Well – after a hiatus that lasted a couple years, the site is back up (for now)!
One of the most frequent topics I see on Hockey Twitter and am asked about is the Leafs line-up. More specifically, who should be playing with who in order to optimize the talent the Leafs have. I am going to present a few possibilities based on numbers, what has had previous success and what coaches tend to lean toward. The one stipulation here, a healthy roster. If everyone is healthy, what would the lines and pairs look like?
Goaltending: Andersen. End. He has been great for the Leafs and similar to most NHL teams, without your goaltender healthy and performing, it is difficult to have success. He has kept the Leafs, who don’t always start on time, in games with timely saves in key situations.
D Pairings: There are a few options here, and yes, you have to consider that Babcock has his favourites. With D, coaches want to know what they’re getting, they want to be comfortable with who they have on the back end. Here are some options:
- 51 – 44, 23 – 8, 2 – 22
- 44 – 8, 51 – 23, 2 – 22
- 44 – 51/8, 8/51 – 22, 23 – 2
The 1st option is optimal and there have been signs that Babcock likes the top pairing. When the Leafs need to generate offense, Babcock pairs 44 & 51 together and has seen successful. Pairing two high end skating defensemen together, who move the puck effectively, is a very good combo. When you consider Boston has one mammoth line that needs to be shutdown; depending on these two to mitigate the danger off the rush, exit the zone quickly, and control the puck when there is proven success, is a safer bet than 44 – 2. Playing 23 – 8 together supports the top pair with two effective D who can both exit the zone (especially Dermott) and defend the rush effectively. Rielly, Gardiner, Muzzin and Dermott are very clearly the top 4 because all of them consistently make good decisions with and without the puck, effectively defend the rush and exit the defensive zone with possession. Having a bottom pairing that you can shelter with the veteran presence of Hainsey and skating of Zaitsev allows you to control the minutes more effectively. Hainsey is an effective defender, but has issues with speed, and a pairing with Zaitsev will allow for lesser quality of competition – reducing the chances of mistakes ending up in the back of the net.
Option 2 sees Gardiner and Muzzin flip. While these pairings didn’t work to start, at least Babcock wasn’t comfortable with it, it needs more time. Adjusting to a new system, in a less physical style of play (Eastern Conference), with more speed takes time. Putting Muzzin and Rielly together and letting them adjust to each other over a longer period of time will allow them to be comfortable with each other’s tendencies. This is key in stressful situations, a shut down role against Boston in the playoffs, for example. Having Gardiner and Dermott together still optimizes the top 4, in terms of playing the 4 best D in a top 4 role. While Gardiner is prone to Good/Bad Jake, Dermott is a better skater than 22/2 and will be able to support Gardiner more effectively. Both players make excellent zone exits and stretch passes, meaning Gardiner has less pressure to make “the” play when he knows he can move it to Dermott who can also make the pass or skate it out of danger. If paired with Zaitsev, Gardiner knows once he passes it to Zaitsev, it is likely going off the glass, thus, putting the pressure on him to make the play. The more pressure, the more likely you are to make a mistake. With athletes, confidence is key, the more confident each guy is in their partner’s ability to make a good play, the more likely he is to use him, adding another option and lessening the burden.
Option 3 is the Mike Babcock comfort level with a nuance. A part of me thinks come playoff time, Hainsey’s minutes will rise for the reason that the coaching staff is comfortable with him. However, with a 90% chance of playing the Bruins, having a top pair of 44/8 or 44/51 is much more effective than 44/2. When the game is on the line, Babcock has been known to use 44/51, and has shied away from Dermott (likely due to inexperience). With D, it is all about trust, and Hainsey has that trust. Moving Dermott down to the 3rd pairing is less than ideal with the game he plays, but it is a realistic possibility.
As far as D are concerned, when healthy, the 3 players the coaches are likely to rely on are 44/51/8. This is due to play, experience and comfort level. Optimally, 22/2 play in a sheltered, bottom pairing. Marincin and Holl are both viable options, however, it just isn’t a reality with how things have unfolded. The bottom line here is: The top 4 in TOI need to be 44, 51, 8 and 23.
Forwards: There are a lot more options here so I won’t detail them as in depth, except to point out key decisions.
- 18 – 91 – 16, 24 – 34 – 29, 11 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42 (28)
- 11 – 91 – 16, 18 – 34 – 24, 12 – 43 – 29, 63 – 19 – 42
- 11 – 91 – 16, 24 – 34 – 29, 18 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42
There are definitely more options, but one thing you will notice is Connor Brown is not listed. Do I think Mike Babcock is going to scratch Brown, 75% no. Scratching Gauthier is the easy decision when you look at the skill. Both Brown and Gauthier kill penalties, which is why I think Brown is likely to stay in. However, you can roll PK units that include: 11, 91, 16, 43, 18, 24 – all have demonstrated an ability to PK or the tools to be an effective penalty killer.
I’d like to see Johnsson played with Tavares and Marner. He’s just as effective at getting to loose pucks as Hyman, but is a better skill option once the puck is recovered. He plays with the same tenacity as Hyman, and I think having Marner passing to Johnsson is more dangerous than passing to Hyman.
Another line I’d like to see is 24 – 34 – 29. We got a glimpse of that and it was highly effective. Kapanen’s speed and tenacity creating space for Nylander and Matthews to do their thing would be neat. Not as neat as my personal favourite: 24 – 34 – 16, 18/11 – 91 – 29, 18/11 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42 (28)
The odds of that combination are slim, but I would like to see it tried. There have been brief glimpses into Marner/Matthews and they’ve both stated they want to play together. Those brief glimpses…terrifying. The luxury of having 3 quality centres is it allows this type of tinkering. We already know Tavares/Marner works, so why not try Matthews/Marner (which seems to work) and Tavares/Nylander. Put Kapanen with Matthews and Marner as the puck retrieval/speed guy who can create space for the other two. Tavares and Nylander is an interesting combo that I think is best served with Johnsson. Nylander’s shot has been well documented, and one the more underrated parts of Tavares’ game is his ability to create space. Think about this: Johnsson digs the puck out in the way the Hyman does, Tavares is net front (he usually is) and drawing all sorts of attention. One D on 18, one on 91, that leaves Nylander to lurk and find the open space (which he’s good at) and get his shot off. The centre is likely supporting the puck, meaning defending teams have to have a winger on Nylander – a matchup I’d take. Whether Nylander scores or not, Tavares at net front causing havoc allows for screens, tips and most importantly, rebounds. To be fair, I think the LW can be tweaked with any combo of 11/18/24, but the 34/16 and 91/29 combos are what I would experiment with.
When Kadri comes back, he’s the 3rd line pivot, set in stone. Marleau isn’t coming out of the lineup or playing on the 4th line. So that’s two-thirds of the 3rd line. It becomes a matter of which one of 11/18/24 is left over there. The best part about that, every one of those players is effective both offensively and defensively, so you are not giving up defensively by having any of those players with Kadri and Marleau.
We will likely get our first look on Wednesday night at the 5’9 line of Moore, Ennis and Petan. If it works, then I think it is hard to ignore. However, I don’t see this as a permanent solution because Brown will play and Gauthier will likely see a few games as well. Petan is the easy odd man to rotate with Gauthier at centre and if the “tie goes to the veteran,” then Moore likely rotates with Brown. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering Moore is just cutting his teeth in the NHL and playoff hockey is different. Also, not a bad idea to have guys rested and fresh, which will definitely be discussed on the podcast and/or here.
Here’s what I would do: Andersen in net. The back end: 51 – 44, 23 – 8, 2 – 22. I’d rotate Marincin/Ozhiganov in (but I doubt 22/2 are coming out).I’d try: 24 – 34 – 16, 18/11 – 91 – 29, 18/11 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42 (28). If it works, you go with that, because it is down right terrifying. If the chemistry isn’t there, you go back to what works. In my eyes, 18 – 91 – 16, 24 – 34 – 29, 11 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42 (28). This isn’t a knock on Hyman, as I think he’d be terrific with Kadri in a checking role. Johnsson has shown to be a more offensively skilled player who can retrieve pucks the way Hyman does. If we are going with best lineup, those are the two forward options.
On the topic of rest…briefly. Down the stretch, I’d be resting some of the bigger guns. Ideally, you rest Hainsey a few games, but Dermott/Gardiner need to come back first. Heck, I’d even rest Muzzin a game or two. There’s something to be said for the extra bit of rest going into the playoffs. Up front, when healthy, use the depth. Rest some of the big guys for a night or two. I’m talking Marner, Hyman, Matthews. 34 & 16 are likely to take a beating in the playoffs, Matthews has had injury concerns, there is some merit to making sure both are 100% rested and ready for when the games truly count. Come playoffs, they’ll play. But, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a rotation on the 4th line to keep those guys rested and ready – you never know when a depth player is going to be a key difference maker.