Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty will make their Toronto debuts as the Maple Leafs visit the Edmonton Oilers for a highly-anticipated matchup between the top two Canadian franchises in the NHL standings, especially following the roster upgrades made by both teams this week (8 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Leafs fans never fail to show up in full voice out in Western Canada, but the buzz in the building should be ratcheted up another notch with the organization signaling loudly and clearly that they are — in the words of Ryan O’Reilly today — “all in” on a playoff run this season with six new additions (so far) to the team and two subtractions.
The Oilers will be auditioning a major addition of their own in veteran defenseman Mattias Ekholm, who was acquired from Nashville in exchange for old friend Tyson Barrie and a collection of draft picks yesterday. It’s a notable top-four upgrade to the defensive credibility of a team that has been hovering around the bottom 10 in five-on-five goals against, albeit with shoddy goaltending from former Leaf Jack Campbell (.881 save percentage in 31 games) playing a major part.
Speaking of defensive upgrades, the Leafs will debut Jake McCabe on the blue line, where he is expected to pair with TJ Brodie based on yesterday’s practice lines. It’s no major surprise that Sheldon Keefe went with the reliable Brodie (Mark Giordano is also a similar steadying force) as a partner to help acclimate the new addition, but it’s likely the first of many looks we’ll see on a Leafs blue line that is (at least for now) nine deep after the McCabe, Schenn, and Gustafsson additions.
Noteworthy: Dating back to the Canadian division season, TJ Brodie’s pairing has played almost 72 minutes of five-on-five ice time against Connor McDavid and outscored the Oilers 7-2 in those minutes.
In addition to staying out of the box against the league’s best power play, it’s critically important that the Leafs force McDavid to spend most of his shifts inside his own zone, and also that they don’t turn pucks over and leave their D in bad spots against the McDavid and Draisaitl line in transition situations. When the Oilers’ top line does have the puck, the Leafs‘ forward support is going to need to be extra vigilant and diligent when it comes to slowing them down through the neutral zone with numbers above the puck and solid back pressure.
With their solid all-around mobility and gap control defending the rush, hopefully, McCabe and Brodie are up to the task tonight against a player who has an obscene 50 goals and 115 points in 61 games. That said, it’s going to be a by-committee approach to this matchup on the road, and a feeling-out process can fairly be expected between new partners as McCabe acclimates to the team and system.
Up front, the speedy Sam Lafferty will debut on the fourth line with Noel Acciari and Zach Aston-Reese — a line that has an intriguing mix of pace, physicality, and some finishing ability with Accari (11 goals) and Lafferty (10 goals) added. That means four of the Leafs’ six new additions will be in the lineup tonight, with Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson expected to arrive before the game (in Schenn’s case) or tomorrow in Calgary (in Gustafsson’s case).
Head to Head: Oilers vs. Leafs
In the season-to-date statistics, the Oilers hold the advantage over the Leafs in four out of five offensive categories, but the Leafs hold the advantage in five out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge against Connor McDavid:
I don’t think any more can be said than what has already been said or seen. The stats, the video, or whatever it is scream that he is on another level that no one is anywhere close to at this point.
He is a lot to manage, for sure. We have done a good job in managing it in the past, but also, we have seen times when it hasn’t happened and we haven’t done a good job. You see how much it changes the game.
He is not the only one. They have other guys who are playing well and are dangerous. The depth of the team has taken a real step as well. There is a lot more for us to contend with.
At the same time, we have really good players that they need to be concerned with, too.
Keefe on the anticipation for this matchup:
Good team with elite players. Canadian city. All of those things get the guys excited for sure. This trip is one we are excited to be on. it started in Seattle, but now coming to Alberta, there are lots of reasons to be excited.
We are adding guys to our team. They have added guys. It is an exciting time of the year.
Any time you are playing this team, particularly after being through the Canadian division, there is a little bit more to it.
Jake Campbell on facing his former team if he does get the nod (starter TBD):
I have a lot of buddies over there. A lot of great memories. A special organization. I’m honoured to be part of that organization in my career. They’re playing great, so it’s always fun to play the best teams. I can’t wait to battle some buddies.
Leon Draisaitl on the excitement around this matchup:
It seems like Toronto has a whole new team coming in here… It’s always exciting when Toronto comes to town. Two highly-skilled teams going at it, and it always seems to be a little more amped up than any other game. There are a lot of Toronto fans here, it seems like, so it should be a good game.
Ryan O’Reilly on the skill set Jake McCabe brings to the team:
I had the pleasure of playing with him in Buffalo and could see first-hand the player that he is. He is a guy who does everything well. He is strong and heavy. He plays a hard game. He can make plays. He brings so much to the lineup. A huge pickup for us.
O’Reilly on the message from management as Kyle Dubas continues to add to the group:
We’re all in. That is the group consensus around it. It is an exciting thing. We have a great team here and a lot of good pieces. It is time to put in the work and start building it.
O’Reilly on the addition of Luke Schenn to the squad:
It is nice to have The Human Eraser here. I know him a bit. I played with his brother quite a bit and in international stuff, we played together.
In terms of the playoffs and playing hard, I don’t think there is anyone who does it better than him. He gives everything he has. He is so tough to play against. It is a big piece.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#91 John Tavares – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kämpf – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #52 Noel Acciari – #28 Sam Lafferty
#22 Jake McCabe – #78 TJ Brodie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #34 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll
Extras: Luke Schenn, Conor Timmins
Injured: Matt Murray, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines
#29 Leon Draisaitl – #97 Connor McDavid – #18 Zach Hyman
#73 Vincent Desharnais – #93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – #56 Kailer Yamamoto
#37 Warren Foegele – #71 Ryan McLeod – #26 Mattias Janmark
#21 Klim Kostin – #10 Derek Ryan – #14 Devin Shore
#25 Darnell Nurse – #5 Cody Ceci
#14 Mattias Ekholm – #2 Evan Bouchard
#86 Philip Broberg – #27 Brett Kulak
Starter: #74 Stuart Skinner
#36 Jack Campbell
Injured: Ryan Murray, Evander Kane