43 days away from opening night, a source of great excitement for fans in Toronto is the Maple Leafs’ loaded forward group and the anticipation of what scoring heights it can reach this year.
The Leafs finished 2017-18 tied for third in total offense with 270 goals for, even with Pittsburgh, three behind Winnipeg, and 20 behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. This offseason, the organization lost the remarkably consistent production of James van Riemsdyk on the wing and at the net front of their power play, as well as a skilled playmaking center in Tyler Bozak. But they’ve added an all-world talent in John Tavares down the middle — he of 37 goals and 86 points last season – and they should reap the benefits of the continued maturation of The Big Three as well as the promotion of Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson into full-time NHL roles.
The Leafs have both the high-end talent and the quality of depth that should put them right in the mix to finish as the league’s top offense this season. With that said, let’s take a look at how their four lines might shake out to start the 2018-19 season.
Line #1/2: Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
This time last summer many of us were speculating about this line as the Leafs’ #1 going into 2017-18, but we never saw it for any sustained period of time last season. Instead, Marleau and Kadri were stapled together as the forward pairing that made up two-thirds of Mike Babcock’s matchup line.
The (potential) decision to move Marleau up next to the Matthews-Nylander duo, as Babcock has hinted, has some interesting subplots: Is it just about balancing out what is essentially two high-end #1 lines by adding a reliable veteran and defensive conscience in Marleau? Or is it in part a response to what was a less than stellar playoff showing from Nylander and Matthews?
You do wonder a little bit if Babcock felt Hyman was too heavily relied on to do the dirty work for that line. Marleau will dig, but he’s not as dogged as Hyman on the forecheck (few are; Babcock called him one of the best forecheckers in the league last season). A machine on loose pucks who kept plays alive for his two linemates, Hyman created a plenty of grade-A chances with his first, second and third efforts on puck battles. With Hyman off this line, the onus is on Matthews and Nylander to step it up a little more when it comes to competing and engaging physically on a more consistent basis, particularly come the postseason.
The flipside of that coin is that plenty of scoring chances were put on Hyman’s tape unchecked only for him to fire it wide, bobble the puck, or take too long getting it off his stick. This new trio looks tantalizing on paper, knowing the chaos Matthews and Nylander can create offensively paired with Marleau’s size/strength, speed, and finishing ability. Marleau is coming off of back-to-back 27-goal seasons, compared to Hyman’s 29 career regular-season goals scored while spending his past two seasons next to Matthews. The 38-year-old is a career 13+% shooter who will be slotting in next to a duo that outscored the opposition 52-25 at even strength last season — it’s not hard to get excited about the possibilities here.
Stylistically, Marleau does not need the puck a ton to play his game effectively, making him a natural fit on the wing of two skilled dynamos who want it as much as possible. In addition to Marleau’s superior skill set and finishing ability, this also aligns the handedness of the line with a left-hander on the left wing and adds some veteran savvy to the unit. Maybe Marleau’s ability to find holes in goalies and shoot for rebounds rubs off on Nylander, who can be guilty at times of being too fine shooting for top corners, resulting in missed nets on good looks (he probably left 5-10 points on the table that way last season).
Line #1/2: Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Number these top two lines however you like. Like the other “top” line, this is another super-skilled left-shot center paired a super-skilled right-shot winger who can distribute the puck with the best of them. Marner and Tavares, much like Matthews and Nylander, won’t be sharing the puck much and that makes their other wing a natural fit for Hyman, who will bring the reliable puck pressure game that has won over many fans on the coaching and front office staffs.
Between Hyman’s gritty presence and Tavares’ ability to drive the net, this line should bring a new wrinkle to the Leafs’ high-octane attack as a highly-skilled unit that can cycle as well as it can generate off the rush. Tavares’ in-tight skills and cutbacks are excellent, similar to Marner’s. The small-area plays and ability to cross up defenders will be a sight to behold from the Tavares-Marner combination. Marner also creates a lot of rebounds with his low “flick” shots that Tavares — heavy on his stick in traffic and highly skilled in tight — is well equipped to clean up.
There isn’t much of a difference between the top two lines defensively, although this line may have the edge in that department right now. Marner played a big chunk of his first two seasons on a sheltered scoring line with two veterans who were creative offensively and underwhelming defensively, but he acquitted himself very well on the matchup line with Kadri and Marleau late in the year and into the playoffs. Tavares’ game is fully mature and rounded out at this point, and he has been drawing top-matchup attention for the vast majority of his nine-year NHL career. Hyman is an industrious worker over 200 feet and is reliable at getting pucks out on the d-zone half-wall, even on his weak (left) side.
Especially if Kadri’s line is still drawing some of the toughs on home ice, it could be Matthews’ line that gets the most added “shelter” with the addition of Tavares.
Line #3: Tyler Ennis – Nazem Kadri – Connor Brown
This is where we get into some guesswork. You could argue for Johnsson and Kapanen here just as easily as Ennis and Brown, but we’ll give the more veteran options the tiebreaker as of late August. But this would appear to depend on deployment and whether Kadri continues to draw tough matchups on home ice.
Kadri has indicated this summer that Babcock has told him the top matchup will still be his at home, and that makes some sense – it gets Kadri engaged and he thrives on those tasks, while creating a daunting dilemma for the opposition in the secondary matchup battles versus the Matthews and Tavares lines. The downside of that situation is the difficulty of getting enough minutes around to everybody. It’s a good problem to have, but one Babcock will be under scrutiny for the moment when one of the big guns goes cold (On the road, Babcock will be feeling great about his ability to roll his lines over the boards knowing he really can’t miss).
If the Kadri line is still receiving tough assignments, perhaps it is Andreas Johnsson — well regarded for his 200-foot game and he has earned Babcock’s trust pretty quickly — who slots in on the wing next to Kadri and Brown here rather than Ennis, who has some holes in his game defensively.
In this scenario, Kadri will have a familiar linemate in Brown, who played long stretches with Nazem in matchup situations back in 2016-17; the two posted 52% Corsi For and 55% Scoring Chances For in 420 minutes together that season and the Leafs have outscored the opposition 21-17 with those two on the ice together over the past two years. Alternatively, Kapanen has been waiting patiently and arguably deserves an extended top-nine role opportunity with a skilled center.
Ennis’ role, if he does slot in here, should be as a disrupter who isn’t touching the puck a lot but can make skilled plays at top speed — and in traffic – as well as finish his chances when crashing the net or driving the slot. Based on Ennis’ recent history in Minnesota, he appears to be in a situation where he’s either in the team’s top nine or he’s not dressing at all — he wouldn’t appear to be a credible fourth-line option under Babcock — but we’ll see how it shakes out at camp. The big question mark with Ennis surround his health and confidence levels, but he’s got a track record of scoring success in the NHL.
Line #4: Andreas Johnsson – Par Lindholm – Kasperi Kapanen
Flush with speed and skill right through to their 12th and 13th forwards, the Leafs forward group will have no letup this season and should be able to come at teams relentlessly wave after wave. Johnsson and Kapanen have a history together at the AHL level, showed they could contribute on the biggest stage in the 2018 playoffs, and both should now be considered NHL regulars. Lindholm’s ability to nail down the fourth-line center spot full time is going to depend in part on his ability in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill, but at 5v5, if he can be the defensive conscience of this line while keeping up with the speed and skill of the fellow Scandinavians on his wings, he’s got two linemates who can run opposition depth lines and bottom-pair defense pairs ragged.
This is an undersized trio as far as fourth lines go, but Kapanen has added a lot of strength to his frame since arriving from Pittsburgh – to the point where he’s strong on the puck and can shoulder bigger defensemen off of it down low – while Johnsson is fearless when it comes to driving the hard areas of the ice. All three — assuming Lindholm’s penalty killing history in the SHL translates overseas — can also contribute on the penalty kill, which is an important contribution from fourth liners under Babcock, who doesn’t use stars on the penalty kill.
Both Johnsson and/or Kapanen could easily earn their way up the lineup in camp or as the season progresses.
What do your forward lines look like for opening night?
With notes from Anthony Petrielli and Declan Kerin