Projecting the Leafs Opening Night Lineup for the 2020-21 Season

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So the Leafs did the unthinkable on Friday night and were able to convince Joe Thornton to play for his hometown team on a league minimum contract. He is the eighth player acquired by the Leafs since free agent frenzy began last week, and that results in some interesting questions on what the lineup might look like when the 2020-21 season finally starts.

In the unprecedented times that we continue to live in, when that day comes remains a mystery. There’s been plenty of talk of how the season will play out and how the teams will have their schedules built (including a potential Canadian Division). One thing we do know is that hockey will be played at some point in the coming months and the Leafs will have a different looking roster once the puck finally drops.

Until that date comes, all we can do is speculate our best guesses for what the Leafs might do with their lineups for the coming season and who might fit best in other spots. We are quite removed from when the campaign could potentially start so it’s entirely possible that my projections could be well off the mark. Add to the fact that there remain questions of whether the AHL season can be played and if there will be expanded rosters, you have a perfect storm of an article that may one day end up being mocked for being completely wrong.

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But we’re going to try and guess anyway because brainstorming is fun dammit!

Hyman-Matthews-Marner

Mikheyev-Tavares-Nylander

Robertson-Thornton-Kerfoot

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Vesey-Spezza-Simmonds

EXTRA: Anderson-Engvall-Barbanov

We start with the hardest one to determine because there are so many bodies in need of playing time and it will be a challenge to find the perfect balance.

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One thing that is easy to solve is the first two lines since that’s how they looked when the play-in round began against the Blue Jackets. The top-six may have struggled to generate much offence in that series but it’s a safe bet that Sheldon Keefe would like to run it back for another season. Although Ilya Mikheyev’s primary position is on the right-wing, he should do just fine on the opposite side since he shoots left. I can see the Leafs also swapping Mikeyev and William Nylander’s spot since the latter seemed to have enjoyed playing on the left side.

The bottom-six, by contrast, is filled with a lot of question marks. Thornton has had more success in his career on the faceoff circle compared to Alexander Kerfoot but it also might be a good idea to swap between the two based on situation needs. When Nicholas Robertson hits the ice for his first regular-season game, he will be receiving passes from a future Hall of Famer. Talk about getting your career off to a flying start.

Wayne Simmonds is also good enough to be bumped up to the third line should the Leafs be looking for more physicality in a game. His net-front presence will also help in generating offensive chances both at even strength and on the power play (more on that later).

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The Leafs didn’t bring in Joey Anderson so that they could free up Andreas Johnsson’s cap space; they believe he can be an effective NHL player. I expect he’ll be in heavy consideration for a spot. Alexander Barbanov should get some reps this season as well, which should be helpful for the bottom-six on the defensive end. 

There’s a very good chance that there is a lot of rotation with the lines, especially since the extra forwards could be an equally effective fourth line as well. It’s also possible one or more players here could be on the move in the weeks ahead to help free up some cap space (remember, Mikheyev and Travis Dermott still don’t have a contract).

Rielly-Brodie

Muzzin-Holl

Dermott-Lehtonen

Extra: Sandin-Bogosian, Marincin

On paper, this is one of the best defensive units the Leafs have had in a long time. Signing TJ Brodie to a reasonable contract of $5 million AAV for four seasons is one of the teams’ best moves of the offseason. He is also the best defensive partner Morgan Rielly has ever had by a mile and the two should make for quite the effective top pairing. There are suggestions that Rielly should be paired with Zach Bogosian since he played well in the bubble when paired with Victor Hedman, but I think the Leafs will go with the best lines they can.

The Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl unit was Toronto’s defacto shutdown pair and it worked well for the most part. Holl did struggle when separated from Muzzin, which was especially evident after the latter went down with an injury against Columbus. Unless there is a trade involving Holl in the weeks ahead to shed some salary, you can expect this pair to return.

When it comes to the third pairing, there are so many ways the Leafs can go about this. Kyle Dubas told reporters last week that he envisions Dermott playing on the right side which could result in him being paired with Rasmus Sandin at some point. Bogosian will also get plenty of appearances throughout the season and won’t be given the Martin Marincin treatment of being a spare defenceman only used after injuries start piling up. Mikko Lehtonen is the dark horse out of the group, especially given that many scouts have given him high praise since he signed with the Leafs. There’s no question he has the tools to be an NHLer, but where he slots in depends on how quickly he adapts to the North American ice.

Andersen

Campbell

Dell

With the addition of Aaron Dell, the Leafs now have the deepest goalie tandem they’ve had in the last five years. I have my gripes on Frederik Andersen playing out the last year of his contract in Toronto, but he has proven to be consistent in the regular season and will once again enter the year as the unquestioned starter. Jack Campbell did well in his first few games as a Leaf and should be provided with plenty of runway to ease Andersen’s workload.

Dell also has experience as a backup goalie, so it’s possible that the Leafs rotate him and Campbell infrequently depending on the situation. It might also be a sneak preview at the Leafs tandem in 2021-22 should Toronto decide to keep both of them. The numerous possibilities for how to implement their netminders will make things very interesting in goal for the coming months.

Power-Play Unit 1

Marner-Tavares-Nylander

Rielly-Matthews

Power-Play Unit 2

Robertson-Thornton-Simmonds

Spezza-Lehtonen

The Leafs had the sixth-best power play (23.08%) in the NHL last year thanks in part to the dominant play of the first unit. While Tyson Barrie will be missed for his strong abilities to quarterback the top unit, Rielly should have little trouble adjusting back to being the defenceman on the top unit. The same combination of players helped Toronto boost the eight best power play (21.80%) during the 2018-19 season, so it won’t be too far fetched to say they will finish inside the top 10 once again.

Things get very interesting with the second unit, given that there are plenty of quality options at forward being left off. The one I went with should be just as effective as the first one but to a lesser extent since a number of these players don’t have the mobility to make things tougher on the oppositions. It will be made up by the abundance of high hockey-IQ, led by Thornton who will be the straw that serves the drink. With Robertson and Jason Spezza as trigger options and Simmonds placed in front of the net, don’t be surprised if the second unit sees their ice time jump up from a year prior.

Penalty Kill Unit 1

Hyman-Mikheyev

Muzzin-Brodie

Penalty Kill Unit 2

Marner-Vesey

Rielly-Holl

It’s very interchangeable with Bogosian and Kerfoot likely getting ample opportunity on the penalty kill as the campaign progresses.

Although Brodie does have experience running a power-play successfully, he will be best suited on the 4v5 squad due to an excellent track record on the ice in shorthanded situations. Muzzin was the Leafs best penalty killer last year, so Toronto should have an easier time protecting the slot and clogging lanes with him and Brodie on the back end. Rielly and Holl have seen progression in their penalty killing abilities as well and that will help the other unit out a lot.

Zach Hyman and Mikheyev were two of Toronto’s best forwards when their team was down a man and they will be given the keys to run the top unit. We know that Mitch Marner has grown into a useful option as a penalty killer, but Jimmy Vesey has also improved his play at 4v5. The two could be able to generate some shorthanded chances while also applying pressure on the puck carrier to force turnovers.

Overall, I can imagine Andersen and company will be very happy with the new arrivals this fall because their lives will be made much easier on the penalty kill since the team finished 21st (77.72%) in that department a season ago.

The most significant changes to the lineup will be in the bottom half for both forwards and defencemen. While top-six should likely be untouched, the amount of quality forwards at Keefe’s disposal should present him with challenges in how to properly adjust the lines and get the most out of his depth.

Barrie and Cody Ceci’s departure opens the door for three new arrivals to help buff up the blue line that was in desperate need of improvements. Goaltending remains virtually unchanged apart from the addition of a third-string netminder. Special teams also see minimal adjustments with the exception of the second power-play unit.

Even if one of the players I slotted into the projected lines gets dealt in the coming weeks to free up cap space, it’s hard to argue that Toronto didn’t do a great job at bringing in some quality players without compromising one of the big four.

Whoever the Leafs play on the first game of the 2020-21 season could be in for a rough night having to match up against these lines, whenever that may be.

All stats unless otherwise noted are from Hockey-Reference.com.

All salary information is from PuckPedia.com.