This won’t be your average NHL season.
The four divisions were re-aligned, with teams only playing games within their division. Like the bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, fans will not be allowed to attend the games, at least for the time being.
However, there are still shades of similarities, even with things being noticeably different. Head coach Sheldon Keefe gives his usual press conference on the first day of training camp, but this year, a select group of journalists are asking their questions virtually. It was here where Keefe would reveal his team’s lineup deployment with a surprise: newcomers Joe Thornton and Jimmy Vesey would start on the team’s top two lines and Travis Dermott was on the outside looking in.
When the team finally hit the ice the next day, Joe Thornton skated alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, while Jimmy Vesey would be taking reps with John Tavares and William Nylander. The two men that were thought to be the front-runners for the top two left-wing jobs, Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev, joined Alexander Kerfoot on the third line. The team’s depth at left-wing has been called out for being weak for the last couple seasons and this is Sheldon Keefe’s message to the Leafs forwards: those top two left-wing jobs are up for grabs.
That’s not to say that either Thornton or Vesey don’t belong in the top-six. Thornton made his bread being one of the best playmakers of his generation, who knows how to use his size and reach to his advantage. Why not try him with a supremely talented goal-scorer in Matthews and the extremely skilled Marner, who is being encouraged to shoot more? Thornton’s never been the strongest skater, but he’s been a very productive player for the vast majority of his career. Even when pushed down into a support role in the last few years, he’s still put up 50 to 60 point pace. Though, Thornton isn’t the all-star he once was, only putting up only 31 points in 70 games last season, as only the top line in San Jose managed consistent offensive production.
Vesey on the other hand is more of a traditional complement to the high-end skill of Tavares and Nylander. He’s sound in his own end, has size and uses it effectively in high-traffic areas and can finish plays. Things were going well for Vesey in his three seasons with the New York Rangers, even flirting with 20 goals in his final season there before a late-season goal drought. His offensive production dropped off hard last season in Buffalo, but that’s due to Buffalo’s inadequate forward depth last season, with only the Eichel line getting good production. For both it’s a shot to regain some clout, but the competition is not easy.
The three men that started on the third line (Hyman, Mikheyev and Kerfoot), are the top contenders to knock off Thornton and Vesey and get a shot on one of those lines. Since Zach Hyman’s days with the Toronto Marlies, he’s been riding shotgun on the top line, doing the dirty work, helping the team’s stars shine brighter. He’s earned the reputation as one of the best forecheckers in the entire league and for working his tail off night-in-and-night-out. Despite debate about what he is as a player during his first few seasons, Hyman has won us over as a legit top-six forward. It’s a safe bet that he finds his way back onto the Leafs top line, and will be grinding in the corners, getting the puck to Matthews and Marner by the end of the season. Ilya Mikheyev is a bit more of an interesting case study. He came out of the gate red-hot last season, scoring 11 points in his first 15 games. However, since then, his only points came in short spurts (6 points in 5 games in late-November and 6 points in 6 games in late-December) before getting injured just before the new year. And despite being the Leafs “training camp MVP” in the bubble, he didn’t manage to score a single point in the qualifying round series against Columbus.
Like Hyman before, there’s debate whether Mikheyev is really a second line or third line winger. It’s undeniable that he has the tools to be a successful top-six forward in the show, but it’s just a matter of putting it all together on a more consistent basis. Next, there’s Alexander Kerfoot, the least likely of the three to move up to the top-six, but let’s throw him into the group anyways. Last season saw him playing
significant time on the wing of Tavares and he didn’t look out of place there. He’s smart, plays well in all three zones and is a good playmaker. However, he is small and may not be the best compliment to the high-end talent he would be playing with.
And then there’s Nick Robertson. He’s even smaller than Kerfoot, but his offensive ability is just too strong to overlook. He’s not the fleetest of foot, but Robertson is a beast with the puck on his stick. He knows how to find his teammates, but his real strength is his goal scoring ability. His shot is great, even by NHL standards as he managed to put one away in the qualifying round against Columbus in the summer. There are questions about Robertson, simply due to him having such a small sample size against NHL pros. It’s certainly a long-shot that he’ll end up on one of the top two lines, since he will be a scratch on opening night, but in a season with a condensed schedule, he’ll get his opportunity to show what he can do. But, the story doesn’t end with just the forwards.
Buried in the news about the top-six was the announcement that the Leafs third defense pairing would feature Mikko Lehtonen and Zach Bogosian, making Dermott the odd man out. Given the circumstances, this shouldn’t be that surprising. Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie were all guaranteed to have top-four jobs. Justin Holl looked comfortable as Muzzin’s partner on the shutdown pair and should be back in that role, at least to start the season. While coming to Toronto with a small salary, Bogosian comes to a Leafs team in desperate need of grit, therefore he is not getting scratched opening night.
Things took an interesting turn Monday, when it was revealed Dermott was skating with Bogosian on the third pair ahead of Wednesday’s season opener. Dermott’s road to this point has gotten a little bumpy. His first 100 NHL games created excitement and he didn’t look far off from capturing a top-four role on the Leafs blueline, but he never took that next step. He’s a great skater, is almost always in good position and can even move the puck well. The problem is that he can be passive on the physical side of the game due to his lack of size. This obviously creates a big problem if you want to become a big minute-munching defenseman in the NHL who doesn’t possess high-end offensive skills. He took his qualifying offer for this coming season and the clock is ticking on the Leafs to make a decision about Dermott’s future in Toronto. He’ll undoubtedly get a lot of playing time with the team, but he really has to make some noise to stay a regular in the lineup and finally getting some regular ice time on the penalty kill.
If he really impresses, he could even take Holl’s job on the second-pair. For now, it’s Lehtonen that will be taking his practice reps with Leafs top prospect Rasmus Sandin as the team’s fourth pair. Lehtonen had been perused by a few NHL teams for a couple years, in anticipation of him becoming a free-agent. The Leafs would win out and this was quietly regarded as a very solid signing. His 2019-20
KHL campaign saw him winning the KHL Defenseman of the Year award which added a bit of shine to Lehtonen’s arrival in Toronto. But, just because you have success overseas, doesn’t mean it translates directly to the NHL. That’s not to say Lehtonen isn’t talented. By all accounts, he’s a great skater who knows how to make plays while having the IQ to know where he should be positioned, but all these skills are untested at the NHL level. The Leafs have already been to this dance a few times with mixed results.
Nikita Zaitsev had a pretty impressive first season with Toronto, but after signing a massive, seven-year deal and losing all of his powerplay time, his road out of Toronto was paved. As for Igor Ozhiganov, he looked like a number six defenseman in the league at best, not offering the Leafs much they didn’t have. Moving onto Sandin, he actually has a lot of similarities in his game to Dermott. They’re both small, skate like the wind, and both play a solid positional game. However, Sandin is already a much better playmaker and projects to be a point-man on the powerplay. Sandin will start off as the Leafs eighth defenseman and will naturally be given less of a chance to make an impact on the roster. Both Lehtonen and Sandin will both get called on as the season goes on, but, in this compact season, there’s going to be injuries and players down the depth charts will get an opportunity.
There’s only eight players that (given health) are relatively in the spots that they will be in at the end of the season. Everything else will be in flux for most of, if not the entire season. For those in that category, nothing will be given, everything will have to be earned. Just because you start off in a higher role, doesn’t mean you get to stay there. You have to play well, and continue to play well to keep your opportunities. The Leafs are hoping to nurture a culture of internal, yet friendly competition. In theory, this creates a more competitive, focused team that can win more games in the postseason. But that’s jumping the gun just a bit.
For now, Sheldon Keefe’s message is a simple, yet direct one: top jobs are open, play well enough and the job is yours.