Now that the Toronto Maple Leafs have locked in all of their stars and have no major forwards who are pending unrestricted free agents, the attention has naturally turned toward filling out the third and fourth lines.

Last playoffs, a lack of depth was part of the Leafs’ undoing. Their fourth line averaged 8:37 (Tyler Ennis), 7:46 (Trevor Moore), and 7:25 (Frederik Gauthier) in time on ice because they couldn’t be trusted enough. Their third line was completely unproductive, with neither Patrick Marleau or Connor Brown scoring (they had three assists combined between the two of them). When Nazem Kadri was suspended, William Nylander had to center Brown and Marleau and it rendered him completely ineffective.

Conversely, the Bruins received meaningful contributions from players like Sean Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom and Danton Heinen, among others, throughout their run to the Cup Finals.

With all of their top players locked into big-money contracts, the most important job right now for Leafs management is to find cost-effective depth that can make meaningful contributions to the roster. Roles will matter within the Leafs‘ depth. While they have tried at times to load the forward lines with skill throughout the group (acquiring Nic Petan, Tyler Ennis, previously had Andreas Johnsson started down there), the players that have fit best in those limited minutes are usually grinders and checkers.

It’s not very surprising that Nick Shore and Dmytro Timashov (who is skilled but can also play a strong forecheck game with some surprising physicality) are fitting in better than Nic Petan and Jason Spezza on the fourth line so far.

On the flip side, Nazem Kadri did not particularly work out on the third line – his minutes were limited and he didn’t make the type of impact everyone knows he can make (although his linemates probably had something to do with that as well). It was often easy to look at Kadri’s ice time figures and suggest he should be playing nearly two full minutes more per night than he did – he averaged only 16:11 per night last season.

Finding players that can not only fit the roles but the minutes they receive is imperative. While they will ultimately live and die by the play of their top players, in any playoff run, any team needs a positive impact from their depth. That’s even true during the regular season, too – the Leafs won the Detroit game because of their depth (almost despite their top players).

So far, the Leafs‘ third and fourth lines have been quite promising. The Ilya Mikheyev – Alexander Kerfoot – Trevor Moore line has been impressive, already generating a number of notable forecheck and scoring opportunities. They are outscoring opponents 4-1 at even strength.

This is a particularly good in-depth look at Alexander Kerfoot; as the article concludes, it is early, but it’s also promising. Just as important — if not more so — Moore and Mikheyev have both flashed potential on the penalty kill. Receiving special team minutes and some form of respectable 5v5 play from their third line in limited ice time would be a huge addition to this team.

The third line has been a change-of-pace unit for the Leafs – they forecheck hard, are pesky, and don’t play the same type of skill game as the top lines do. Mikheyev has been a bit of a revelation so far, but it’s early and we’ll see how he’s doing when the season hits a slog in January. So far, though, it’s a different look — and that’s a nice development for a team that needed the change of pace.

And then there is the fourth line. It is still sorting itself out, but on Saturday, it had probably its best game, chipping in a few goals as a line and buzzing with chances. Only four times last year did Frederik Gauthier play more than the 11:12 he logged against the Wings, and his five shots on goal was a single-game career-high. In general, it looks like his skating has improved. Gauthier and Nick Shore have had strong starts in the faceoff circle (60.6 and 69 percent respectively) as well, which will endear them to the coaching staff.

There’s also the fact that Zach Hyman is still out. When he does return — and if this team is ever fully healthy at once — that will bump Kasperi Kapanen to the third line and one of Moore/Mikheyev to the fourth line. There is some legitimate depth there — players properly slotted in a 10-15 minute role who observers aren’t going to watch and say they should be playing in the top six/receiving more ice time. That’s a good thing; these are the correct roles for these players and they can maximize those minutes.

It is early, and I still think they will need one more piece of veteran depth, but the depth of this team at forward has been positive in the early going. It’s something that can make a big difference throughout the season and the playoffs.


Notes

  • Until it’s actually figured out, this column will consistently wonder who on the Leafs is going to match up against the opponent’s top players? The game against Detroit was a perfect example as the Wings really are a one-line team and their top line generated a ton of chances. A summary of their chances on the night, even though they didn’t score: Mantha had a clear breakaway, a 2v1 with Bertuzzi where he had a mini-breakaway, another chance in front all alone that Frederik Gauthier helped negate, and he was sent in alone again off an innocent rush for a clean look where he hit the crossbar. Earlier in the week, Tampa’s top line had five goals against the Leafs. I’m not sure the Leafs have the pieces at this point to match up against top lines night-in and night-out, at least when it comes to a shutdown defensive pairing.
  • I noticed the Leafs put on Muzzin – Ceci to end the second period against Detroit right after Mikheyev’s goal. I wonder how much we will start to see that as a closing unit. Tyson Barrie is good and productive, but he is not strong defensively and has generally proven himself to be an offensive second-pairing defenseman. Jake Muzzin is their best option for a matchup pairing and they need to sort out who will play alongside him in that role down the stretch and into the playoffs. If they try Ceci, who was buried in that role in Ottawa, would Rielly – Barrie be able to hold their own defensively, or would they need to put Muzzin, Rielly, and Barrie on three separate pairings?
  • Offensively, having a righty and lefty like Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie could pay some dividends. Against the Blues, the Leafs pulled the goalie to tie it and the puck came up Barrie’s wall quick with a man pressuring him. On his forehand, he was able to rip the puck cross-ice to Rielly in a tight window. Last year, the Leafs would have had Rielly on with Gardiner most likely and that just would not have been possible on his off-side.
  • On the play that led to the Alex Kerfoot offensive zone faceoff goal against the Red Wings, Tyson Barrie sent a beautiful outlet pass from behind his net after drawing in two forecheckers. Nick Shore carried it up ice and put it on net for a rebound, with his linemates driving the net. That’s a safe play by a line that knows its role and is playing it well. That will earn points just as much as the goals did.
  • I was very curious to see how the Leafs’ penalty kill would adjust with so many new faces. The early results are about what you’d expect – they are 19th in the league and killing 77.8% of their penalties off so far. It’s obviously very early and that number should improve some (that would have ranked 27th over the full season last season). It’s also a bit deceiving – one goal was the Petry penalty shot, and one was Andersen misplaying a puck against Columbus.
    I
    Jake Muzzin and Cody Ceci currently lead the Leafs in shorthanded time on ice per game.  Their forward leaders, in order, are Mitch Marner, Ilya Mikheyev, Kasperi Kapanen, and Trevor Moore. Morgan Rielly and Martin Marincin/Justin Holl are the Leafs’ second pairing unit. With so many new faces, they are still figuring each other, which is to be expected.
    I
    This (below) happened before the Steven Stamkos goal – the puck is in the corner and both Leafs defenders go after it, leaving Braden Point all alone while Kapanen watches at a distance. They scrambled around after, leading to a relatively easy goal for Tampa.Toronto Maple Leafs' PK versus Tampa Bay
  • That was a beautiful finish in front by Nick Shore against Detroit, showing patience and a little forehand-backhand move. He’s 27 and that was his 16th career NHL goal; I honestly didn’t think he had that in his skillset. In the third period, on a 3v2, he took a bad pass in his skates and kicked up to his stick while going full speed before feeding Gauthier for a backdoor play he was robbed on. Didn’t think he could do that, either.
  • I thought it was interesting that the Leafs started the Alex Kerfoot line against the Lightning. They have struggled to start games so far this season and Babcock is trying out different lines to set a tone. This used to be part of Kadri’s job. It doesn’t help that the John Tavares line just has not been particularly strong so far – they started the first game of the season and got promptly scored on. Against Detroit, the Auston Matthews line started the game.

Quotes

“He played for Mike Babcock for two years, so he might have to dumb some things down with us.”

– Pete DeBoer on reintegrating Patrick Marleau with the San Jose Sharks

The MLHS staff debated this quote a bit – was it a shot at Babcock? Was it just an observation? I guess it doesn’t really matter, but I did think it was interesting and noteworthy. Sometimes you can stress too much detail and micromanage to the point of it being harmful. Marleau has three points in his first two games in San Jose.

“I don’t think about this. I just work, because this is my 1st NHL season, I other country, other mentality & a new system for me … I very happy every day, when I come to practice rink or Scotiabank on the game I very happy.”

– Ilya Mikheyev on his strong start to his NHL career

You have to like this kid so far. He has been all over the ice and the flash of speed he showed against the Red Wings was impressive (also, what was Jimmy Howard doing?).

Last year, between the KHL season and playoffs, Mikheyev did play 75 games, so here’s to hoping he’s ready for the overall grind of the NHL schedule because that is often where we’ve seen first-year players falter. No question he looks like a player so far, though.

“I didn’t like it last game when he got hit in the head … a (19)-year-old, I didn’t have much appreciation for that … but I also say to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ … you have to look after him the best way you can and sometimes you got to be a prudent parent.”

– Mike Babcock on the Justin Abdelkader hit on Rasmus Sandin

I agree that it was a high hit and it was tough to see. Sandin, to his credit, got up and fought through it, but that was a dangerous play and I’m not sure Abdelkader was really attempting to throw a clean hit. He just saw a green light and went for it.


Tweets of the Week

As noted above, Gauthier’s skating looks legitimately improved this year. I’ll need to see more to judge whether I think he can really be their fourth-line center solution or if they still need to acquire one, but he has been serviceable so far. That’s promising.

And so it begins. I don’t want to speak too much just yet on what the Leafs should do on defense, but it would be extremely difficult for the Leafs to replace what Muzzin does, in particular, because they simply don’t have anyone else they can truly trust defensively.

I would say yes. He was unreal when the Penguins won the Cup (both times) and is as consistent and productive as they come.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. I think Nick Shore and Dmytro Timashov have clearly been the better fit for the fourth line. I’d like to see them get some run as an overall unit if they continue to string together strong games. Their possession numbers are lower than Jason Spezza’s and Nic Petan’s alongside Frederik Gauthier, but they’ve also received nearly double the defensive zone starts according to Natural Stat Trick. I just think that unit is more of what they are looking for from a fourth line and Timashov is also much feistier than I thought he’d be at this level. On top of shoving a defender down against the Wings before setting up Shore, he later threw a really good crunching hit on a defender behind the Wings net that clearly stung him. Against the Habs, he helped send a player into the bench.
  2. I think Jason Spezza is basically just some form of scoring depth should a scorer get injured. If Marner held out to start the season (as I thought he would), he would have been nice insurance for the power play, in particular. As a fourth-liner on this team (i.e. their top two lines are already offensive-minded), he just doesn’t make much sense there.
  3. At some point, I think I’d like to see Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly paired together just to see how it goes. Give them a bunch of offensive zone faceoffs, load them up with scoring lines, and see what the production looks like. Can they manage to be decent enough defensively to play together? That is obviously the question, but at some point, we have to see. Muzzin – Barrie isn’t a shutdown pairing to play vs. a Tampa or Boston in the playoffs. And the Leafs have kind of established they aren’t playing Rielly and Muzzin together, so…
  4. I think it should be very obvious to everyone that Kasperi Kapanen should go down to the third line and one of Trevor Moore or Ilya Mikheyev should get a look with Tavares and Marner. That line has not looked great, and while it’s not Kapanen’s fault, he is the easiest player to replace on the line.
  5. As already speculated last week, I think sending Rasmus Sandin down makes complete sense. He simply isn’t playing enough. The issue is that he really is their best all-around depth defenseman, and while the return of Dermott will be a significant help, it is already very obvious that they need to acquire a depth blue liner — preferably a veteran with some penalty-killing experience. The ideal is a player to pair with Muzzin for real shutdown minutes, but that will be expensive and is a discussion for a later date.