If we do a quick evaluation of the present roster we see the Toronto Maple Leafs have a solid top-six forward group. This strong top-six unit includes the team’s first line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Matthew Knies. The second line is John Tavares, William Nylander, and Tyler Bertuzzi. These lines can stack up against any team’s top two lines in the Eastern Conference. The third and fourth lines are where the Maple Leafs are weak and could use some help.
On defence, the team has Morgan Rielly as the only true top-pairing defenceman. Then there is TJ Brodie and Jake McCabe. They would be middle-of-the-road top-four defencemen on pretty much any team in the league. The Maple Leafs then have three decent third-pairing defencemen, Mark Giordano, Simon Benoit, and Timothy Liljegren.
In goal, the Maple Leafs have a veteran goalie who has taken a team to the Stanley Cup Final (Martin Jones), a goalie who has seemed to redefine the term “Hot and Cold” (Ilya Samsonov), and a rookie who before he was injured had played great and won the starter’s role (Joseph Woll).
What Realistically Might the Maple Leafs Do To Improve Its Roster?
Working backward from the net out, the goaltending is what the goaltending is. There is nothing out there the Maple Leafs could afford that would be guaranteed to make them any better in the net. Either one or more of their goalies is good enough to get them deep in the playoffs; or, they aren’t. Maple Leafs fans simply have to hope one of them can do the job.
Looking at the Maple Leafs’ Defensive Pairings
If we slot each defenceman into where they should be playing, the defence would look like this. The point is that Rielly needs a strong partner.
First Defensive Pairing: Rielly-(player to be found)
Second Defensive Pairing: McCabe-Brodie
Third Defensive Pairing: Giordano-Benoit-Liljegren
McCabe and Brodie did not fare well together in the playoffs last season. Was it because Brodie had a poor postseason? As a late-season addition, was McCabe not completely comfortable in his role with the team at that time? He has played better this season with more responsibility. It is difficult to say whether or not a second pair of Brodie and McCabe would do better this season or not.
The Special Case of Morgan Rielly
Acquiring a top-pairing defenceman won’t be that easy. There aren’t that many defencemen available; and, the ones that might be available will be expensive. Rielly has played well in the past with partners who would not be considered top-four defencemen let alone top-paring defencemen. He had his best season with a 36-year-old Ron Hainsey as his partner. He had his best playoffs last season with Luke Schenn as his partner.
Whoever the Maple Leafs acquire to play with Rielly must be strong defensively. That would allow Rielly to play to his offensive strengths. If the player is also somewhat physical, even better. They would have to be capable of playing 20 minutes a game.
Looking at the Maple Leafs’ Forwards
As for the forward contingent, the Maple Leafs have the top two lines set. The one thing that Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has desired in the past and has managed to put together is a shutdown line. This season, he has not had the resources to do that. However, there are three players presently on the roster who could, when healthy, potentially fill that role. They are David Kampf, Calle Jarnkrok, and Pontus Holmberg. If they were to be put together on the fourth line, they could comprise an excellent fourth line and a pretty decent shutdown line.
Kampf has had his struggles this season but he hasn’t had the greatest linemates to play with. His strengths are his play without the puck and his checking ability. Both Jarnkrok and Holmberg are smart players with the puck and capable of playing equally with and without it. They are not going to provide a lot of offence, but their defensive play makes up for it.
Right now, to assemble that fourth line and, with the top-six in place, the following players are left to assemble a third line: Max Domi, Nick Robertson, Noah Gregor, and Ryan Reaves. Domi and Robertson have an offensive upside. While they don’t have much size, they can skate. They also can handle the puck and they both have decent shots. Gregor and Reaves have both struggled to play on the fourth line. There seems no way either of them could help make the third line better.
If the Maple Leafs could acquire a center/winger with offensive upside and preferably some size, a third line comprised of that player partnered with Domi and Robertson could provide the Maple Leafs with a third line that might give them some punch and some secondary scoring. Could Bobby McMann be that person? He has size, and speed, and was able to score in the American Hockey League (AHL). Domi could then play center.
The forward contingent would then look like this:
Domi-(player to be found)-Robertson
The Bottom Line for Improving the Maple Leafs
In conclusion, if the Maple Leafs can swing deals for a top-four defenceman to play with Rielly and a bottom-six center/winger, they would be able to put together a roster that, if they get the goaltending, might surprise in the playoffs.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]