Maple Leafs: How Auston Matthews, Nikita Zaitsev Affect the Roster

Dec 15, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; The Toronto Maple Leafs logo at center ice before the start of the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 15, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; The Toronto Maple Leafs logo at center ice before the start of the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

With the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the No. 1 pick on Saturday, which will presumably be Auston Matthews, and the signing of defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, we take a look at how they will affect the roster.

WOW. I think that’s all I need to say with regard to the results of Saturday’s Draft Lottery. I am still a little in shock writing this even though I have had two days for this to sink in, it still won’t until draft night I think, but I digress.

Related Story: Why the Maple Leafs Should Not Trade the No. 1 Pick

From the second Bill Daly flipped over the card with the Toronto Maple Leafs brand new logo on it, I couldn’t help but think about how much this pick means to not only the fans and this organization, but what it means to the individual players on this roster. Let’s break down what Auston brings to the table for this team and what impact he will have on certain players in this organization.

Let’s just get this out of the way now. Auston Matthews will be an ELITE No. 1 center in the NHL, so unless the Leafs are being offered legitimately absurd trades (like Mark Scheifele and the No. 2 overall pick, or Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, and a first rounder, or Dylan Strome, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and the No. 7 overall pick) then just forget about it. The Leafs are almost never going to trade this pick.

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Since we got that out of the way, now we can get into the reality of drafting Auston Matthews. He’s instantly a top two center for this team. He is a two-way pivot in the mold of an Anze Kopitar and should have an instant impact at the NHL level on both ends of the ice. Here’s a look at how he affects the rest of this lineup moving forward.


William Nylander: Arguably the Leafs most offensively dynamic prospect in a now absurdly stacked prospect cupboard. The acquisition of Matthews should allow for Nylander to return to the wing, which I feel is his more natural position.

I always thought that Nylander was a natural winger, but due to circumstance he was being pushed towards the middle. With Matthews on board, look for Nylander to ride shotgun with either Nazem Kadri or Auston Matthews on the top two lines.

Tyler Bozak: Oh, how the times they are a changing. As recent as the start of this season, Bozak was the No. 1 center for this team, where him, James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel formed a highly productive first line. Bozak has gone from first line center to third line center in under nine months. Although probably not the news that Bozak would like to hear, this should allow for him to settle into a third line role, where he should be a very important player for Mike Babcock.

Maple Leafs
Dec 27, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak (42) is congratulated by left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) after scoring a second period goal against the New York Islanders at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports /

James van Riemsdyk: In my opinion, the biggest beneficiary of the lottery win has to be JVR. He will finally be given the opportunity to play with an elite centerman, and he should flourish. A big winger who is a good skater with excellent hands, JVR and his fellow countryman should be quite the dynamic duo next season.

Mitch Marner: This might not come as a shock to many Leafs fans, but Mitch Marner is really, really good. If his dominance of the OHL this past season wasn’t enough to prove that, what he has done in the playoffs has completely destroyed the idea that he can be anywhere but the NHL next season.

Marner has absolutely nothing left to do in junior hockey besides break the all time points record in a single postseason and win an OHL Championship (something he’s on his way to doing). The biggest if for Marner is whether he gains enough weight and strength by next training camp. If he does, look for him to open the season on the third line with Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman.

Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, and Brendan Leipsic: Probably the young players hit the hardest by the return of a few injured players as well as the addition of Matthews. With Marner, Matthews, JVR, Bozak, and Nylander, who is most likely moving back to the wing, that takes away as many as four wing positions from the high-end AHL/fringe NHL players who impressed so much late in the season. Barring an incredible performance in the Calder Cup playoffs mixed with an impressive offseason and training camp, players such as Leivo, Brown, and Leipsic are all underdogs to make the Leafs opening night roster.

The eventual signing of Nikita Zaitsev has been a long time coming for the Maple Leafs. Zaitsev was a player that management has coveted for the past two years now. Thanks to some great work by Mark Hunter and the rest of the Maple Leafs European scouting staff, Zaitsev has finally put pen to paper and signed an entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs. Here’s a look at how he will impact the Maple Leafs’ defense core:


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Morgan Rielly: Finally, some much needed help for Morgan Rielly. No more will he have to play with another left-handed shot defenseman because, at this exact moment, this is his defense partner. No more having to play with the offensively challenged Matt Hunwick, or the defensively challenged Jake Gardiner.

Rielly will be gifted an impressive two-way defenseman who should help take a massive load off his shoulders. While Zaitsev isn’t Nicklas Lidstrom, he is no slouch, and instantly becomes the team’s best right shot defenseman.

Jake Gardiner: Another gain for the Maple Leafs has got to be the fact that Jake Gardiner can finally get pushed back to his natural second pairing. While Gardiner is definitely a top four defenseman with his elite skating ability, he will no longer be given the burden of playing on the penalty kill, or playing against the opposing teams top line every night. Instead, Zaitsev and Morgan Rielly will presume those minutes. Also look for the Leafs to try to acquire a young two-way partner for Gardiner in the offseason, like a Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon, Sami Vatanen, Tyson Barrie, or Jacob Trouba.

Next: Leafs Rumors: Matt Murray Drawing Interest from Toronto

Here’s a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs projected roster heading into the offseason:

Toronto Maple Leafs
May 3, 2016; Toronto Maple Leafs projected roster; Mandatory Credit: Jake Middleton – Tip of the Tower /

How do you think Auston Matthews and Nikita Zaitsev will impact the Maple Leafs’ roster? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.