FINALLY!!! “We can, and we will” was what Kyle Dubas famously said to Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek regarding contract negotiations with his 3 star young RFA’s, and this just after landing the biggest UFA in the history of the NHL’s cap era. All anyone could wonder was how Dubas going to make it all fit.
Whether you like how Dubas made it happen or not, The Big 3 are signed, the core is locked in, a captain announcement is on the horizon, and now Leafs Nation can just focus on watching this team play hockey.
After 2 years of listening to TSN and Sportsnet talk about “How much this player was going to make”, and all the rest of the noise, at least now we can debate line combinations instead of the very divisive contract negotiations.
Now let’s get talking training camp; With all the additions to the roster over the course of the summer, let’s have a look and how I project the lines to look come October 2nd.
So this is about as straight forward as it gets for Mike Babcock. Very few coaches in the NHL are lucky enough to have the amount of skill and speed this Leaf team has at their disposal. To start off, let’s begin by assuming Zach Hyman is out until the end of October (missing 14 games).
Kapanen – Tavares – Marner
Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander
Based off reports coming out of training camp and the first pre-season game, it looks like we are going to see Kapanen move to the LW of Tavares’ line. I believe he can fit that Hyman-type mold with his speed and strength on puck retrieval while letting Tavares and Marner do their thing. Kapanen struggled a bit last year finding those creative passing lanes for Matthews but I think if the coaches can simplify his role, we will all see Kasperi become more effective in the o-zone.
The Matthews line in my opinion is something that doesn’t need to be over-thought. Matthews showed chemistry with Johnsson last season and we know the magic he has with Nylander in their first two seasons in the league. I think you will also see things start to open up for Matthews much more off the rush. Nylander is a threat through the neutral zone and entering the attacking zone, which will force opponents to not solely focus on Matthews getting the puck and we will see cleaner zone entries for that line.
Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Shore
Moore – Spezza – Åberg
Now this is where things get interesting, with so many depth signings this off-season the possibilities are endless for Babcock here. On the 3rd line I can see Babcock place Alexander Kerfoot with Nick Shore and Ilya Mikheyev at least to start the season with Hyman being out.
Nick Shore is a two-way centre who I think should help Kerfoot by taking away some of the defensive responsibilities from Kerfoot. If Shore should struggle during the pre-season, expect a tough decision as I would suspect he will be susceptible to being claimed off waivers if the Leafs decide to send him to the Marlies to start the year.
Someone also to watch out for is Ilya Mikheyev during the pre-season. I know we’ve seen the KHL experiment fail for this team before but all the scouting reports on him is his skating is a level above any player we’ve seen make the jump from Europe to the NHL.
Finally, we have the Spezza line! As weird as it is to say, but Jason Spezza is a Leaf and on top of that, he is likely going to be in between the two fastest wingers on the team not named Kasperi Kapanen. Moore and Åberg can simply wear opposing defencemen down with their speed and Spezza’s ability find either of his wingers springing them onto an odd-man rush is just a bonus.
So much can happen during training camp, that can and will impact the final roster selection. One cannot also forget the wild card in all this Mike Babcock, who leans heavily on the players he likes, so we should all pay attention in later exhibition games for a hint or two of where his head is at with his final roster selection.
Lookout for Part 2 later this week which will cover my predictions on the Defence and Goaltending!