A look at the Maple Leafs’ roster battles heading toward playoffs

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For a team that’s supposed to be top heavy, the Toronto Maple Leafs have an awful lot of NHL calibre players at the bottom of their roster that are likely to be watching Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  

The team has been sick and injured of late, but seem fortunate in that everybody who’s out should be good to go by playoffs, which mean a few who’ve been playing consistently could suddenly find themselves on the outs. 

Let’s look at each position and assess the battles that are already underway to play in the season’s most meaningful games for the Leafs. 

Goaltenders 

This one’s unique in that we know it’ll be Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll in uniform, with Martin Jones watching from the pressbox. That said, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Leafs got Jones into a game or two down the stretch, in anticipation that they very well COULD end up calling in their third-string goalie, who was mostly quite good for the Leafs this season when he did get in. 

But if Game 1 were to start tonight, most people believe Ilya Samsonov — the more experienced goalie who played well en route to a first-round victory last season — would get the start. 

But hold that thought, as Woll has played well in two of his last three starts, and most believe he has a higher ceiling than Samsonov. When he got hurt midway through the season, he was playing as well as any goalie in the league. Which is to say, nothing is decided yet, and a few more starts for each should provide if not clarity, more data points to consider. 

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1) Samsonov

2) Woll

3) Jones

Defence 

Leafs fans woke up this Friday after a quality win to find that Simon Benoit had signed a three-year contract at an absolute bargain basement price of $1.35 million. It’s damn near risk-free, as 1.1 million is manageable in the minors in the worst-case scenario, but that won’t be relevant anyway. He’s just 25 years old, big, plays tough, works and cares and hits and skates well. The Leafs getting that third year is where they could see real value, as I see a guy that could be worth double or even triple that by his late 20s.  

So what, they’re going to put him in the pressbox in Game 1?  

Well, that looks like a real possibility. Fully healthy, we suspect the Leafs back-end to look like something like this: 

Rielly – Lyubushkin 

Brodie – McCabe 

Edmundson – Liljegren 

(Benoit) 

(Giordano) 

(Timmins) 

By far the biggest question for me is … can Benoit force the Leafs to play him in Game 1? And I think the answer is yes. He’s had down stretches at times, which most young players do, but against Washington on Thursday he was arguably their best D. When Liljegren comes back from injury, he tends to struggle for a bit — could Benoit play over him? Could TJ Brodie be scratched if he doesn’t return to form? Could Joel Edmundson be slow in his recovery, and open the door for Benoit? 

The big French defender is “out” with a few weeks to go, but I’m not sure that’s the right decision, or will be the one they make in a few weeks. 

Forwards 

Let’s start by roughing out the locks, not really in any particular order aside from my own preferences. Guys who could conceivably come out with just a bad game or two are in brackets. 

Domi-Matthews-Marner 

Bertuzzi-(Holmberg)-Nylander 

McMann-Tavares-Jarnkrok 

(Knies)-Kampf-(Dewar) 

(Gregor)-(Robertson)-(Reaves) 

McMann has played himself out of the bracket bunch. He’s got 14 goals(!) in 48 games, almost all of which have come since the all-star break. He’s got a new contract, his minutes are way up, and he’s just taken a step. He’s in, even if he were to play a few outright-bad games in a row.  

I would like to see Knies get scratched a game or two down the stretch for a couple reasons. One for physical rest, two to take a mental step back and just watch a game or two, and three to prepare him if it happens in playoffs. Four is to let him know that’s where he’s at in the lineup at this point, and you hope it inspires more engagement. (But he can be an important guy too, so it would be about getting him right to help contribute, not to punish.) 

After that, Holmberg is pretty well a lock for me, as he can play anywhere up and down the lineup and can chip in at random times. And Dewar is one of the few forwards you trust in all defensive situations, killing penalties and protecting leads.  

And so when healthy, you’ve got some pretty good players on the outside looking in.  

I see it being situational. If they play Florida, maybe Ryan Reaves is a relevant option to combat the physicality. If the Bruins’ great defending is stifling them, maybe an option who can shoot one in at any time in Robertson gets the nod. If they’re getting outskated by Carolina, maybe Gregor is a good answer to speed issues. Fully healthy, they can play it a variety of ways.  

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Overall 

I’ve made a fuss over the past few weeks about how the Leafs have nothing settled, and that’s a problem. Few other teams would struggle to say “If healthy, our lines are…” the way the Leafs would struggle to fill that in. But I’ve probably overstated it some.

Sheldon Keefe has always mixed and matched lines during games and series, so starting points aren’t as essential for the way he uses his bench. And really, we know that Matthews and Marner are the top line. We know Rielly will eat the most minutes on D. And we know that if either goalie struggles, the other will get the next opportunity almost immediately.  

And so in the end, the Leafs don’t have clarity on their exact lineup, but it is fairly easy to see roughly what they’ll be rolling out when the post-season starts around April 20th, barring any more injuries or runs of bad health (and surely those have run their course by now?) 

Whether that’s good enough to win rounds remains to be seen. But having a full extra line of forwards and an extra pair of D and a backup goalie that can all contribute in the NHL is a nice position to be starting from. When things go wrong – and they will, it’s the playoffs – they will have real, viable options at their disposal. 

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