The Toronto Maple Leafs kick off a three-game road trip tonight in Winnipeg (8 p.m. EST, Sportsnet)
Many in the hockey media had this game circled on the calendar once the schedule was released on account of the Patrik Laine vs. Auston Matthews storyline. It’s a fun narrative and provides intriguing iso-cam fodder for the Sportsnet broadcast tonight, but it was never a subject of any serious debate for the Leafs in the buildup to the draft — nor was it for the vast majority of the league’s teams and scouts — and it’s not going to be something either player is thinking much about once the puck drops, given they do not match up positionally. In general, though, the “Matthews, Nylander and Marner versus Laine, Ehlers and Connor” dynamic should make for good entertainment tonight at the MTS Centre.
The two teams enter the game coming off opposite ends of a 4-1 decision versus the Bruins. After winning their season opener in overtime thanks to a multi-goal comeback against Carolina, the Jets are now 1-2-0 on the season following losses to Boston and Minnesota. They’ve given up four goals in each of their opening three games, although one was an empty netter against the Bruins.
Just three games into the season, the Jets are already without two significant pieces of their roster, one a top-six center and the other a top-four defenceman. In addition to the Jacob Trouba “holdout” (not really a holdout, as he doesn’t have a contract), the injury to Bryan Little in the season opener is a significant loss that will test the Jets’ depth at center. They should have the man power cover for it, as Mathieu Perreault is a regular 40+ point scorer capable of filling the void at 2C. Alex Burmistrov, who was an opening night scratch, has entered the lineup as the team’s 3C behind Mark Scheifele and Perreault.
A bottom ten team in goals for last season, the Jets — like the Leafs — rest their hopes for improvement offensively on the shoulders of young new arrivals in the likes of Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor. The Jets certainly have the makings of a top line capable of terrorizing opponents all season in Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. They are the stuff of nightmares for opposition defencemen — all over 6’3 and 200 pounds, all three with the skill to surpass the 30-goal mark this season.
Scheifele has two goals and three points to his name already, Laine has a goal and an assist, and Wheeler is on a tear to start the year with three goals and five points. The mix of skill, size and nastiness to Scheifele’s game will make him a handful for Nazem Kadri in that center matchup, as well as a good test for Auston Matthews given Mike Babcock will not have the benefit of last change.
Encouragingly, the line of Kadri, Leo Komarov and Milan Michalek is leading the Leafs in score-adjusted possession, all in the high 60% range, through two games despite significant time against top competition at even strength. With six of nine games in October coming on the road, Babcock’s control over his matchups will be limited and that should prove somewhat of a baptism by fire for Matthews, as he’ll face some head-to-head situations against high-end NHL centremen.
In net, the Jets have pulled the plug on the Ondrej Pavelec era by sending him to the minors to start the final year of his contract, with the hopes that one of Connor Hellebuyck or Michael Hutchinson can emerge as the solution going forward. Hellebuyck has started two of three so far, a win and a loss while allowing seven goals total, while Hutchinson conceded four in his loss against the Minnesota Wild.
Starting in goal for the Leafs is Frederik Andersen, who is coming off of a good showing against the Bruins in which he made 24 saves on 25 shots. Jhonas Enroth’s first start as a Leaf will come tomorrow in Minnesota.
The Leafs have had a couple of practice days to prepare for a three-in-four-nights stretch starting tonight, with one of Babcock’s foci being a powerplay that is 0 for 8 through the first two games. The Leafs have scored four even-strength goals in both of their first two games, with a good four-line effort versus Boston following up on Matthews’ four-goal game against Ottawa.
No lineup changes are expected for the Leafs following their 4-1 win on Saturday.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
Milan Michalek – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Matt Martin – Peter Holland – Connor Brown
Scratched: Seth Griffith
Injured: Josh Leivo
Martin Marincin – Morgan Rielly
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick – Nikita Zaitsev
Scratched: Roman Polak, Frank Corrado
Starter: Frederik Andersen (confirmed)
Backup: Jhonas Enroth
Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines
Patrik Laine – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Nikolaj Ehlers – Mathieu Perreault – Drew Stafford
Kyle Connor – Alex Burmistrov – Joel Armia
Shawn Matthias – Adam Lowry – Brandon Tanev
Injured: Bryan Little
Josh Morrissey – Dustin Byfuglien
Tobias Enstrom – Tyler Myers
Ben Chiarot – Paul Postma
Inactive: Jacob Trouba
Starter: Connor Hellebuyck (Probable)
Backup: Michael Hutchinson