NHL fans might be getting their Christmas gift on time after all: On Friday, the League and the Players Association reached a tentative agreement on their plans for the 2020-21 season, subject to a vote of approval from the two sides.

A January 13 start, with no exhibition games, remains the target, but the date of opening day remains tentative at this time. Training camps could open as early as January 3rd.

We’re still waiting to hear — we might know by Monday — about whether the league can come to agreements with the provincial authorities to allow for the creation of the long-rumoured all-Canadian division. With the following playoff format (top four in each division make it, then battle it out against one another), this is going to have huge ramifications as it pertains to the Leafs and the six other Canadian teams. 

At least based on the standing finishes last season, the path to the Conference Final is significantly easier if the Leafs are in an all-Canadian division in this format versus a modified Atlantic Division.

Some of the other key details known at this time: It sounds like it will be 23-man rosters ($81.5 million cap, no prorated salaries) with taxi squads that will be comprised of four-to-six players who are paid as though they’re in the AHL. It appears as though taxi-squad players may be required to enter games after a certain number of days on the sidelines.

Toronto Maple Leafs Rough Roster + Taxi Squad Projection

LWCRW Taxi Squad (4-6)
William NylanderAuston MatthewsZach HymanNick Robertson (LW)
Ilya MikheyevJohn TavaresMitch MarnerRasmus Sandin (LD)
Alexander KerfootJoe ThorntonWayne SimmondsMartin Marincin (LD)
Jimmy VeseyPierre EngvallJason SpezzaAlex Barabanov (W)
Travis BoydJoey Anderson (RW)
Aaron Dell (G)
LDRDOther Taxi Options
Morgan RiellyTJ BrodieDenis Malgin (RW)
Jake MuzzinJustin HollNic Petan (LW/C)
Mikko LehtonenZach BogosianCalle Rosen (LD)
Travis DermottTimothy Liljegren (RD)
Michael Hutchinson (G)
GoaltendersKenny Agostino (LW)
Frederik AndersenAdam Brooks (C)
Jack Campbell

All of this is going to be even more fluid and unpredictable than usual with how congested the schedule will be and the possible rules around getting taxi squad players into games.

A few notes:

  • Remember, the Leafs have to carry fewer than 23 players on the active roster to fit under the $81.5 million cap. The above projection has 22 on the active roster, but it may need to be 21 depending on how the camp battles shape out and who Sheldon Keefe likes as his lineup starters on the roster among the bubble group — with no preseason games to judge anything on, either, as it will be based on body of work, the shape players are in at camp, and how the puzzle pieces fit under the upper limit.
  • There are 10 locks up front: Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, Mikheyev, Hyman, Thornton, Kerfoot, Simmonds, Spezza. Vesey is in a battle with Robertson and Barabanov — with Malgin, Petan, maybe Agostino also in the mix — on the wing. Engvall potentially has some competition down the middle in Boyd. There are some decisions around who comprises the taxi squad here, as seen above, but the top 7-8 on defense and the 10 forward regulars are easy to map out in addition to the goalies.
  • We included Thornton and Spezza in the locks, but with a compact schedule, we’ll see how often the Leafs choose to give these two nights off for load-management purposes. That doesn’t just apply to the oldest vets necessarily, either. Especially out of the gates with no exhibition action, it’ll be a balancing act to walk for the sports science team and the coaching staff when it comes to these kinds of decisions, knowing it is a 56-game sprint without much margin to screw around.
  • The defense is more or less set. Lehtonen will probably get the opportunity to start in the lineup, one has to figure. Whether Dermott can play on the right, and how Dermott and Bogosian split those games if that’s the case, is a storyline to watch.  Whether Lehtonen hits the ground running coming off of KHL action in late 2020, and if Sandin can stake a claim to more of those starts at LD (again, assuming Dermott shifts to the right, which isn’t a guarantee), is something to monitor as well. The defensive mix feels noticeably improved overall — on paper — with a healthy Muzzin, the addition of Brodie on the right, plus the added depth of Lehtonen and Bogosian.
  • The question mark that stands out the most is how Sheldon Keefe will sort out his bottom six — can he build a working energy/checking line and sheltered scoring line out of this group? While the head-to-head matchup is going to fall to Matthews and his group or Tavares and his group, ideally, the energy line can be trusted with the occasional defensive-zone start against challenging competition coming off of power plays, etc., or to free up the top guns for some advantageous matchups/zone starts. There aren’t a lot of natural combinations that spring to mind here looking at this group; there are some interesting pieces here, but how it all comes together is tough to figure out sitting here a week before Christmas.
    As Anthony puts it below, the coaching staffs that are able to get their groups best prepared at the starting gun are going to put their teams at a big advantage.

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