There’s no question that Zach Hyman will be missed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, someone will work hard to help make sure Hyman is forgotten. Who will that be?
The job on the left wing with the great young center Auston Matthews and the great right-winger Mitch Marner is up for grabs since Hyman departed for the Edmonton Oilers. It’s a plum job; but, when someone earns it, there are great possibilities for building a career.
Hyman was always a hard-working player with good potential; however, playing with Matthews and Marner turned him into the $6 Million Man (OK, $5.5 million, but when the salary’s that high, who’s counting?).
Mitch Marner Weighs in on the Upcoming Competition
Mitch Marner weighed in on the upcoming battle to become Matthews’ left-winger and suggested the competition could be a good thing. (from “The race to replace Zach Hyman on the Leafs’ top line begins. Mitch Marner likes what he sees,” Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, 15/09/21).
Marner admitted that Hyman would be missed, but he suggested that “we added some guys that really fill that aspect and can do really well in that role.”
Marner continued that “I really don’t know who is going to be in that spot yet. It’s a little bit of a trial for that left spot, and guys are going to be hungry for it. It should be an exciting time, coming up to training camp here to start seeing who’s going to be in that role, and we’ll take it from there.”
What Players Are in Contention for the Maple Leafs Top Left Wing?
While Matthews stays out of the lineup rehabbing his wrist, which had surgery in early August, the following players are engaged in some spirited competition for the job on his left side. The job entails these qualities: (a) forechecking, (b) digging out loose pucks, and (c) getting the puck to Matthews and Marner who will score.
A number of players seem to be in competition for that key role on the team. One is Ilya Mikheyev. He’s big and fast, but right now can’t seem to put the puck in the net when he has a chance. But, then, neither could Hyman, who didn’t score 20 goals until his third season with the team when he was 27 years old. Mikheyev is 26.
As for newcomers, perhaps the favorite should be Nick Ritchie. However, my colleagues believe it might be the person I’ll mention next in Michael Bunting. Ritchie is big, but slower. He’s 6-foot-2 and can take up space in front of the net, which could be really good for a puck-firing machine like Matthews. It could also help shield Marner should he decide to put a few more shots on net, which he should.
Ritchie’s game hasn’t gone as well as expected since he was chosen just after William Nylander in the draft, and he’d have a lot to gain within this role. The trio would likely score while he’s on the ice and would be a good choice with Matthews and Marner being such strong defensive players as well.
Then there’s Bunting. Bunting has been a career AHL player, except …. Last season with the Arizona Coyotes, he came up and went on a tear. He showed he could score when given the chance when he scored seven goals in 16 games. He also played for head coach Sheldon Keefe with the Soo Greyhounds. And, Marner might like Bunting as well because they played together in juniors. As noted, my colleagues think Bunting is the guy.
But, How about Alex Kerfoot?
Alex Kerfoot is a great defensive forward and might be a good line mate to add to the offense that is Matthews and Marner. He can score. When he was with the Colorado Avalanche, he played in a top-six role with had some power-play time – and he prospered.
In fact, last season Kerfoot and John Tavares scored at about the same rate playing five-on-five hockey. He’s every bit the scorer Hyman was and could even be an offensive upgrade. In fact, Kerfoot’s entire tenure with the Maple Leafs would look differently (I believe) if he were played in a top-six role. The problem is he’s quite valuable as the third-line center.
That said, David Kampf is here and might be the third-line center in a Keefe shutdown line scenario. Adam Brooks could play the fourth-line center and winger Jason Spezza had good things to say about Brooks. That leaves Kerfoot free to play in the top-six, where he would easily score 20 goals a season tethered there.
Who Then with Matthews and Marner?
Really, any one of the players mentioned here could be a good fit with Matthews and Marner. They are all good in their own way, who will find the chemistry? That’s a key question entering the 2021-22 season.
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