of quality play.
  4. I’d also like to note that all three of Johnsson, Lindholm and Kapanen have been used on the PK this season, and they are supposed to be good enough to be in the NHL. Heck, some of us have even called for Johnsson and Kapanen in particular to play higher up because we believe in their ability. If they improve and play the way we hope they will, they will not be completely lost out there. It’s also not like every team’s top line will be the equivalent of the Bruins, Lightning, Jets or Penguins either.

How can the Leafs’ fix the Kadri line at 5 on 5?

If there’s one potentially serious problem, it’s what to do with the wingers on Kadri’s line during 5 on 5. While Kadri is a very good center, having Leivo and Brown as his wingers has revealed a glaring problem... he has no one with him who can transition the puck. It’s led to that line having the worst CF/60 of all forwards who played more than one game.

Part of the problem is that neither Brown nor Leivo have shown themselves to be effective at exiting the defensive zone or entering the offensive zone with possession. I will be fair to them both and include the available data from the last two seasons instead of just last season, where they were both pretty awful.

In the games I’ve seen with Leivo - Kadri - Brown, they can do fine once they get into the offensive zone with possession... it’s the getting there that’s the problem. Leivo had a good year two seasons ago when it came to zone entries in a limited sample, but was awful last year in a different limited sample. The likely middle ground is he’s just meh at it. He doesn’t seem to excel at the NHL either as a skater or a puck handler, so that sounds about right. So how can the Leafs solve this? Well, let’s look at the other options — starting with the two wingers on the fourth line champing at the bit for bigger roles:

Johnsson’s a bit tough since he only had 3 games or 25 minutes’ worth of data included, so he is very likely not that extreme in either entries or exits. You can at least see his potential for zone entries with possession, likely due to his skating ability. The same seems to hold true for Kapanen, who looks capable at exiting the zone with possession and good at entering it with possession.

Alternatively, you look at some other depth wingers: Tyler Ennis and Zach Hyman. When Nylander and Hyman both rejoin the roster, there’s going to be some displacement. Nylander will likely rejoin Matthews and Marleau, while Hyman MAY rejoin Tavares and Marner line, but in this crazy world maybe Babcock wants more firepower with them... especially if he can help out the Kadri line at 5 on 5.

So... maybe not on the Zach Hyman front, but HELL YES! on the Tyler Ennis front. This supports what I’ve thought after watching the pre-season — I want to see Ennis - Kadri - Kapanen as a line. Ennis helps exit the zone and isn’t god awful at entering it, whereas Kapanen has the opposite profile. I also think both have a higher offensive upside than Johnsson, Leivo or Brown. A fourth line of Johnsson - Lindholm - Brown may not be all that great, but as a fourth line I think it can do just fine especially if Johnny finds the form he had last year.

What will the Leafs do with all that 3rd pairing depth on defense?

We went into this pre-season expecting there to be a big battle for the last spot on the 6 defensemen, and maybe 1 or 2 pressbox spots, among several depth defenders: Connor Carrick, Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman, Justin Holl, and Igor Ozhiganov (maybe another one or two I’m forgetting). Babcock has already said that until Nylander signs, he’s carrying 8 defensemen on the roster, and if Dermott starts the season like it looks like he will, that leaves 3 spots to be claimed.

How disappointing it’s been to see pretty much all of them struggle. This seemed like it was Carrick’s job to lose, and so far it’s looked like he’s on the brink of doing just that. That opened the door for a guy who’s been in NHL before like Marincin or Borgman, but they’ve both struggled too. THAT opened the whole dang wall for Rosen, Holl, or Ozhiganov to steal that chance, but only one of them seems to have put a good step towards claiming a spot.

How surprising is it to see that Ozzie Man-D Is the front-runner at this point? Rosen had the possession last game but was lobbing grenade after grenade as he tried to stand out with high risk passes. That may not be a good thing overall, if you thought that the potential all the others ahead of him had seemed higher than Ozzie’s actual play so far.

But process over results, right? Especially in a small sample like the pre-season? So if we look at the whole pre-season for possession using NaturalStatTrick.com, who has stood out? Sadly, the answer is still not really anyone.

What about if you look at them by scoring chances?

I guess three things: first, the usage in the pre-season can be even more extreme than the regular season, which explains the nice and shiny “the future looks bright” numbers you see with Liljegren and Sandin. Second, both Carrick and Marincin grade out a lot better while Rosen and Borgman a lot worse. Ozzie and Holl varying degrees of meh and bad.

So let’s say the Leafs start the season with Rielly and Hainsey plus Gardiner and Zaitsev, with Dermott in need of a partner. So the Leafs need to construct a third pair and two backup defenders for the press box. By the combination of the eye test and the numbers, I’d say Ozzie has the inside track to start as the 3RD, with Marincin and Carrick keeping Leivo’s pressbox seat warm for when Nylander returns.