The Toronto Maple Leafs have four games remaining in the 2022-23 regular season, but we know a number of things about their near-future, once the season concludes and the playoffs begin. We know stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander are going to be among Toronto’s top-six group of forwards.
We know Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake McCabe, Mark Giordano and Justin Holl will comprise five of the Leafs’ top-six defense corps. And we know Ilya Samsonov is going to be the starting goalie in Game One against the Tampa Bay Lightning.*
(*all of this that we know, of course, is subject to injuries)
After that, things get a little bit foggier, but even then, we’ve got a good idea of what Toronto will be throwing at the Lightning when the series kicks off at Scotiabank Arena. The Leafs’ bottom-six forwards unit will almost assuredly include veterans David Kampf, Noel Acciardi, and Sam Lafferty. And the sixth-and-final defense position in Game One will go to either Luke Schenn or Timothy Liljegren.
After that, there are legitimate grey areas – does star forward Ryan O’Reilly stick in the top six forwards – and perhaps move Tavares to the wing on the second line, as has already happened after O’Reilly’s acquisition – or does O’Reilly anchor the center spot of the third line, pushing Kampf down to the fourth-line center spot? What effect will NCAA phenom Matthew Knies’ arrival after turning pro have on the Leafs’ makeup of forward lines? What kind of roles are there for forwards Alex Kerfoot and Zach Aston-Reese? If Knies is in the lineup, one of Kerfoot or Aston-Reese will be scratched. And both Kerfoot and Aston-Reese have played well of late. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has some difficult decisions ahead.
Ep 119: Patrick Mahomes' Top 5 List
by Full Press Coverage on May 27, 2023 at 7:49 pm
The most important thing for Toronto is that they do have numerous lineup looks to challenge the Lightning. Young forward Nick Abruzzese was sent back to the American League’s Toronto Marlies this week, but he did have a pair of assists in two games, and looked more competitive at the NHL level than he did when he got his first taste of hockey’s top league last spring. If things get physical, Keefe can turn to greybeard Wayne Simmonds and insert him on the Leafs’ fourth line.
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On defense, if anyone struggles or is hurt, or if Toronto’s offense and all-around physical play begins drying up, trade deadline acquisition Erik Gustafsson and rugged D-man Jordie Benn will be available. And, given that Matt Murray’s future is clouded by his latest injury, Keefe will have youngster Joseph Woll if Samsonov buckles under the pressure of playoff hockey.
Lightning star netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy once again will be the best goalie on either side, but he has looked human many times this year, and he’s playing behind a depleted Tampa Bay defense corps. There’s a golden opportunity here for the Leafs, one that might not be this golden again. The salary cap’s tortoise-slow rise will make it more difficult for GM Kyle Dubas to stack the lineup with this much experience and skill. The lack of cap space will necessitate more young players coming onto the NHL roster. But for now, this is a team that has more than enough talent to achieve something memorable.
So, you can see why Leafs GM Kyle Dubas and Leafs brass are feeling confident about their chance to shake off the demons of the past and eliminate the Lightning when the games really count. This is a smarter, more experienced, more businesslike version of the Leafs than the one we saw in the 2022 playoffs. They may ultimately fail to beat the Bolts, but they can’t say Dubas & Co. didn’t give them an above-average shot at post-season success.
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