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Toronto Maple Leafs 2021 NHL Roster is Bursting with Possibilities

When was the last time the Maple Leafs had this much competition for roster spots among forwards and defense going into training camp?

Everyone is waiting for an official announcement on the start of the upcoming NHL season. While technically the campaign will be labeled the 2020/21 season, it’s a forgone conclusion, though, that it will be entirely a 2021 season.

Related: All-Canadian Division and a Sensical NHL Season Format for 2020/21

I have no first-hand insights as to when the announcement will come and what it will say. I spend little to no time thinking about the conference or division alignments being bandied about by others who are just like me; that is, people who have no actual knowledge of what is being discussed by the NHL and the NHLPA.

Would I like to see an all Canadian division? Absolutely, I would. Do I think it’s a strong possibility for the start of the next season? Absolutely, I do. But when it comes to knowing what we’ll hear, I’m Hogan’s Heroes’ Sargent Schultz on this one, I know nothing.

Until we hear an official announcement from Gary Bettman or Bill Daly, I’m doing what I always do when anticipating the start of the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp. I visit the CapFriendly website, zero in on the Leafs page, and prognosticate who will be on the opening day roster and what the line combinations and defense pairs will be.

The Mix of Players the Leafs Had in 2019/20 Didn’t Work

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas was very busy during this current off-season. At forward, he re-signed and added a bunch of players that includes but is not limited to Jason Spezza, Ilya Mikheyev, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, and Alexander Barabanov.  On defense, Travis Dermot re-signed and T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, and Mikko Lehtonen were added. 

Wayne Simmonds will return to the player he can be

The names listed above will compete with each other and create competition for other players such as forwards Nick Robertson and Pierre Engvall, and defensemen Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren.  

Some of the new names represent a departure from what some referred to as the original Shanahan and Dubas plan. Leafs Nation shouldn’t be surprised by the additions of players like Thornton, Simmonds, and Bogosian. The Leafs missed the 2020 playoffs, obviously the mix of players the Leafs had last season didn’t work.

Related: Mitch Marner, Your Role on the Maple Leafs Has Changed

Such a radical change shouldn’t be that surprising, though. An NHL roster is constantly being evaluated by those who are in positions to actually make or influence changes; team presidents, general managers, scouts, and coaches.

Even before Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews were drafted and before John Tavares was signed, the Star’s Kevin McGran reported what Brendon Shanahan said when asked about evaluating the Leafs lineup.

Shanahan said:

“In spite of the fact we have talented individuals, if the mix doesn’t work, there is going to be changes.”

Not long after the Leafs were eliminated in the qualifying round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dubas said he wanted to add pieces that will take the team to the next level. He mentioned that he wanted to make the Leafs incredibly hard to play against.

Maple Leafs, Mitch Marner

So good on Shanahan and Dubas, they changed the mix of players who failed to make the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas Has Done Well to Create Internal Competition

A look at the most up-to-date CapFriendly.com page for the Toronto Maple Leafs makes it so tempting to say these are unprecedented times. It is not a new expression, however I feel for now that it should be reserved for use when referring to the coronavirus.

Suffice to say, I can’t remember the last time there was as much competition for roster spots amongst forwards and defense going into training camp as there is right now. The competitive situation created by Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is certainly different than it has been in recent or not so recent history.

Related: Maple Leafs Done Making Offseason Moves, Including No PTOs

Based on the number of years, decades, that has passed since the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup, many in Leafs Nation would agree that the level of competition for a spot on the Leafs 2021 roster is uncommon. But it’s not disturbing. In fact, it’s both strange and interesting.

The level of competition certainly creates opportunity for lots of debate about the many possibilities, the different combinations of forward lines and defense pairs.

Put Concerns About Frederik Andersen and Goaltending On-Hold

I’m totally fine with the Leafs goaltending situation. Frederik Andersen and number one back-up Jack Campbell will do well as a pairing.

The additions of Aaron Dell and Michael Hutchinson were both good and necessary. They mitigate the risk of a reoccurrence of what happened in October 2018, when both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard were claimed when put on waivers.   

Did Andersen let in a couple of questionable goals in the qualifying round his team played against the Columbus Blue Jackets? There was one, for sure. Did it cost the Leafs the series and cause them to miss the 2020 playoffs? I don’t think so.

Maple Leafs, Frederik Andersen

In the qualifying series against the Blue Jackets, Andersen had a .936 Save Percentage and a 1.84 Goals Against Average. He also recorded one shutout.

As evidenced by the goalie statistics available on NHL.com, the Maple Leafs skaters had a very difficult time bending the twine. In the four games he appeared in, Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo had a .956 Save Percentage, a 1.45 Goals Against Average, and he recorded two shutouts.

The Blue Jackets back-up, Elvis Merzlikins appeared in two games against the Leafs and recorded a .946 Save Percentage and a 1.96 Goals Against Average.

The players assembled by Leafs GM Dubas this off-season are intended to spark more offensive production. In my opinion, the confidence Dubas has shown in Andersen and Campbell will be rewarded.

Who Will Be on the Opening Day Roster?

While we await an official announcement on the start of the 2021 NHL season, Leafs Nation can have some fun guessing about Coach Sheldon Keefe’s opening day roster. Not only who will be on it, but how he will assemble the four forward lines and three defense pairs.

Forward Lines One and Two

Lately, there has been crazy talk about five-man units being comprised of two forwards and three defensemen. The only thing I take away from that nonsense is the need to commit to two-pairs of forwards using the top four highly skilled and paid players the Leafs are fortunate to have, Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and William Nylander.

If it was my call, I’d pair Matthews with Nylander and Tavares with Marner. My decision here is based on the success that Tavares and Marner had together in 2018/19.

NHL rumors
Maple Leafs, John Tavares

In 2018/19 Tavares and Marner both played 82 games. They were number one and two in total point production. At even strength Tavares recorded 84% of his points at even strength. Marner recorded 85% of his total points at even strength. During that season, Tavares was a plus 19 and scored 47 goals, a career high. Marner was a plus 22.

In 2019/20, when Marner played long stretches alongside Matthews, there was quite a drop in even strength point production for Tavares and Marner, 62% and 71% respectively.

Zach Hyman is my choice as the other winger to play alongside Matthews. Simmonds is hands-down my first choice to play with Tavares and Marner.

Related: Clear the Track Leafs Nation, Wayne Simmonds is Back Home

Some of those I’ve spoken with about Simmonds are genuinely surprised when I tell them that he is only 32-years old. Simmonds has got a lot of hockey left in him. As reported by TSN’s Kristen Shilton on the day he signed with the Leafs, I believe what Simmonds said:

“I think I’m as healthy as I’ve been since 2017…I’m physically prepared and I’m definitely mentally prepared for this. I’m just going to keep at it, and continue to build my power, build my strength and get back to the player I know I can be.”

I’m certain much of Leafs Nation is aware of the type of player Simmonds can be. He’s a top-six forward on every team in the NHL, and in 2021 he will be with the Leafs too.

Forward Lines Three and Four

With the top-end talent the Leafs have on lines one and two, and the amount of ice time they should be given, those on lines three and four only need to average between 12 and 14 minutes per game. In the past two seasons, Thornton’s time on ice per games played averaged 15:31. The third line centre position is his until he proves it’s not.

After Thornton signed with the Leafs, TSN’s Ray Ferraro spoke about Jumbo Joe. Ferraro said:

“When he holds the puck he’s still effective. When he’s got it, he can hold it. He can kind of look over his shoulder and find the open guy. That’s the strength of his game. He can still pass. He can still make somebody else dangerous.”

To me, that somebody is Jimmy Vesey, and because of his Harvard Crimson history with Alex Kerfoot their on-ice reunion takes place alongside Thornton.

Related: Leafs GM Dubas Can Make Kerfoot/Vesey Harvard Reunion Come True

So, who’s left to play on the fourth line? I think Jason Spezza will do just fine at centre. He’s an excellent faceoff man. Throughout his career, 37% of his total points were scored on the power play.

Jason Spezza Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza Maple Leafs

Ilya Mikheyev is a lock as one of Spezza’s wingers. There are a number of waivers exempt players who can gain valuable NHL experience rotating alongside Spezza and Mikheyev; Robertson, Engvall, Alexander Barabanov, and Yegor Korshkov.

I suspect the primary surprise in the forward lines I’ve created is the spots given to Simmonds and Mikheyev. I’ve got to see what Simmonds can do a line with Tavares and Marner. The possibilities of outcomes are too tempting to ignore.

Defense

The defense pairings can be worked out as the season progresses. I do see the Leafs carrying seven defensemen. The first three members of the group of seven are Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and T.J. Brodie.

In no particular order, spots four through seven will include Dermott, Justin Holl, Lehtonen, and Bogosian. I recognize that my picks for the Leafs opening day roster leaves out Sandin and Liljegren.

They and the organization will benefit by having these two young players hone their skills with the Leafs’ American Hockey League team, the Toronto Marlies.

They are both waivers exempt and can be freely called up and sent back down.  It’s a good situation for the Leafs. A situation made possible by the fine work Leafs’ GM Kyle Dubas has done to create internal competition. Something Leafs Nation has not seen for quite some time.

Next: Maple Leafs Might Ask Matthews to Fly Solo Next Season

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