The 2018/19 Toronto Maple Leafs are soon to reach their fullest potential. At least, that’s the way that General Manager Kyle Dubas put it to William Nylander as part of his pitch to the returning forward as they closed up a long and tense contract negotiation. Either tomorrow or Saturday should mark the return of the dynamic Swedish winger, meaning the Leafs will be able to roll out their best possible lines.
This is my attempt at an ideal lineup with the whole gang back together. Keep in mind that this isn’t the same thing as what I expect the team to roll; many of these suggestions, particularly on the back-end, are pipe-dreams. But, it’s worth throwing the ideas out there, in some cases for a second time.
Two Early Notes
- When possible, I try to stick to a Babcockian archetype up front. That isn’t to say that I’ve built the lines like Babcock would specifically, but I try to get as close as possible to include three types of players on each line. The first is a displacer, who works along the boards, wins battles, and initiates the cycle. The second is a distributor, who carries the puck into the attacking half and beyond, quarterbacks the cycle, and tries to find the third player. The third player is a finisher, who is your primary target for shots on goal. Not every line has all three, but in those cases, I try to at least include players who can do a little of multiple roles.
- The first draft of this lineup included Josh Leivo on the Matthews line, which put Leafs Twitter in a tizzy. Oddly enough, that wasn’t so much an analytical move as it was stylistic; it fits the above archetype very well. Hell, the first person to put the idea in my head was a current Leaf player. Either way, we won’t get to see it happen, with him heading to the Canucks. What a shame, it would’ve been interesting to see what a player with his toolset could do if he was just put on a line with high-end distributor and finish-
Andreas Johnsson – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
This line exists to win hockey games, not chess matches. If it was a chess match, it would probably be closer to what the coaching staff is doing to win hockey games – Patrick Marleau near the top to try to pad his point totals (in case he’s willing to waive his No-Movement Clause on the final year of his contract this summer), and Johnsson near the bottom to keep his production down (so he doesn’t cash in on his “prove it” year).
I think Johnsson is a very versatile player; he doesn’t fit into the displacement role as well as a Hyman or Brown do or even Leivo could have, but he doesn’t live in fear of the boards, knows how to move a puck, and most importantly, still has a tendency to head to the front of the net to clean up what Matthews might not get. The small samples of possession data we have seem to hint that Johnsson would work with these two (64% with Matthews, 60% with Nylander), but situational context might come to play there (post-powerplay shifts, garbage time, etc).
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
This line is a perfect example of the Displacer / Finisher / Distributor build I was referring to above. It’s working well; they’re a positive share of the shots, a near-60% share of the chances, and nearly two-thirds of the goals. Needless to say, a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”; if anything, you get to maybe ease up their minutes now that there’s another equally-loaded line available.
Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – Kasperi Kapanen
Despite what I said above about using Matthews to boost up Marleau’s counting stats, it hasn’t really gone so well in other ways this season; they’re slightly in the red as far as score-adjusted shot share (49.4% CF), with Matthews looking much better in the time he plays away from him and Marleau looking much worse.
One centre who he looks okay with is Nazem Kadri, who he spent significant time with last year. That matchup line best when they had Mitch Marner on their side rather than the worn-down Leo Komarov. Some of that was because of Marner’s elite playmaking ability, but the biggest difference in a shutdown situation, honestly, is total speed, which Kapanen can more than fill in with as inarguably the team’s fastest player. Marleau already has some experience with Kapanen via the Matthews line, and Kapanen has driven play better with Kadri over the past few years than away from him. He might not get as many points this way as he was getting with Matthews, but hey, that’s what the better, long-term committed player gets to do on the top line.
Tyler Ennis – Par Lindholm – Connor Brown
This is basically an “everyone that’s left” situation, but that’s still a better fourth line than most teams can lay claim to. Lindholm and Brown have been fine together so far this year, and I don’t think Brown has been as bad as people have made him out to be; a little underwhelming in terms of productivity, but linking up plays at a competent level. Ennis has looked better over the past few weeks as well.
Sitting Out: Frederik Gauthier
I feel for the Goat, as he becomes the new odd man out. While he’ll never reach his draft day expectations, he has routinely beat the odds over the past few years to become a very fine option for a fourth line centre. I do like Lindholm a bit more, though, so he gets the nod. Truthfully, I was in favour of giving Gauthier the mercy trade over Leivo last week, and might still feel that way down the line, but I’m sure that both I would give him some rotation time in my lineup, and that Babcock will definitely find a way to do so in his.
Just so we’re clear: If you’ve already read my articles on the defence corps from the summer, you can probably stop reading this article right now, as nothing has changed from my September mock lineups to my December ones, besides perhaps how strongly I feel about them.
Jake Gardiner – Morgan Rielly
I wrote a novel about why these two should be together here. They have routinely been the Leafs’ best pair when linked together over the past half-decade, and provide them with their best chance at a heavyweight pair until an internal prospect develops or a cheap young star tells the world that he’s addicted to Fortnite and visiting the AGO. If Gardiner is truly open to sticking with the team on a sweetheart deal, get it done, put him with his best bud, and let’s get a Nor’ for Mor’ (that’s a Norris Trophy for Morgan Rielly, and I’m aware how bad that was).
Travis Dermott – Nikita Zaitsev
This is now the second consecutive season where Travis Dermott is near the top of the NHL in every possession statistic while playing in sheltered minutes, and the second or third consecutive season where Nikita Zaitsev looks like a mess under the same metrics (and most other metrics) while fighting off tough deployment.
I feel like this is like that episode of the Simpsons where Bart and Homer both abuse the Bigger Brothers program to spite each other, but eventually link Tom and Peppy together for their happy-ever-after. If you’re going to have Gardiner and Rielly working on the super-toughs, this pair will still likely get some lighter weight matchups, especially at home. It’s a good evolution for Dermott and might help make Zaitsev look a little better; useful if you want to take a shot at moving him in the summer.
Martin Marincin – Justin Holl
Neither of these two are playing regularly right now; Marincin drawing in just 6 of 28 times, and Holl only once. I’m not going to sit here and give you a hill to die on speech about how these are great, superstar players whose chances at being all-stars are being squandered. I will say that on December 5th, 2018, these two are among the six best defencemen on the Leafs roster, and should be playing.
It helps that we’ve seen them play together as the Toronto Marlies’ top pairing in the Calder Cup Playoffs, and excel. The NHL is a step up from the AHL, yes, but a third pair is likely to be matched up against competition not significantly different from the top lines of the best AHL teams. A lot of you don’t like watching Marincin play from a stylistic perspective, and that’s fine, but it’s seemed to work out in the results just about everywhere he goes, and in his sample this year, he’s once again limited shots from dangerous areas in his own zone, which seems to be the whole point of getting the hard-nosed, box-outer type guy that everyone who dislikes watching him wants to find instead.
As for Holl, he’s looked pretty good in his three NHL games between this year and last year (not to mention, scored at a 55-goal clip), can also play on the penalty kill (maybe alleviating some time from Zaitsev), and is known to be a strong puck carrier/transition player – this configuration gives Toronto two strong puck movers on each side, a big spike from the three on the left and none on the right that the good teams have all figured out (looks over to Boston in the playoffs last year).
Sitting Out: Ron Hainsey, Igor Ozhiganov
Ron Hainsey is on pace for 35 points this year, and a pace of 26 at 5-on-5; that would be a career high and would’ve put him in the Top 20 among defenceman last year. So why does he come out?
Well, I can’t imagine that it’s hard to rake points when you’re the “throw a wrister to the net and pray” guy most frequently on the ice with Rielly, Tavares, Hyman, and Marner. What is hard, however, is controlling play without those guys – particularly his Norris-chasing partner. The Leafs are getting just 37.7% of the shot attempts in the 62 minutes where Hainsey is on the ice at 5-on-5 but Rielly isn’t. Some of that is likely post-penalty kill time (**23.2%** through 29 minutes with Zaitsev), but that’s still mind-numbingly bad.
Combine that with how often he’s been turnstiled for goals against, be it through getting skated past or by losing his position in box coverage, and it’s hard to say he isn’t cooked. Strike the iron while it’s hot, get Lou Lamoriello on the phone while the Islanders are in a playoff spot, and get whatever you can for him from the GM who originally signed him.
Ozhiganov is a harder one to justify to the average fan, since most have been happy with him. Or, more specifically, they haven’t been angry with him. Ozhiganov hasn’t really done anything noticeably positive since joining the team but has only been low-light reeled once (by Thomas Chabot in Toronto’s first game against Ottawa in October). This has led most to credit him for his steadiness on the third pair with Travis Dermott.
I feel like “on the third pair with Travis Dermott” is a key detail here; he’s playing easy minutes with a partner that’s way too good to be playing them. Toronto gets 54.6% of the shot attempts when 23 and 92 are linked up together, but Ozhiganov is 6.5% worse away from Dermott, while Dermott goes up 4.5% away from Ozhiganov. Coincidentally, Ozhiganov has played around 90% of his time with Dermott this season.
This has an eye test effect too. The awareness of Toronto’s left/right imbalance in puck moving ability gave Ozhiganov a chance to over-impress early in the season, with many crediting him as a “zone exit wizard” of sorts. In reality, teams were giving his side extra room to work with having expected a dump-in, while keeping their eyes on Dermott. When they would start to go after Ozhiganov, he’d have already skated it out a bit, finding room to.. pass to Dermott.
This has dissipated a bit as teams adjusted, and the reputation is gone. I don’t think that Ozhiganov has been “chase him out of the lineup” bad, and he’s been better than I expected, but I’d still play Holl instead.