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Don’t assign Nick Foligno a line number just yet

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He’s unlikely to be pinned down to one job out of the gate.

Dallas Stars v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

During one of his post-deadline interviews, Bob McKenzie was discussing Kyle Dubas’s choice to focus on Nick Foligno in trade. Unlike most people, he didn’t immediately jump to a shutdown line conclusion. He explained that the way the Leafs lines are structured, particularly at the top, is in pairs, not trios. The assignment of third wingers on the scoring lines is not really important or likely to stay static.

This wasn’t news, and has been the practice of both coaches in the Shanahan era. It’s not how people tend to think about hockey, however. Fans are extremely status conscious, and the criticism of a coach’s arrangements is often an obsessive focus on minutes played or line assignments. The first line is for the best players only, and moving to the second line is a demotion, etc. etc. All of which explains why it’s taken years and a good points rate for most people to stop agonizing over Zach Hyman playing with Auston Matthews when there are better players available.

Better, of course, means a player with obvious offensive skills. Hyman’s gifts are very offence-focused, but because they are subtler than Auston Matthews’ wrister or Mitch Marner’s passes, he is often totally misconstrued at a defensive player or a grinder. People are comparing him to Nick Foligno and those people are egregiously wrong.

First the pairs, and then we can dig into that wrongness.

Pairs not Lines

The Babcock pairs were different, and he had the luxury of Nazem Kadri on the third line, so there were usually three clearly defined pairings, and some wingers who moved around. His fourth line was a defensive-zone face-off, game-deadening nothing and not worth mentioning.

Keefe has a lineup that has a lot of obvious skill, but because skill is expensive and the more obvious it is, the more you have to pay for it, he’s got fewer good options to play with on the third line. He’s struggled to find a third pair of forwards to stick with, and during that search the wingers have wandered around on all four lines. The fourth line has changed into an ultra-low-minute attempt to hold possession in the offensive zone for the first line that comes out to take over. They get noticed more, and seem more important than Frederik Gauthier and poor Dmytro Timashov ever looked at the start of last year, but they still just kill time, 45 seconds at a go, even with Jason Spezza’s scoring luck this season.

Keefe’s top two pairs are so hard-coded that it becomes impossible to separate out their stats from each other. If you’re talking about Tavares, you mean Tavares and Nylander, and if you mention Marner, you’ve said Matthews’ name even if you don’t know it. Matthews has 88% of his five-on-five minutes with Marner, and Tavares has 74% of his minutes with Nylander.

These pairs make a lot of sense, but you could flip the right wings, and they’d still work well. One of the reasons why they work is handedness, a thing usually ignored in forwards when fantasy lines are put together. The two left-shooting centres and their right-shooting right wingers can move the puck back and forth up the ice, in an offensive cycle, integrate either defender and their left wing effectively, and they never suffer from an important player constantly taking passes on the backhand.

William Nylander has moved over to the left sometimes, usually with Zach Hyman on the right, but that limits Nylander’s shooting a little. He doesn’t eye-test out as a natural at shooting from the off-wing, whereas Hyman’s net-front style is more side independent.

The third line has seemed to be in constant flux, but the most common centres on the third line, Alexander Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall, both come closest to a regular partner with Ilya Mikheyev. But it’s been clear that’s never been a satisfying line in a way that feels like it will work outside the North division. It’s also clear lately that Keefe isn’t really differentiating between the third and fourth lines very much up until now, making the bottom six a bit of a mess to predict.

Adding Wingers to the Pairs

The top two lines need two left wingers, and if you subscribe to the theory that you should just deal out the best players in order, you would likely put Zach Hyman and Alex Galchenyuk in those spots. This has lead nearly everyone, media and fans, to assume that Foligno will end up on the third line.

I’m not so sure, and at a minimum, It won’t be the first thing tried. The search is still on for a permanent third-line pairing, but Foligno may well end up one of the free-range wingers who move to whatever line seems like a good idea to Keefe at the time.

This seems to be the forward lines written in ink:

LW - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
LW - John Tavares - William Nylander
LW - C - RW
LW - C - Jason Spezza

Now to add some pencil (ignore the fourth line positions a little, they change with the personnel):

LW - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
LW - John Tavares - William Nylander
LW - Alex Kerfoot - Ilya Mikheyev
Joe Thornton/Wayne Simmonds - Pierre Engvall/Riley Nash - Jason Spezza

This leaves a handy trio of left wingers and three open spots on the left side. Some arrangement of Hyman, Galchenyuk, and Foligno can fill in the blanks, and all arrangements can be tried. I won’t be surprised if the first one that is tried on Thursday in Winnipeg is Foligno on line two with Tavares. Keefe has telegraphed this by moving Galchenyuk to the Matthews’ line and using Nick Robertson as a fill-in, possibly for the other Nick once he arrives. Now that Zach Hyman is injured this is all but guaranteed.

Matthews can play with anybody, however, so Foligno might get a turn there, but Galchenyuk looks fine on that line, as does Hyman, of course.

The most common guess is that Thornton will fall out the lineup first, and that’s possible, but I’m not ready to state that unequivocally. Nash looks to make Engvall redundant as the weakest centre, but Engvall could shift over and knock Thornton out, or he might drop off first. Engvall can also move to the third line and knock Mikheyev down or fill-in for Kerfoot as we will see during Hyman’s injury. In the longer term, I think the Kerfoot-Mikheyev pairing is laying claim to that third line, and it works with Hyman and would with Foligno as well. The theoretical scoring ability of Mikheyev seems to trump the other choices on the roster every time.

I expect ruthless choices, however, because they’re necessary. I’ve already made one and said the Nick Robertson fun is about to end. I think Wayne Simmonds or Joe Thornton or both will head for the pressbox next. The net-front power play jobs they do to maintain relevance will go to Foligno, and Hyman can take the other unit making both surplus on special teams, and therefore surplus altogether. Of all of these extras, Simmonds is the one player who can play a more sophisticated game at some speed, and he might see more ice time than I expect, particularly in the shorter term.

Once the centre and right wing on that third line solidify a little into a pairing, then the “which left-winger goes where” game can carry on for every game all through the playoffs, and it really makes very little difference. The point, after all, was to keep Mikheyev and Kerfoot, Simmonds and Thornton out of those top line spots. That’s been achieved.

Foligno vs Hyman

The Foligno-led shutdown line is assumed to be coming to a Leafs game near you, but until Foligno as defensive conscience of the top six gets tried out, we won’t know for sure which is the best fit. Alex Galchenyuk might drop down to the third line and help create something more like what Babcock wanted with Kadri and Nylander together. Or maybe it’s Hyman who ends up on the third line, and Foligno is the net-front man on the Matthews line. Any combination would work, because none of these players are as limited as the players they are replacing.

The biggest difference in the three wingers is the skillset of Foligno vs the other two. Foligno is a genuinely defence-first forward. Zach Hyman is not.

Put them together, and you have peak-age Taylor Hall. A word of caution, Hyman has achieved these results on an offence-first team and Foligno on a defence-first. That’s going to influence what they do, and how they use their skills, who they play with and what their coach’s expectations are. Foligno may look different on the Leafs. While both players will get you the puck in the right end of the ice, and help you keep it there, they achieve that end differently.

Foligno and Hyman can be interchangeable in position and in overall style, in effect on the Corsi and Expected Goals percentages at the 10,000 foot level, they get there by different paths. Foligno can, in theory, help the Tavares-Nylander pair at their worst event — spending time in the defensive zone. He can also, in theory, raise the level of the Kerfoot-Mikheyev pair to a line that can shut down second-line competition on teams better than the Jets and the Oilers. He can crash the net, forecheck hard and keep Matthews and Marner where they do the most damage — cycling freely in the offensive zone.

Which gives you more bang for the rental bucks?

We’ll find out.