TORONTO – The playoffs are nigh, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are about to tinker with a winning lineup.
The return of some healthy, established veterans will force verdicts at every position. The internal battles to earn coach Sheldon Keefe’s trust and carve a role in the optimal Game 1 lineup are already underway.
“I’m not set on any of it,” Keefe said, with just a handful of regular-season dates remaining. “Every day we’re kind of evaluating it and [we’ll] make a decision from there. We’ll see what Zach Hyman‘s status is going to be here in the next little while. That might get us to move some things around. I’m happy with it here right now, and I’m happy with how things are falling into place underneath that, but I continue to look at it and think about it every day.”
“The only thing that the players can control is their performance and their role in grabbing onto a role and then being consistent and being responsible and showing that you bring value to the group,” Keefe said. “We’ve got a lot of different options when we’re healthy.”
We sifted through those options to make our best guesstimate on the Maple Leafs’ starting lineup for Game 1.
Like everything these days, our projections are subject to change.
Zach Hyman–Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner
Nick Foligno–John Tavares–William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev–Alexander Kerfoot–Wayne Simmonds
Joe Thornton–Riley Nash–Jason Spezza
Next men up: Alex Galchenyuk, Adam Brooks, Pierre Engvall, Nick Robertson
Plenty for the organization to contemplate here, but we believe the Maple Leafs will adopt a tie-goes-to-the-veteran approach to begin the post-season and keep some youthful exuberance on deck for when they need a spark.
Hyman and deadline scoop Nash are both back practising (in non-contact sweaters) after suffering knee injuries. Both should be ready in time for meaningful action.
Matthews and Marner are an elite duo enjoying a season for the ages, regardless who’s hopped on their left-wing carousel. But Hyman is the most familiar and effective forechecker on the club. Give him top-line duties.
Responsible rental Foligno has notched an assist in every full game played on the top unit. But we’re expecting him to get some run alongside the revved-up Tavares-Nylander combo as the regular season wraps and into the playoffs — thus bumping the streakier Galchenyuk (a minus-8 Leaf) to the press box.
Galchenyuk is doing all he can to cling on lately, punctuating Saturday’s goal with an emphatic celebration and setting up Morgan Rielly with a nifty between-the-legs pass Monday.
Foligno suffered an upper-body injury Monday in Montreal and is listed as day-to-day. This could affect Galchenyuk’s usage in particular.
“I’ve talked to him quite a bit, probably more than any of our players here in the last little while, just to try to get his game playing at a real high level,” Keefe said Wednesday. “He’s an important player for us. He’s been getting a lot of opportunity; I think he’s done a good job of it. We want to want to see him continue to be that reliable presence on that [Tavares] line in terms of forechecking, his tracking, his defending, all those kinds of things.
“He’s set a really high standard for himself in how he played. And now we have an expectation that he can remain there.”
Members of the bottom six, a source of great tinkering all year, cannot afford to take a playoff game or two off without risking replacement.
The list of forwards champing at the bit for post-season experience is deep and versatile. Engvall has fallen down the chart of late, but he scored in his most recent appearance. Taxi squad pushers Brooks and Robertson have high ceilings to match their high hopes. And UFA Galchenyuk is busting his butt to stick in the league.
Brooks is developing fine chemistry with Thornton and Spezza on a productive fourth line. That said, the 24-year-old is still in happy-to-be-here mode, whereas a wily veteran like Nash kills penalties and brings 32 games of playoff experience to go with his 578 in the regular season.
“Brooksie is one that’s really taken advantage of his [opportunity] and run with it here,” Keefe says. “He does what you want young players to do, which is don’t give the coaches a reason to take you out and control what you can control.
“You can play him any position, help you on the power play or the penalty kill if you need him to. That’s nice to have on the bench.
“In terms of how the lineup looks when the playoffs come around, a lot of things can change, but what you’re looking to do is just continue to build people up when they’re rolling like they are and, all of a sudden, you’ve got another option. That’s a great thing to have.”
Morgan Rielly–T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin–Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin–Travis Dermott
Next men up: Zach Bogosian, Ben Hutton, Timothy Liljegren
With the exception for a couple of minor injuries and maintenance days, the Maple Leafs’ top four has virtually remained unchanged since the puck dropped in January. Don’t expect movement there.
Keefe has described prospect Liljegren (a righty) and deadline pickup Hutton (a lefty) as “important people to us,” and the club felt it was important to get them some minutes once a playoff spot was clinched.
Toronto allowed a season-low 16 shots on goal in their 4-1 win over Vancouver Thursday with Hutton and Liljegren replacing the resting Rielly and Muzzin.
“We had the big boys out, so it was nice to see the new guys come in and show how strong our depth is,” Dermott said. “Those guys played great.”
The only real question here is which two of Sandin, Dermott and the injured Bogosian make up the third pairing for Game 1.
“You can think about it a selfish way and be like, ‘Oh, damn, we have a lot of competition.’ But we want to win a Cup here,” Dermott said. “That’s our goal, and defensive depth is an important part of that — and we’re showing it.”
With Bogosian (shoulder) not due back until May 18 at the earliest — as of Sunday, he had yet to skate — and possibly recovering until the end of the month, Sandin-Dermott is the safe bet here.
How do things change once Bogosian, with his Cup ring and penalty-killing prowess, is good to go?
Leafs Nation has been diagnosed with Stage 3 Sandin fever, and the rookie has received rave reviews from teammates and coaches alike for his blend of hard checking and slick puck-moving.
“He’s a pretty easygoing guy,” Keefe says. “The poise you see him play with is reflective of his personality. He doesn’t get rattled. He’s confident in himself. He’s got a lot of great qualities that you like to see in young players that allow them to come in and play really well.”
Adds Rielly: “He’s been outstanding. The one area of his game that I like a lot is just his patience with the puck. He holds onto it and makes plays, and it’s awesome to see from a young player.”
To be fair, Dermott hasn’t been given the power-play opportunities granted to Sandin, and he’s been playing his off-side since Bogosian went down.
Starter: Jack Campbell
Backup: Frederik Andersen
Next men up: David Rittich, Michael Hutchinson
After the carriage poofed into a pumpkin and Jack Campbell’s record-setting 14-game win streak tumbled into his first pull of the season and a three-game losing skid, Keefe can point to the moment his new starter began to rebound.
Toronto was clinging to 4-3 lead in Winnipeg late on April 22. Pierre-Luc Dubois darts behind the defence and streaks in on Campbell, a potential morale-killer on his tape:
“He makes a big save on a breakaway. You could just see his confidence rising and our confidence in him from there,” Keefe says. “It’s really been great to see him recover and push past a tough stretch to get back to being very solid.”
Since getting in his head and letting a few too many pucks in his net as his magical streak ran out, Campbell responded with six straight efforts in which he either got the win or pushed the game to OT.
He’s 15-2-2 with two shutouts and a .925 save percentage.
Frederik Andersen, rehabbing a knee injury, has not dressed since March 19. He’s 13-8-2 with a .897.
This feels reminiscent of the Washington Capitals’ situation heading into the 2018 post-season. The eventual champs started the scrappy upstart (Philipp Grubauer) in Game 1 but switched to the long-serving veteran (Braden Holtby) when they got down in their first series.
Give Campbell the reins; he’s earned them. But do not hesitate to make the switch to Fredzilla if Campbell falters.