It is a little strange to be writing the words, “Welcome back,” knowing many of us are anxious about how long this will actually last.
The NHL released an updated statement regarding COVID-19 testing results yesterday; in total, 43 players have tested positive (30 within the Phase 2 activities and an additional 13 outside of it). If I’m being honest, it’s hard for me to see this playing out properly or in full.
NHL statement on COVID-19 testing results: pic.twitter.com/lAkEQJ0B8N
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) July 13, 2020
That said, right or wrong, the NHL is going to do its darnedest to push through. With that in mind — and bypassing the most obvious question as to how much hockey will really be played — here are 10 Leafs-related questions I’m thinking about with the “playoffs” set to start at the beginning of August.
How will the bottom-six shake out?
The Leafs’ bottom-six at day one of training camp was arranged as follows:
Engvall – Kerfoot – Kapanen
Clifford – Gauthier – Spezza
With a healthy Ilya Mikheyev back in the lineup (Andreas Johnsson is still out), Kasperi Kapanen is bumped down to the bottom six, making the group a lot more formidable. Of the six players, five appear fairly likely to stick no matter what: Alex Kerfoot, Kapanen, Kyle Clifford, Jason Spezza, and Pierre Engvall.
The first two in Kerfoot and Kapanen are obvious, while Keefe gave Spezza plenty of opportunity and leaned on him to create offense. Clifford adds a different element to the lineup; he was even moved up the lineup at times before the suspension of the season (even if it was just for the odd shift — a key game against Florida right before the pause stands out as one example).
Frederik Gauthier is more on the bubble, as he struggles to produce offense, isn’t strong on the penalty kill, and isn’t consistent in general. He is a center, though, which helps his cause. If Nick Robertson is going to push someone out, he’s the obvious candidate, but that would mean Spezza or Engvall has to move to the middle.
That could give Sheldon Keefe pause. Even while including Kerfoot in the center mix, the bottom-six pivots are not particularly strong, and the alternative options don’t inspire confidence, either (Adam Brooks and Kenny Agostino, and I think the latter is better on the wing as a straight-line player).
Does Nick Robertson make it?
Speaking of shaking up the bottom six, the candidate with the potential to force a hard decision is Nick Robertson. The 18-year-old is fresh off an extremely-productive OHL campaign and GM Kyle Dubas has sung his praises, even suggesting he should have received a longer look last Fall.
If anything, I think it would make the most sense to play Robertson on an offensive third line with Kerfoot and Kapanen, but that would bump off the solid and responsible Engvall to the fourth line. A fourth line featuring Spezza at center — where he hasn’t played full-time in years for good reasons — Robertson, and Kyle Clifford could be quite the liability (although, arguably, it is with Gauthier there anyway).
As an aside, I did like Clifford and Kapanen together at times as they both mix it up physically and can combine to provide some energy and swing games when on the same line. That could, at times, mean a Robertson – Engvall – Spezza line. There are some interesting options here, and if Robertson is ready to contribute, the options are much more interesting with him in the mix instead of Gauthier.
Who QBs the PP?
Morgan Rielly started the 2019-20 season quarterbacking the power play after coming off a 72-point season in which he led all NHL defensemen in goals. The power play struggled, and he received quite a bit of the blame, even though he was fairly productive (he was fourth on the team in points through the first two months of the season).
After Tyson Barrie took over on the first-unit power play, the PP did improve, but Barrie was hardly a driving factor, picking up a bunch of points for passing it to the half-wall (more or less). Barrie offers a different dynamic as a right-handed shot, but Rielly is the better skater and superior at breaking out and gaining the zone.
Keep in mind the Leafs’ power play was struggling before the season was suspended — from roughly a month before the stoppage (February 14 onward), it clicked at 13.9% and looked noticeably out of sorts.
In the bigger picture, it also hindered the production of an important leader on the team and an under-contract asset in order to boost up the confidence of a player that is almost certainly leaving the team in free agency.
What’s the hockey going to be like?
There seems to be a pretty common thought out there at the moment that the hockey will be loose and sloppy to start the playoff tournament. I’m not entirely sold on that – the 2016 World Cup in Toronto took place before the season and the hockey was excellent, in my opinion.
The players have been off and I’m sure there will be some rust, but it would be fairly surprising to me if it was fast, loose, wide-open hockey like it’s September and October of the regular season. Even if it is at first, I can’t imagine it will be for long.
The Leafs are also squaring off against Columbus, and if you are putting money on teams least likely to play open and loose, they are near the top of the list.
No fans will be a weird experience — and I have no idea what kind of impact that will have on players — but I’ve also walked into men’s league games where the only people watching are the timekeeper and the Zamboni driver, and things got competitive very quickly. They are still elite professional hockey players competing against other elite professional hockey players. Once on the ice, I expect it to be a strong product — health permitting.
What is going to happen with the penalty kill?
The penalty kill wasn’t awful over the last month or so leading up to the stoppage, clicking at 19th in the league. However, in the final few weeks prior to the stoppage, it was killing at nearly 91%. There was some positive momentum building there.
As we saw last year against Boston, the Leafs penalty kill pretty well sunk their chances on its own. Special teams are just so important in a tight series. With Mikheyev back, you have to figure he will be in the mix, as would Hyman, Kapanen, Engvall, and Marner.
Does Frederik Andersen rebound?
It is no secret that Frederik Andersen was struggling prior to the stoppage, although he was starting to show some signs of life just before the pause. While he has carried the reputation of a slow starter in the past, at the same time, if anyone could have used a break and a mental reset, it is Andersen.
There isn’t a ton to say beyond the obvious – he has been a horse for years, but the concern is that he could be hitting the “goalie wall” now that he’s 30 years old. Jack Campbell is a good enough backup that can provide occasional spot duty, but if the Leafs are going to go deep, Andersen is going to need to find his form right away and help carry them there.
Who will Auston Matthews play with?
Interestingly, the Leafs opened camp with a pair of old friends flanking Auston Matthews: Zach Hyman and William Nylander. To me, this one makes the most sense. This line has been incredible together and it leaves a potential Mikheyev – Tavares – Marner unit to take on the top matchups while freeing up the Matthews line to eat up second/third lines. This line can also be trusted more against top lines than a Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander line, which we saw for a good chunk of the season.
However, it is noteworthy that Tavares – Nylander and Matthews – Marner were effective as combinations. Mikheyev gives them more versatility now as a left-wing option, too. I imagine we see both pairings, but the lines as assembled make the most sense as a starting point.
Who is the 3C?
We talked about the bottom six and the potential for Robertson to shake it up, but we are operating under an assumption that Alex Kerfoot is the 3C. That is not a guarantee.
Kerfoot looked better as a winger than a center for long stretches during the season, and he played a lot of wing in Colorado for the same reason. He can fill in at center, but it’s possible the Leafs look atSpezza or even Engvall there. It would be extremely unlikely, although I guess it’s possible, that they move Nylander to center and Kapanen up the lineup. Kerfoot will almost certainly fill this spot, but he doesn’t own it in permanent marker.
Who is the odd man out on defense?
A healthy Leafs defense includes the following options: Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott, Tyson Barrie, Justin Holl, Cody Ceci, Rasmus Sandin, Martin Marincin, and Calle Rosen.
That’s nine players. The locks are Rielly, Muzzin, Dermott, Barrie, and Holl. That leaves a battle for the final spot between Ceci, Sandin, and Marincin, with the rest of the group on the outside looking in.
Ceci started camp with Reilly as his partner, and as the veteran presence, he seems most likely to start there – don’t forget about Dubas jumping to his defense early in the season as well. I’d argue Sandin is the better player already, and that even Marincin potentially offers more strictly due to the penalty kill, but they will almost certainly start with Ceci.
The truth is that their four best overall defensemen are Muzzin, Holl, Rielly, and Dermott (in no particular order), so finding Barrie a partner should really be the goal. Sandin would make the most sense in that view, but Leafs brass seems to rank Ceci high internally.
“Cody is an interesting one. Frankly speaking, I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting. He seems to be a really polarizing player. I think it has been interesting — even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage, it seems that every tiny thing he does becomes the referendum on whether he is good or not. That is mindboggling to me because if that would have been done by subjective oriented people in the past, the objective people would have jumped all over it. Now the inverse seems to be happening and it seems to be Cody that is the player it is happening about.
Every defenseman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to have mistakes. You play against the best players in the league — they’re good players — and every defenseman, no matter how good you are, from time to time, you are not going to look your best. I think he has been a good addition for us and he has played above expectations from when we acquired him. We are very happy with him.”
– Kyle Dubas on Cody Ceci, November 2019
Is 11 and 7 possible again?
On that note, is it possible both Cody Ceci and Rasmus Sandin enter lineup with the other mainstays, while Frederik Gauthier sits? Sheldon Keefe did try it during the regular season, and while it didn’t look all that great, we didn’t have much of a sample to judge it on. In a lot of ways, the Leafs roster configuration does suit going this route again.