The National Hockey League is back! Sort of… eventually… okay, it’s all still really complicated, but league commissioner Gary Bettman announced preliminary details for the NHL’s return-to-play format yesterday afternoon. The gist of it is more or less what we expected, for better or worse:
- The regular season is done, and the standings will be sorted by points percentage
- A 24-team post-season will be played, with 12 teams facing each other in a conference (rather than divisional) format
- The Top 4 teams in each conference will play a round-robin for seeding
- Teams 5 through 12 will play a Best-of-5 Play-In to either qualify for Round 1 or fall back into the Draft Lottery
- The playoffs continue from there, with “real” rounds 1 and 2 being Best-of-5 or 7 (TBD), and the Conference and Cup Final being Best-of-7
- Hub cities are yet to be decided upon, and no dates are firm. Training camp will not begin until at least July 1st.
So, really, we’re still looking at at least a month and a half before the puck is dropped – and that could be extended if the COVID-19 outbreak gets any worse in North America (which, without getting too political here, is very well possible if pockets of the public continue to act like they’re above the guidelines). Really, this is all so fluid that anything could change before we see anything actually happen.
But, like many others, I enjoy having things to talk about with respect to the game, so we can run with the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs will, at some point, have a post-season to look forward to, including a Round 0 matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
One thing we can start to talk about already, with that in mind, is the roster that the Leafs will bring to that dance. The league’s return plan allows for 28 skaters, and unlimited goalies on an expanded playoff roster. Because players are only paid their salaries for the regular season, cap compliance is not a factor in how you assemble this group. Theoretically, if David Clarkson and Nathan Horton healed up tomorrow, were in the best shape of their lives, and wanted to go for one last dance, Toronto could include their $10.5 million in cap hits on the roster. So in that respect, we can work with some freedom here.
Exterminating The Injury Bug
There are a few orders of business that could limit players from making this cut. The first, and most obvious one, are injuries, and this season was full of them for the blue and white.
Entering the suspension of the regular season, the Leafs were without Andreas Johnsson, Ilya Mikheyev, and Jake Muzzin, and had just re-activated Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci from IR, playing them for one and two games respectively after eight and four-week absences. Johnsson underwent knee surgery in February and was projected to miss a minimum of six months after the fact, which brings him to a late-August minimum return. Mikheyev suffered a wrist injury in December and was projected for a late-March, early-April return, and started light casual skating and training in February. Muzzin broke his hand in Late February by blocking a shot, and was expected to miss two months. Muzzin confirmed in late April that his hand has fully healed.
This is all to say that the pause of society has cured the Leafs of most of their physical ailments, with only Johnsson not projected to be ready to start the playoffs. It’s possible that, should re-opening night be pushed very deep into the summer, or should the Leafs make a significant run, Johnsson might be able to return. I presume they would use a roster spot on him if the start date gets pushed back, but if the league gets anywhere close to the best-case, I’m not so sure it would be worth it – particularly when accounting for the effort that would need to be undergone to get him back to game speed.
Now that we’ve established that the pool here is “everyone except for Andreas Johnsson”, the main 18 skaters and two goaltenders will almost assuredly be some combination of this:
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Kasperi Kapanen – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Pierre Engvall – Alexander Kerfoot – Ilya Mikheyev
Kyle Clifford – Frederik Gauthier – Jason Spezza
Morgan Rielly – Tyson Barrie
Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl
Travis Dermott – Cody Ceci
There are a couple of caveats here towards the bottom of the lineup.
For one, the Leafs had been giving Denis Malgin a look before the break, playing him in eight games after acquiring him from the Florida Panthers. While unproductive on the scoresheet, he did show spurts of speed and tenacity, drove play in an offensively-oriented way, and the lack of production is more likely explained by an on-ice shooting percentage of 3.2% than it is by him being incapable. On the other hand, Frederik Gauthier is a lot more familiar to Sheldon Keefe and to his teammates, and the head coach has won an AHL championship with him playing a shutdown role. His play-driving experience is much different, however, and his 2 points in 18 games are technically better than Malgin’s, but still effectively worthless.
Both players will be on the roster – I’m not dead-set on which one will start on the fourth line.
The second point of concern is the defence, and specifically, those 5 and 6 spots. Common sense defers this to Travis Dermott, who has been part of the team for three years now and was looking like a player to watch for the first two, and to Ceci, who is used to playing tough minutes and is being compensated well.
All the same, as much as I think Ceci takes too much heat in this market, he’s still a low-end, often-bad depth player and he likely doesn’t have a future in the organization beyond this year, and Dermott has had a down-year in pretty much every way. To his credit, he missed the start of the season to a shoulder injury, and if he was playing through nagging pains as a result of that, this break has likely helped him.
Just below them, though, stand two of Toronto’s top prospects in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, who began their NHL careers to some degree this season. Sandin has played for 28 games, and Liljegren for 11; both burning the first year of their entry-level contracts but not a year of restricted status. You have to imagine that the team would like to look forward with the two players and capitalize on their mobility and youthful energy, especially since they’ve both missed time this year to injuries as well. I think this ends up as a bizarro-Training Camp battle, with both players fighting for at least one spot against the presumptive third pair.
The above leaves us at 18 skaters, giving us room for 10 more. Proportionately, the easiest play here would be to go with two forward lines and two defencemen; some teams won’t do this due to how their depth chart balances, but Toronto has sufficient runoff depth signed to NHL deals that they can fill out both position types sufficiently.
Nick Robertson – Dennis Malgin – Pontus Aberg
Kenny Agostino – Nic Petan – Andreas Johnsson
Rasmus Sandin – Timothy Liljegren
Martin Marincin – Calle Rosen
The first thing here, to clear up any questions: The Leafs can’t bring in Mikko Lehtonen or Alexander Barabanov, their two top European UFA signings of the spring, as their contracts begin in 2020/21. They also can’t bring in any of their prospects who don’t have entry-level deals yet, nor can they bring in Kristians Rubins, who has played out this season on the Marlies and earned an Entry-Level deal, which again, doesn’t kick in until 2020/21.
In this scenario, I’m imagining that it’s going to be very tough to become one of the extras if you’re a veteran who doesn’t have a commitment for next year. That includes Miikka Salomaki, Garrett Wilson, Tyler Gaudet, Matt Lorito, and Kevin Gravel. It very well could include RFAs Max Veronneau and Jeremy Bracco as well, as the former is still very new to the organization (and not particularly good), and the latter hadn’t played in months even before the pause.
Injuries can come into play as well. Johnsson takes the last forward spot because the reward for him being activated is a tangible upgrade on the roster, should the team get that far. Adam Brooks, who I’m very fond of, didn’t make my cut, as there isn’t an update on his status available on his concussion that he suffered in mid-February. In speaking to various reporters after signing a contract extension a few weeks ago, Brooks sounded positive about the idea of being a Black Ace, so it’s very possible that he fits in and knocks someone out of the lineup.
If it is, that person is probably Pontus Aberg, who seems poised to move on from the organization at the end of the year. At the same time, Aberg has some of the most meaningful Stanley Cup experience in the Leafs organization, having been part of the 2017 Nashville Predators run to the Finals. Aberg is a high-talent player who’s competitive instincts have come into question in recent years, so it really depends on how committed he would be to joining the group, but the potential upside of him coming in and getting his proverbial groove back would be immense. Kenny Agostino and Nic Petan, both signed into next year, were key contributors on the Marlies who can play multiple different forward positions.
Lastly, you get Nick Robertson, who could have the highest upside of anyone on this part of the list if he has a great training camp. Arguably now Toronto’s top prospect, the 2019 second-round pick had a Draft+1 season that put him on everyone’s radar, scoring 55 goals and 31 assists in 46 games with Peterborough in the OHL. Given that Robertson was just days removed from sliding to the 2020 draft, these numbers have people wondering if he’s the next instant-impact star in the Leafs system – if he shows up prepared, Line 5 could very, very quickly turn into Line 1 or 2.
If not, it’s still a great learning experience for Robertson, to get to know his future teammates and see what level of preparation Toronto expects out of players in their program, which, judging from what we know of him, will likely be more of a fine-tuning than a “kick in the ass”. Kyle Dubas confirmed today that Robertson will be a part of this 28-skater lineup, so while he would’ve been an “I don’t know if they’ll do it, but I would” had I written this yesterday, he’s a lock with a sliding spot right now.
Goaltending here is pretty much a lock, just like it was with the big club.
Amazingly, there are still a few players that could be considered in this process, some of whom were mentioned above.
For example, while they’re veterans who likely won’t return to the team next year, the Marlies did appreciate the veteran presences of Tyler Gaudet and Kevin Gravel, with the latter getting a cup of coffee with the big club this season. If Adam Brooks is in fact healthy, he’ll be in the mix. There’s a possibility that Jeremy Bracco does get to tag along to see what his level of buy-in is and gauge whether a qualifying offer for him makes sense.
Beyond revisiting that group, you also have a few defencemen you could look to for the final pair; Teemu Kivihalme provides you with similar elements to Calle Rosen, though the latter is likely better. Joseph Duszak could be worth having around if one of the powerplay point men go down, and Mac Hollowell is a player that the team sees potential in, so maybe he’s someone they consider bringing for the ride.
Another route could be to replace one of the forwards with another prospect in Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, to give him a similar experience to what Robertson will get, and give them both a friend to be somewhat around in a strange time for them, having been linemates with the Petes. It’s also possible they’ll bring Ian Scott as a fifth goalie, though with him still having at least another month remaining in his hip surgery recovery time, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to do much for them.