Toronto’s Opening Day Lines
Started from the bottom… probably going to still stay near the bottom. After a long off season which highlighted the Number 1 overall selection, the signing of a bona fide starting goalie, and hosting the World Cup of Hockey, Toronto is looking forward to not being the 30th place team again.
Potential superstar Auston Matthews will make his NHL debut Wednesday against the Ottawa Senators. Coach Babcock has stated he will skate up the middle, but who he is playing with has been in question all pre-season. We know for sure William Nylander will be on his right; however, there was much speculation about who would play on the left hand side. Zach Hyman will likely be the second winger on the very young third line. Hyman can win battles along the boards, as well his speed and skill allow him to be quite an asset alongside Matthews.
Matt Martin could bring some experience and grit to the line, but he is not skillful nor quick enough to keep up. Mitch Marner was also a topic of discussion, and it is a possibility that he will slide into that role. However, for the start of the season, expect him to play alongside James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak.
The first two lines are a combination of Leafs over the last couple of years. Komarov and Kadri have played with eachother for quite some time now. JVR and Bozak were linemates two years ago with Phil Kessel, but did not play together for the majority of last season.
After putting Brooks Laich on waivers on Monday, Peter Holland will likely fill the fourth center hole. He will play with newly-acquired Matt Martin, Connor Brown, and Josh Leivo. Martin signed a 4 year/ 10 million dollar contract with the Leafs this offseason (God knows why that much?) and will be a big presence in the locker room.
Despite all the youth and talent within the Leafs lineup there are other players that will not make the opening night roster. Nikita Soshnikov (injured), Brandon Prust (PTO), Kasperi Kapanen will all likely see time with the Leafs this year, especially if there are injuries sustained.
Added D-man, Nikita Zaitsev will log 3rd pairing minutes skating with Matt Hunwick. Zaitsev, 24 will make his NHL debut after signing from the KHL. Carrick and Gardiner look to have huge offensive years as they skate together on the second pairing. Morgan Rielly will be counted on to shut down the number 1 line on most nights.
The Leafs utilized their high waiver pick grabbing Seth Griffith, yesterday. The 23 year old has been up and down between the Bruins and their affiliate in Providence. At the NHL level, Griffith has 34 games under his belt and 11 points. Last year with Providence was his best, putting up 77 points in 57 games. Griffith will likely take Josh Leivo or Connor Brown’s spot on the team in the near future.
Both goalies are new to the club. Freddy Andersen signed from Anaheim and Enroth will likely play the back up role. Although, after battling an injury sustained in Olympic qualifiers, and a rough preseason, Andersen will now have to stand on his head to keep the starting role. Both goalies are mild upgrades from the Bernier -Reimer tandem from last year. Enroth has gone through it in Buffalo, but Andersen will need to adjust to seeing so many shots. Reimer was a victim of overuse and exhaustion during his tenure in Toronto and Andersen will need to be weary.
What to Expect
Are the Leafs a better team than last year? Yes. Are they in a better position moving forward? Yes. Will we see a drastic improvement from last year, AKA playoff contention or something close? Unlikely.
Toronto is certainly in a better position, they have their “Number One Center,” they have a starting goalie, and they even have a decent backup. What they don’t have is depth especially in their own end. With Roman Polak being the seventh d-man, the Leafs are a Reilly injury away from being in serious trouble this season.
Not to mention, Toronto has 29 wins last year. It takes 40-45 wins, to make the playoffs. So the question remains, where are the 15 wins coming from? To win games you have to take them from other teams, and there is no clear indication the Leafs are going to be able to steal 10-15 games from other clubs.
This team will be fun to watch. The past season and a half have been absolutely dreadful for Leafs fans everywhere. It is clear that the Leafs are moving in the right direction, but it is still going to take a season or two to get there. Coach Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello have been entirely overly-optimistic and they need to continue to be. The kids on this roster need to know that they are good and they will do well in the future, but they have to work hard.
Players like Kadri and Rielly, who just signed almost identical 6 year extensions, as well as JVR, Bozak, Martin, and Holland will need to show the kids how to be a professional athlete. Avoiding a situation like the one in Edmonton is crucial to keeping interest this season. Stay tuned and be-leaf.
Kadri v Matthews. This year will definitely be a huge test for Nazem Kadri. With a younger, faster, more skilled prospect in Matthews, Kadri will have to prove his worth to the club. Shooting only 5%, one can believe that his low efficiency will not trend this way and he should have a rebound year with regards to point production. Being reliant down the middle of the ice and playing a full 200-foot game will separate him from Matthews for the time being.
Longevity of JVR. JVR has a very appealing contract, $4.25 over the next two years. This makes him a very affordable and useable piece to contending clubs. Whether or not the Leafs keep him, to help grow the prospects, or ship him to continue their rebuild and develop younger talent, will be a major question until the trade deadline.
Talent v Inexperience. There is not much depth within the roster. Anyone can see it, and Toronto can really be exposed with substantial injuries. Dressing 5 or 6 rookies a night is great in terms of selling exciting hockey. But the lack of quality NHL experience can definitely lead to uneven games and huge losses.
Images via sportsnet.ca and cbc.ca