For the first time in 17 years (give or take), Leafs line rushes were tweeted out during practice. It was a glorious moment on the internet, especially because we got six forward lines, five defense pairs, and a Tyler Gaudet!
As the Leafs get ready for the summer playoffs, there’s a lot of ways the roster can go. We got plenty of variety with Sheldon Keefe experimenting at the helm while waves of injuries crashed into the Leafs every few weeks. Now, everyone (save for Andreas Johnsson) seems healthy and ready to go. It’s going to be a sprint to the finish with how tightly packed the NHL has made their playoff schedule, so those who can get up to speed the quickest and who have done the prep over the Spring will have the best chance to be in the lineup.
Looking at the lines conveniently laid out by Chris Johnston, the top-six is set. The wingers can be swapped around but it all looks really damn good. The third line is an obvious step behind the top group and an obvious step ahead of the bottom group, so that all fits together without much controversy. That just leaves the fourth line. So let’s go take a look at it!
Nylander-Matthews-Hyman— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) July 13, 2020
What we have now
As a trio, these are three relatively safe, boring hands to put on the ice for about six minutes at 5v5. And I say that with the most respect. Frederik Gauthier has turned himself into a low-event player that can take faceoffs on the penalty kill once in a while. In that sense, he’s an old-school version of useful.
I like Kyle Clifford and think he’s more than a really fast boulder, although he definitely is that. He can also penalty kill and provide energy and a positive possession number in limited minutes. Those things are valuable. Chris Johnston has said that Clifford will likely start at the 4LW position, even though there is one particular bugger nipping at his heels quite hard at the moment.
Clifford runs over Sandin in the corner, gives the snow-covered youngster a tap on the shin pads as the play ends. #Leafs— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) July 14, 2020
Jason Spezza is the closest in ability to the third line, and likely provides as much value or maybe more than Pierre Engvall on the third line. He’s not going to wow anyone at 5v5, but he can get the job done higher up the lineup in a pinch. He’s been great on the second power play, but he’s often had to platoon the centre position with whoever’s to his left, so that’ll need to be accommodated for.
Areas for Improvement
- There are probably better options than Gauthier
I can see where Gauthier fills a need on the team, but I also observe that he doesn’t do that job very well. Finding someone else who can still fill a defensive role, but provides more offensively would be a good trade to make.
- Clifford could get supplanted by Robertson
Nick Robertson has been hot out of the gate, and there’s a really good chance he steals a spot out of summer camp. Nothing against Kyle Clifford, but the kid might just be that good. There’s a chance Clifford can stay in the lineup — he is a valuable player that brings grit and energy that can only really be found in Kasperi Kapanen at the moment — but it would only happen if Engvall falls out of the lineup or gets moved to centre. Spoiler alert.
- Finding ways to get Spezza and possibly Robertson time with top scorers
With how insignificant the minutes have been for the fourth line under Sheldon Keefe, it almost seems like a waste of space, or a breather for the opponent. The ability for the Leafs to keep their foot down by giving the stars more ice time and exploiting some of the offensive flash that is lower in the lineup could be an x-factor.
Depth Centre Options
Adam Brooks, Nic Petan, and Denis Malgin are three centres who the Leafs have brought with them to summer camp. All three are distinct opposites to Gauthier in almost every way. Malgin has the best chance to win the 4C job due to his experience and playmaking talent. Brooks could snatch it up with some of his Marlies charm and grit. I wonder if Petan is able to earn enough trust to play centre here. I wouldn’t mind seeing Brooks in a playoff game, but I think Gauthier gets the first crack between these four.
Spezza at Centre
Spezza is pretty much not a full-time centre anymore, so finding another winger that can platoon with him would be ideal. Names that come up here are Engvall, Malgin, and Brooks because all three are defensively responsible at the centre position, and Engvall and Brooks can both penalty kill. Maybe one of them can win faceoffs? Maybe that’s too much to ask.
So if Spezza can play centre, that opens a right-wing spot that I’d love to see Egor Korshkov fill. He’s big, he’s got hands, and he’s a goal-per-game player. On the left, it could be any of the three centres mentioned above; Engvall, Brooks, and Malgin. If it is Engvall, then that opens a third line spot for Clifford or Robertson. Both sound like really fun lines for two completely different reasons. Either way, I’d be into seeing it attempted.
Robertson on the Fourth Line
If the kid does make the lineup, there’s almost no reason to have Gauthier there. If he’s there, you want to help Mr. 55 in 46 score some goals. Jason Spezza has been a really good playmaker at 5v5 and the image of a top-tier vet showing the young kid the ropes just feels right. Joining them, I wouldn’t mind a puck-possession player like Malgin, who I like to call the Real Marner-Lite. Engvall is another option to be the defensive conscious. Heck, maybe Clifford finds a way to stay in the lineup as a bodyguard for the teenager.
Putting it all together, in order to maximize Robertson on the fourth line, this is what I would do:
Nick Robertson - Denis Malgin/Adam Brooks - Jason Spezza
Robertson on the Third Line
If everything goes right for Robertson, he might just find himself in the top-nine. Playing with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, he’ll get to play with a great playmaker in Kerfoot, and a great transition player in Kapanen. Plus, both can play an uptempo game that Robertson seems to like. Watching the third line this season, I’ve noticed that Kerfoot has enjoyed throwing lob passes up to Kapanen in stride and getting a few cheap chances that way. I feel like Robertson would fit right in there.
So with Kerfoot between Robertson and Kapanen, the fourth line can finally have the best centre duo they can afford. Engvall with Spezza is a perfect platoon because they combine to have scoring, defensive capabilities, size, and enough speed to get by. Clifford can join that duo, so could Brooks or Malgin, I wouldn’t even mind Petan to be the puck-mover. But then I go back to the idea of Korshkov. He fits the bill of size, speed, and skill, and he can help on the power play as well as check on the penalty kill.
So with the wild card in Robertson either on the third line or out of the lineup altogether, this is what my ideal fourth line would look like:
Pierre Engvall - Jason Spezza - Egor Korshkov
This one’s fun.
With a fully healthy defense group, Rasmus Sandin isn’t getting into the Leafs lineup. Well, either him or Travis Dermott. If Sheldon Keefe is only going to give his fourth liners 5-7 minutes a game, it doesn’t hurt to throw one of the stars out with two talented forwards who can help on special teams and give the defense a boost with fresh legs and talent that can handle spot shifts with Morgan Rielly. At the very least, it keeps Cody Ceci’s minutes down while at the same time maximizing offensive zone shifts.
Wouldn’t you prefer to see Spezza and Robertson or Korshkov next to Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, or Marner instead of Freddy Gauthier? It only makes those on the fourth line stronger and it only gets the stars on the ice more. And in terms of special teams, Spezza and Robertson both get to play on the second unit, and the team has plenty of bodies for the penalty kill (Hyman, Kapanen, Mikheyev, Marner, and Engvall).
What the hell, I say, go right ahead and put both an 18-year-old and a second-year pro in the playoff lineup. Go with upside, go with god.
What Fourth Line do you think the Leafs should run in the playoffs?
This poll is closed
Clifford - Gauthier - Spezza
Clifford - Brooks/Malgin/Petan - Spezza
Robertson - Brooks/Malgin - Spezza
Engvall - Spezza - Korshkov
Robertson - Spezza - Sandin (11F/7D)