This week, the NHL announced further details in their Return to Play protocol, you can read up on all that in the links below. Along with a 24-team playoff format, the NHL has announced rules for how many roster players each team can carry during training camps and games. Each team is allowed 28 skaters and as many goaltenders as they can carry (that are on NHL contracts), which I’m calling the Dave Ayres Rule.
Let’s have a look at who they’re bringing.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have five goaltenders under contract for the 2019-20 season. Frederik Andersen, Jack Campbell, Kasimir Kaskisuo, Joseph Woll, and Ian Scott. It seems quite logical that the Leafs will bring the first four with them, with Ian Scott on the maybe list depending on how far he’s rehabbed after hip surgery. Four seems like a nice even number, though.
There are 21 skaters currently on the Leafs active roster according to CapFriendly. They are listed below:
Forwards: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, Alexander Kerfoot, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, Kyle Clifford, Pierre Engvall, Denis Malgin, Jason Spezza, Frederik Gauthier
Defense: Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl
There are four players on Long-Term Injury Reserve. Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, Andreas Johnsson, and Ilya Mikheyev. Quite a quartet. Mikheyev is 100% healthy, per his agent. Johnsson was scheduled to be out six months starting in February, putting his return date in August, which is when the NHL expects the playoffs to begin.
Adding those two, the number of skaters up to 23.
Timothy Liljegren is currently with the Marlies, but all indications are that he’s a lock to join the Leafs for the playoffs. 24.
Nick Robertson, the Leafs most recent top pick, has made the cut, according to GM Kyle Dubas! He’s flown into Toronto from California where he was quarantining with his parents and brother. After destroying the OHL as an 18-year-old, how Robertson fares against NHL players will be a very interesting test. This will almost be a rehearsal for his potential arrival into the league in 2020-21. 25.
Nick Robertson will be included in the #leafs expanded playoff roster, according to Kyle Dubas.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 27, 2020
And now is when it gets tricky. With 15 forwards and 10 defensemen essentially locked in, there are only three spots remaining of the 28. I wrote an article a couple weeks ago when Taxi Squads were being discussed. The list of current Marlies with a shot at some playoff action is quite long.
In hindsight, my shortlist was quite long, I was expecting the Leafs to take nine extras, including Liljegren and Robertson. Here’s what I had:
F: Nic Petan, Adam Brooks, Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, Egor Korshkov, Nick Robertson
D: Timothy Liljegren, Kevin Gravel, Teemu Kivihalme
Right off the bat, I think I’m comfortable taking Gravel and Kivihalme off the list. The Leafs have six left defensemen and four righties in the 25 above, and both Gravel and Kivihalme shoot left.
At forward, I think the Leafs would really like to have Adam Brooks on their roster. He’s tailor-made for spot duty on the fourth line and he’s a centre, of which the Leafs only have five that sit naturally at that position (Matthews, Tavares, Kerfoot(ish), Spezza, Gauthier). He would bring the number up to 26.
Kenny Agostino was confirmed to be heading back to Toronto in order to join the Leafs playoff roster, so he’s in. I can’t say I’m surprised considering he was the best Marlies forward last season and his chance in the NHL was long overdue. Agostino is a quick, deceptive winger with a great shot. He’s good enough in his own zone and is valuable on the power play. 27.
Marlies leading scorer Kenny Agostino will soon make his way north from New Jersey and begin serving his 14-day quarantine, so he can practise in Toronto and join Maple Leafs' extended playoff roster.— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) May 27, 2020
The Last Man
Now it gets really tough. Do the Leafs like Egor Korshkov enough to bring him? I think so? I’m not confident in it, especially with Nic Petan and Pontus Aberg both also on the shortlist.
Korshkov was liked during his time with the Leafs, scoring in his one-and-only NHL game. In the AHL, Korshkov succeeded when he was healthy and playing with quality teammates. Unfortunately, he missed time due to injury twice and was shoved on the third line for much of the season, so his results aren’t anything to be inspired by. I think Korshkov has a lot of value to the Leafs, and as the 18th forward, it might be more valuable to have him practicing and learning for a shot next season than sitting at home.
Petan and Aberg are the other two options. Based on their NHL performances, Nic Petan edges out Pontus Aberg, though in the AHL it’s the other way around. Aberg is a hard-nosed winger who has a chip on his shoulder. He’s got skill and he’s been in the playoffs before. And the rumours he’s heading to the KHL don’t seem to be founded. Petan is a creative puck-mover who had great shot metrics with the Leafs and is a different dimension from the other fourth liners the Leafs currently have.
I think both can provide a dimension on the fourth line that currently isn’t being filled; someone who can carry the puck in transition and facilitate with some finishers. Maybe they think Malgin and Brooks can do it and they’d rather go with size in Korshkov, or maybe they’ll realize a more open, rusty style is something a player like Petan can excel in.
So, you can only pick one. Who do you choose? Petan, Aberg, Agostino.
Who rounds out the Leafs playoff roster as the 28th skater?
I don’t think we’ve had a game where the entire Leafs roster has been healthy and included the graduates like Engvall and Sandin. Finding the right seven combinations of players is going to be a very challenging task, and I’m sure lots of people on the internet are going to have their suggestions.
Here’s my guess:
Ilya Mikheyev - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
It doesn’t really seem to matter which right winger lines up next to which centre when it comes to the Big Four. Matthews and Marner are buddies and always wanted to play together under Babcock, if it keeps them happy, why not.
Mikheyev was skating when the pause happened in mid March. It’s been 10 weeks since then so I’d be moderately comfortable throwing him right back into the fire like they did to start the regular season, all those many months ago.
3M line, anyone?
Zach Hyman - John Tavares - William Nylander
I like the idea of Tavares having the puck more and not always having to be the first player to the front of the net. Let Hyman do that and let Tavares be a bit more creative with Nylander. All three of these players are heady forwards who like to score right in the front of the net. They will be absolute havoc together. And for anyone concerned about Nylander’s defense, he’s got some of the best supporting linemates on the team.
Andreas Johnsson - Alex Kerfoot - Kasperi Kapanen
Johnsson has a longer recovery timeline than Mikheyev and is coming off surgery, so having him on a more sheltered third line with his Marlies buddy Kasperi Kapanen feels like a good place to be. They haven’t played very much all together, but Kapanen has good numbers with both Kerfoot and Johnsson as duos.
I am a little worried that Keefe will break up this trio if he thinks Mikheyev isn’t quite ready for top line minutes and put Kerfoot on the wing. I’ve never liked when he did that, it made the whole bottom six useless when depth has always been what the Leafs pride themselves on. If Kerfoot does become a winger, Spezza will likely come up to centre the line.
Kyle Clifford - Pierre Engvall - Jason Spezza
Mathematically, there are 84 combinations for this fourth line with the nine players remaining on the roster. I picked these three because they have the most NHL experience this year and they fit nicely as a trio.
Engvall and Spezza fit the LH-RH centre duo so they can take draws on both sides. All three have size and some snarl to them. Engvall is strong on the penalty kill and forecheck. Spezza is useful to move up the lineup, on second power play unit, and his shot is great. And, honestly, I don’t remember much from Clifford as a Leaf but I hear people like him.
If he’s prepared, Robertson has a chance to take one of these spots.
Frederik Gauthier, Denis Malgin, Adam Brooks, Nick Robertson, Kenny Agostino, Egor Korshkov/Nic Petan/Pontus Aberg.
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
This is the first pair pretty much entirely through default. They’ve been a pair all season and they’ve done as well as you could ask for at 5v5. The Leafs really missed Muzzin when he got injured, so having him back will be great. Both of these guys have contract extensions with nice modest raises coming next season, whenever that is.
Morgan Rielly - Travis Dermott
Rielly has been the Leafs top-pairing defenseman for some time now. He’s played top competition every night and has been as good as one could ask. The thing holding him back from top lines this season has been his partner. He just hasn’t had someone on his right side that can live up to the same level of competition.
When he was with Barrie, they played third pair defensive minutes. Rielly and Ceci were a trainwreck as the top pair, and the whole point when acquiring Ceci was that he could thrive more in sheltered minutes. The Leafs would be asking a lot out of Sandin if they put him in the top-four so immediately.
So the role, in my opinion, falls to Dermott. He hasn’t had much time on the right side, but he played some top-four this season and did pretty okay. Maybe Rielly is the guy who switches over, who knows.
This pairing will also run double duty as a litmus test for how the Leafs plan to lineup in the future. They have Rielly, Muzzin, Sandin, Dermott, and Mikko Lehtonen under team control for next season, and at least one is going to have to play their off side. Dermott has been widely talked about as the odd-man out on the left side, but if he can prove that he can play the right, it keeps him in his hometown of Toronto.
Rasmus Sandin - Tyson Barrie
Sandin will without a doubt be the defensive conscious of this pairing. They’re going to get offensive minutes and spot shifts with Rielly to keep their minutes up, which has been something Keefe has done often.
Cody Ceci, Calle Rosen, Martin Marincin, Timothy Liljegren.