One look at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster on Cap Geek should show you the Leafs are likely done assembling the team for the 2014-15 NHL season. What it doesn’t show you, however, is what the lineup might actually look like. For the first time in awhile, the Leafs will head to training camp with real opportunity available and too many players for too few positions, breeding competition and making this camp far more important than camps of the past.
Mar 3, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer (34) and goaltender Jonathan Bernier (45) pass each other during the pre game warm up against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Despite the uncertainty with the lineup, some parts are locked in. With James Reimer now re-signed, the Leafs are set at goal again with the returning duo of Jonathan Bernier and Reimer. The only question now is how many games does each goalie see. Bernier saw action in 55 games last year, more than doubling his previous career high of 25 when he played for the Los Angeles Kings. It’s worth noting though that Bernier seemed to falter down the stretch before getting hurt. Did the wear and tear of a much heavier schedule finally catch up to him? Or was he simply entering a rough patch when he went down? That’s something management will have to address.
If the Leafs want to keep Bernier on a similar leash as last year, somewhere in the 50-55 game range sounds realistic. That leaves Reimer to shoulder the rest of the load. Reimer saw action in 36 games last season and has averaged 35 games per season over his four seasons with the Leafs. While Reimer also faltered down the stretch, posting his worst season since the concussion plagued 2012-13 season, he seems likely to rebound this year.
Apr 12, 2014; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) during warmup prior to game against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
So the Leafs are set between the pipes. They are also far more set on defence than in recent years. With the signing of Stephane Robidas and the acquiring of Roman Polak, the Leafs have built up the right side of their defence. They join Cody Franson as the right side defencemen, with Dion Phaneuf, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner on the left side. It is, however, worth noting that Phaneuf has seemed to be more comfortable playing on his off side, but he’ll likely slide over to the left to play on the top line with Robidas. That leaves Gardiner, Franson, Rielly and Polak to be mixed together in the next two lines. While Gardiner and Franson have played a lot together, it may be more likely that Gardiner gets paired with stay-at-home defencemen Polak to help babysit the young star and cover for his mistakes.
While it’s possible Dave Nonis may still sign a seventh defenceman, it’s more likely the Leafs will promote from within. That means either Petter Granberg, Stuart Percy, Andrew MacWilliam or Korbinian Holzer will likely be a Leaf this year. While Percy has the highest ceiling of the four prospects, he’s also the youngest heading into camp at just 21-years old and could use another season in the AHL. Granberg (21, but 22 by the time camp starts), MacWilliam (24) and Holzer (26) are, thus, more likely options. MacWilliam, despite being 24, has only one season in the AHL under his belt so there’s a good chance he returns to anchor the Toronto Marlies. That means the spot is likely between Granberg, a stay-at-home defensive defenceman who has spent time in the Swedish Elite League, and Holzer, an AHL veteran of four seasons who’s a UFA at the end of this season.
Oct 5, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) celebrates his goal with right wing Phil Kessel (81) and center Tyler Bozak (42) against the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Senators 5-4 in the shootout. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Which brings us to the forwards. The top line is set with James van Reimsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel set to return and form the top power play unit as well. After that, things start to get murky.
Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri will be two-thirds of the second line, but the right-wing spot is wide open. Who slots in there? Based purely on salary, it should be David Clarkson, but the experiment of Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson last year was a disaster in conflicting styles. As Nonis will clearly want easy minutes to help bring Clarkson’s numbers back around, think back to the Leafs giving Jason Allison easy minutes in 2005-06 to increase his point total to justify the contract for a guy who could barely skate. It’s more likely that Clarkson fits in on the third line.
So if not Clarkson, then who? Some fans have pushed for first round draft pick William Nylander to fill that hole. While his skill level and speed means he and Kadri will likely be a magical duo, pushing that young star before he’s ready could hinder his progress as it did for fellow first rounder Luke Schenn. Nylander is more NHL ready than the standard draft pick, having played last year against men in the Swedish Elite League, but a season in the minors developing in the Leafs system seems a more likely scenario for the coming season unless he wows out of camp.
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So who else is left that can fill that role? Their next best options are David Booth, Mike Santorelli or Petri Kontiola; all will likely get a shot to generate chemistry on the line. Booth is a one time 60-point player, but has only broken 30 points once in the past five years. His big season came in 2008-09 when he was line mates with a young Nathan Horton in Florida. He’s also a left winger who would be forced to play his off wing. Santorelli is a right shot but a natural centre. He had 28 points in 49 games with the Canucks last year, one of only two years where he’s scored more than 11 points. The last option is KHL convert Petri Kontiola. Kontiola has five points in 12 NHL games played in 2007-08 for the Blackhawks. Last year he managed 37 points in 53 games for Chelyabinsk Traktor, which led the team ahead of former NHLer Andrei Kostitsyn and Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov. While it’s hard to predict how a KHL star will preform in the NHL, Kostitsyn was a 30-40 point player.
Jan 15, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Peter Holland (24) carries the puck in between Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons (28) and defenseman Jamie McBain (4) during the first period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
While it’s likely one of those players who fills that hole, whoever is left will dictate the rest of the Leafs’ lineup. If Santorelli is available, he’ll battle Peter Holland for the third centre spot with the loser slotting in fourth. If Kontiola is around, it’s more likely the Leafs will play him as the fourth line centre in a more checking role, hoping to tap into Holland’s higher offensive upside at the three slot. Also on the third line is likely to be Clarkson, who showed flashes of his old game coming around late last year. Clarkson is a bumper and a grinder and seemed to excel in the cycle game when paired up with big winger Carter Ashton late last year. If Santorelli is the second line winger, a third line with big bodies like Daniel Winnik (6’2″), Holland (6’2″) and Clarkson (6’1″) could do well together. Winnik is a solid defensive player who had a career high in points last year with 30.
That would leave a fourth checking line with a combination of Booth, Kontiola and Leo Komarov with Matt Frattin and Troy Bodie as extra forwards. Bodie will likely knock Colton Orr out of the enforcer role as he’s younger, cheaper and has better offensive and defensive upside.
Jan 18, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle looks on from the bench against the Montreal Canadiens at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
While those lines are far from a certainty, what is a certainty is that the Leafs have a lot of cheap bodies up front at forward. With Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Lupul, Kadri and Clarkson all locks, and with Komarov’s salary making him a lock, too, that leaves Booth, Santorelli, Kontiola, Frattin, Bodie, Orr, Winnik and Holland all left fighting over the five remaining lineup spots. The lineup will hinge on what style head coach Randy Carlyle wishes to employ going forward. If the third line is likely to be a scoring line, Santorelli or Holland seems the better fit at centre with Clarkson or Kontiola on the right and Winnik or Booth on the left. If he goes for more of a checking line, Winnik could play the left side with Clarkson on the right and Kontiola or Santorelli the likely centres. Either way, with eight guys looking to fill five spots, it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that this Leafs camp should be exciting.
Projected Maple Leaf 2014-15 Lineup:
van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Kessel
Lupul – Kadri – Santorelli
Winnik – Holland – Clarkson
Komarov – Kontiola – Booth
Bodie / Frattin
Phaneuf – Robidas
Gardiner – Polak
Rielly – Franson
Granberg / Holzer
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.