Building the Maple Leafs’ ideal forward lines

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Shawn McKenzie to get us excited for a rebirth of the Battle of Ontario this season between the Maple Leafs and a much improved Senators team, as the passion will no doubt unfold starting this weekend.

In the two seasons I spent working with Sheldon Keefe, there was nothing I enjoyed more than talking roster construction. There’s monotony in coaching, poring over video, building practices, building team meetings, building systems sheets, and so much more. And so these lineup conversations generally happened when most of the time-sensitive work was done, when there was room to breathe with feet up — often post-practice, when you could really flesh out the options without an impending deadline.

(Some days they have to take place in the morning for practice sake, but those morning discussions almost always get revisited.)

As a staff, you use the tools at your disposal for lineup building. You consider, from the top-level concepts on down:

• How you’re going to score the most goals and keep the most out of your net
• Who’s been playing well/poorly of late
• Upcoming opponents and how to best beat them
• In-game deployment — who’s going to kill, who’s going to get PP time, and how that’s going to affect the immediate rollout of lines following special teams. (A good example here is that if your PP1 has players from three different lines, you’re all but certain to have one guy too tired to go on when the power play starts, and lines may get messy for a few rotations after the PP. You’d like to avoid that if possible.)
• Keeping as many players happy as possible
• How to plug injury holes
• The opinions of numerous staff members
• Who needs a jumpstart
• Any commitments the team may have made to a player (including developing young guys when you’re at the AHL level). I’m thinking about the convincing of UFAs to sign with your team here.
• Analytics

There’s rarely a perfect way to construct your 12 forwards, let alone all 18 skaters, and any conclusion you do reach is going to be tinged with at least some subjectivity.

So, keep that in mind with the below. Over the past nine months the Leafs have played six games, and only one of which has taken place since they’ve overturned a lot of their roster.

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But, like the coaches who are deciding their lineups right now, that doesn’t mean we can’t have an opinion on who should play where and why. I certainly do, so let’s get into that now.

In game one the Leafs went with this group of forwards

Joe ThorntonAuston MatthewsMitchell Marner
Jimmy VeseyJohn TavaresWilliam Nylander
Ilya MikheyevAlexander KerfootZach Hyman
Alexander BarabanovJason SpezzaWayne Simmonds

I believe they’ll stick with that lineup for game two.

On the outside looking in for forwards were:

Nick Robertson
Travis Boyd
Adam Brooks

I’m not going to waste your time, I’ll lay out what I’d like to see and then explain why. This is the case I’d make were I still working with Sheldon:

Hyman-Matthews-Marner
Mikheyev-Tavares-Nylander
Robertson-Thornton-Kerfoot
Vesey-Spezza-Simmonds

My forward groups aren’t a reaction to game one entirely, though that game certainly informed them. One of the takeaways was a question about Barabanov, and not necessarily about what he’s looked like so far through an intra-squad scrimmage and five minutes of ice time in one game, but about what his ceiling looks like. As in, let’s say he starts playing well — he’s really only had one good moment (a shot block) and a half-dozen dicey ones so far — what is he then to this team?

My understanding is he’s supposed to be a tenacious forechecker, Hyman-lite, with some offensive ability, which…OK? Where does that fit on this Leafs team, if they don’t see him as a penalty killer (which it seems they don’t)? He seems too small to be a physical presence, not offensively gifted enough to have a big offensive role on a talented team. I just don’t understand where he’s even really supposed to fit.

So, maybe I’ll be proven wrong there, but in the early going (an insanely small sample size) I haven’t seen it so far. I’ll keep an open mind, but for now he’s out of my lineup while he gets comfortable in blue and white.

Since Barabanov was just supposed to forecheck and have some offensive upside, let’s plug in Nick Robertson, who checks those boxes and has shown an intense commitment to being a contributor this season by staying in Toronto for the entire pandemic instead of being with his family at just 19 years old. His shot is elite. He seems unafraid. I feel like he’s going to be a part of this lineup all season, so let’s just get him in there. And so, back to my lines again…

Hyman-Matthews-Marner
Mikheyev-Tavares-Nylander
Robertson-Thornton-Kerfoot
Vesey-Spezza-Simmonds

My changes are not about Thornton’s game one or my opinion of him (though him being older and needing more like 15 minutes than the 17 he got does play a part), and more about a lack of belief in the Leafs’ “defensive line” — the forechecking group that’s supposed to play the right way, play hard and keep the puck out of their own net, which is currently that Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman trio.

I don’t believe in that line because I think you’ve got at least two players who are best suited at being mushrooms-for-Mario and bigging up their linemates in Hyman and Mikheyev. That’s a real skill, and those guys have it.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Neither of them are creators on their own (maybe Mikheyev can be eventually, but hasn’t been at the NHL level thus far), so I don’t think you’re going to get enough offence out of them, which will leave them under-utilized. Don’t forget, Hyman has found an offensive groove over the past year or two, at least in finding the dirty goals his talented linemates have been less prone to score.

As it stands, I don’t think enough pucks will be at or around the net for Hyman to get the goals he’s been getting, which all but guarantees an offensive step back for him. (I know they want to toggle him up with the big dogs, but already things are getting more complicated than they need to be. I’m guessing some promises about opportunity were made to Thornton, but that’s pure speculation.)

Most of this, though, comes down to skepticism in what Kerfoot can do for a line based on his time with the Leafs thus far. There are flashes — he can skate, he works super hard, and he’s smart — but I don’t think of him as much of an offensive threat, nor do I see a defensive specialist. He can be a good winger for good linemates, particularly smart linemates who can use him as a cog, I’m just not sure he can power a whole machine.

I think adding Hyman to Matthews-Marner makes them a better line than when 41-year-old Thornton is there. I think adding Mikheyev to Tavares-Nylander makes that a better line than when Vesey is there, as I’m not sure there’s much of an offensive upgrade from Mikheyev to Vesey, and I think the former is superior off the puck with his work ethic, stick-work and physical play.

I think I’ve got a better top-six, and I’m willing to bet a grouping of Robertson-Thornton-Kerfoot is a better producer than the other third line. Now of course, they’re far more of a concern defensively than the Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman line would be, but I’d bet on the balance their goals-for-percentage would be comparable given their offensive abilities. And if you’re up a goal in the third nothing is stopping you from re-assembling your preferred defensive line.

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As far as complicating roster rollout goes, I’d rather start with my proposed lines (with the stronger top six) and have to switch to a defence-first line, than start with the defence-first line and have to toggle into offence-mode to play catch up.

As for Vesey, well, not everyone can get their cookies (to use Anthony Stewart’s turn of phrase) in every roster construction, and he takes the biggest blow here. The fact he’s all-in on a fresh start and can finish plays can put him in the position of “next man up” the first time someone falters in the top-nine, or gets hurt, or falls out of favour.

I’d rather see Robertson on line three (over Vesey) because I think he’d be great with a couple dishers like Thornton and Kerfoot given his excellent shot.

(On Thornton by the way: one thing he does that I really like and that can benefit this Leafs team is not throw the puck away. You may remember that was a habit Keefe wanted to bring to the Leafs — don’t dump the puck in just to have to go get it back. Thornton makes a lot of great small area passes that can help whoever he’s playing with stay on the offensive side of the puck. If he were even a few years younger I’d be 100 per cent in favour of keeping him with the top line.)

To make sure I touch on every line: I thought Spezza was great last year, and was even better in the bubble. He’s gotta be in the lineup for a bit, and with the need at centre, he’s the obvious guy. Simmonds provides something no one else in this lineup brings (as Ben Chiarot can attest), and he’s got some finishing ability (which his role on the power play supports), so he’s a no-brainer in the lineup as well. If there are holes down the road, I’m good with either guy getting more time.

At some point, the Leafs need to find some players who are willing to alter how they play a bit to make defence a priority. (Are Travis Boyd, or maybe Joey Anderson at some point willing to be that for this team?)

But until then, Toronto — like all teams in a salary cap era — has a weakness, and here it’s a lack of forwards with a defensive bent. The overall idea with this team build is that it should put them in a position more often than not where they have the luxury of defending because they’re in the lead. And as many coaches will tell you, defence can be taught and committed to — it’s not a skill thing. So, there’s the hope guys can toggle mindsets when need be.

The best-case scenario for the Leafs is that these line conversations stay relevant, as they’re healthy. In a usual year that’s rarely the case, and you’re papering over obvious deficiencies throughout the lineup because you just don’t have the horses.

This year the Leafs are deep up front, but in a condensed schedule and in the COVID era, team health is no guarantee. If they have that, and this conversation stays relevant, you can bet their regular season will end up having been a success just about any way they decide to piece together their puzzle.

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