What Will the Leafs’ Forward Lines Look Like?

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ primary goal this offseason was finding a cheap and efficient way to replace Zach Hyman in their top six, and as we started training camp, most people weren’t convinced they had. Names like Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie and Michael Bunting don’t exactly scream first-line winger to most casual Leaf fans. Nevertheless, Hyman is tough to replace, especially for a team like the Leafs, who have plenty of skilled, technical forwards but very few who play similarly to the now Edmonton Oiler. Furthermore, what Hyman lacked in talent, he made up for with his tenacity and ability to chase down pucks. He also had developed great chemistry with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and many felt he was the heart and soul of the team.

However, those signings, along with the professional tryout offers given to Josh Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev, should show Leaf fans that Kyle Dubas isn’t trying to recreate Hyman. He isn’t expecting a single player to take his place. Instead, Dubas wants to recover what he lost by using a combination of players to supplant Hyman’s production. The question is, who is that combination of players going to be?

Obviously, the Leafs have four players who are stapled to the top two lines. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares will play with at least one other member of the four, leaving the Leafs two slots to fill in their top six. 

Early signs are that Nick Ritchie will take at least one of the spots to start the year, probably on a line with Marner and Matthews. I didn’t mind the signing, especially at the price. Ritchie can fill an essential role for the Leafs, but I don’t know what to think about him being on the first line; Ritchie had a career-high in goals last season, playing most of his minutes at five on five with David Krejci. However, he was mediocre at even strength, ranking near the middle to bottom of Bruin forwards in expected goals share, shot share and high danger chance share. I think the Leafs are hoping that Ritchie’s physical, forechecking style will mesh well with Matthews and Marner, but he’s not a great skater and could struggle to keep up with them. Time will tell, but personally, I believe there are better options for that position on the first line. 

One of those options is Ondrej Kase. The sheer mention of Kase’s name should excite any Leaf fan. Signed for one year at just $1.25 million, he is smart, a great skater, and plays well with top players; the only issue is he has the worst luck when it comes to injuries.

image courtesy of @Jfreshhockey on twitter (Percentages are percentile rank in the NHL)

The 25-year-old has played 88 games in the last three seasons and played just three times last year. But he’s really, really good when he is healthy. The most games he has ever played in a season were 66 in 2017-2018, in which he scored 20 goals and had 38 points. Take this for what it’s worth, but Kase has also played noticeably well so far in the preseason, and his versatility could be so crucial for the Leafs this season. He could be a part of a pesky checking line or the left-winger that JT and Willy have been so desperate for, or even form a dominant possession line with Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dubas goes to sleep every night praying that Kase stays healthy because if he does, he will be the answer to many questions for the Leafs.

The following two guys I’m really interested in are Michael Bunting and David Kampf. Again, both players are versatile and can be played in several different roles, Bunting specifically. The Scarborough-born winger scored ten times last season in just 26 games for the Coyotes and has lit up preseason already with four goals in two games. He’s scored in different ways too. One was a redirect, two were good finishes in front of the net, and the last one was a James Van Riemsdyk Esque roof job in tight. There’s every chance that Bunting’s absurdly high shooting percentage from last year drops to something relatively low, but from what I’ve seen in the first few preseasons games, he’s showed he brings more than just goals. Kurtis Gabriel called Bunting a ‘greasy rat,’ which is an apt description for him.

He’s got skill, but he’s not afraid to be a shithead and get after pucks. I can’t wait to watch him wreak havoc on defensemen, potentially on a third line with Kase and Kerfoot.

Kampf is a different type of player entirely but still should prove useful. The signing made many Leaf fans scratch their heads when it was announced, but after watching him in the early goings here, it’s becoming clear what his role will be. He’s a defensive centre whose job is to make sure that nothing happens when he is on the ice, and that’s pretty much what he’s done his whole career. Here’s his three year chart.

Image courtesy of Evolving-hockey.com

So you’re not gaining a lot when he’s out there, but you’re not losing anything either, and for a team with the Leafs’ offensive ability, he’s not a bad guy to have deep in the lineup. He’ll usually play on the fourth line and will get a good chunk of penalty kill minutes. 

Now we get to the final 2-3 roster spots, and it starts to get interesting. You’d have to be either a huge Mike Babcock stan or just an idiot to think that Jason Spezza doesn’t deserve a spot on the team. Spezz was phenomenal last year and is such an easy guy to root for, and the boys love him; his place on the fourth line is locked up. 

So that realistically leaves us with five players, Wayne Simmonds, Nikita Gusev, Josh Ho-Sang, Pierre Engvall and Nick Robertson, fighting for one spot in the starting lineup. It’s tough to see Simmonds not being in the lineup on opening night just because he’s Wayne Simmonds, but for argument’s sake, let’s say his spot isn’t guaranteed. In which case, I would give the final place to Ho-Sang.

Admittedly, it’s hard to see the Leafs going with the former Islander over Simmonds or Engvall, but let me try and convince you why he’s the best choice. I’ve been enamoured with Ho-Sang’s game ever since I first saw his Toronto Marlboros AAA highlights when he was just a 15-year-old kid. His playmaking ability is off the charts, he’s got great edges, and he can make just about any pass you could want him to make.

Clip courtesy of @jhanhky on twitter

Getting to the middle of the ice is an underrated skill in the NHL and Ho-Sang seems to do it with ease.

This is just a sick pass, and he’s already developed some chemistry with Bunting *eyes emoji*

He’s still just 25 years old, and he’s had multiple good seasons in the AHL. His play in the preseason has been so encouraging, and he’s saying all the right things; I don’t see how you don’t give him a shot. If he works out, you have a cheap, young, forward who is motivated and has all the tools in the world to be an NHL regular. If it doesn’t, you just ship him to the minors and never think about him again.

On top of that, it’s not like any of the other options are lighting the world on fire. Gusev looks like a total liability at even strength, and he isn’t worth the risk as the Leafs definitely don’t need his skill. I’m not wholly against Simmonds being a constant in the lineup; I just don’t think he’s at the pace that the Leafs need him to be, I hope I’m wrong, but man, he looked out of sorts in the playoffs last year. As for our golden child Nick Robertson, I just don’t see the point in rushing him to the NHL, especially if we don’t have to. Let him develop and grow in the AHL. He’ll score a bunch of goals and hopefully get some confidence. There is no doubt he’ll be a big part of the future, but let’s give him time. 

The Leafs have tried going with hard-nosed, veteran players in the bottom six, thinking it would help get them over the hump, and it didn’t, so now it’s time to go back to playing the twelve best forwards we have, and I think Ho-Sang is one of those twelve.

To summarize, this is what I hope the Leafs’ lineup will look like heading into the season opener.

I expect there to be some movement as the season progresses; we might even occasionally see Bunting get a chance on the first line. Whatever the lines are, I’m really excited to see this forward group in action. It’s a more balanced group than last year, it’s faster and more skilled. If only the North division was still a thing, they’d be breaking records left, right and center.

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