With secondary scoring being a glaring issue for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their most recent tragic playoff loss to the Montreal Canadiens last season, general manager Kyle Dubas made the best of his limited cap space available this offseason by signing a handful of low-risk, high-reward forwards. All of these forwards were signed to one or two-year contracts worth no more than $2,500,000 AAV. However, outside of the Leafs “big 4” forwards, they will have at least 13 forwards who will be competing for the team’s final eight starting forward spots. Let’s take a look at how the Maple Leafs forward lines will likely play out.
Predicting the Maple Leafs Forward Group
Unless traded, Alex Kerfoot will play a big role on the team either playing third-line centre or complimenting one of the team’s top two lines. Jason Spezza will also play on the opening night lineup, as the 38-year-old signed a one-year contract to rejoin the team this season. Look for Spezza to play a smaller, offensive-zone role for the team as they hope he can add some more secondary scoring like last season.
Besides Kerfoot and Spezza, Nick Ritchie and Michael Bunting are the only Leafs with guaranteed opening lineup spots on the team. Ritchie, who was given the team’s largest offseason forward contract, signed a two-year deal with a $2,500,000 AAV. He will add some toughness, grit, and scoring to the team as he tries to help mitigate the loss of Zach Hyman. Bunting, who signed a one-year deal with the Leafs at the start of free agency will look to carry his momentum from last season with the Arizona Coyotes as he joins his hometown team. Bunting had 10 goals and 13 points in 21 games last season.
Rounding Out the Rest of the Forward Lines
Assuming that Kerfoot, Spezza, Ritchie, and Bunting all make the Leafs opening night lines, their lineup will look something like this:
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
?? – Tavares – Nylander
Ritchie – Kerfoot – Spezza
?? – ?? – ??
So, who will fill the team’s other four forward spots?
Head coach Sheldon Keefe will have lots of options to choose from as he decides what is best for his team. We could also see a revolving door situation where players shuffle in and out of the lineup on a game-by-game basis. Some of the players capable of playing on the team are Wayne Simmonds, Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, Nick Robertson, Joey Anderson, Kurtis Gabriel, Adam Brooks, David Kampf, and Pierre Engvall.
Right off the bat, we can cross off both Kurtis Gabriel and Joey Anderson. While both are solid depth options for the Maple Leafs, they both haven’t proven themselves enough at the NHL level to readily contribute on a championship-contending team like the Leafs hope to be.
Extended for two more years this offseason, Wayne Simmonds could very likely make the Leafs top four lines next season to provide some toughness. It just seems like there are too many deserving candidates ahead of him to crack the lineup. Simmonds will still definitely play in a number of games this season. In whatever games he plays in, Simmonds will look to pick up right where he left off prior to his devastating wrist injury last season. When he came back to the lineup he never regained his momentum from the start of the season where he looked like a solid power forward and contributor playing alongside John Tavares and William Nylander.
Lastly, Ilya Mikheyev, Adam Brooks, and Pierre Engvall will be competing for the final spot in the Leafs top four lines. While Brooks has been great for the Leafs, it looks like Ilya Mikheyev will be the final man on the starting roster. One of the fastest players in the league, Mikheyev should play on a “shutdown” line with David Kampf as well as the penalty kill. Pierre Engvall will likely play in the AHL as he continues to develop his shooting, playmaking and hockey IQ abilities before he can make the jump to the NHL level.
The biggest question with Ondrej Kase is his health. Having only played in nine games since the 2019-2020 season dealing with injuries, he still may not be 100% healthy. If healthy, Kase will be a solid contributor on the Leafs playing in a middle-six role.
It seems increasingly clearer that David Kampf will play a big role for the Leafs. Brought in for his defensive prowess, Kampf will look to anchor a “shutdown” line for the team and play on the penalty kill. The only downside of playing Kampf is his lack of offensive ability, so finding the right role and line for him will be a necessity.
Nick Robertson has the potential to be an x-factor for the Leafs this season. While he didn’t seem to get too much going in limited action last season, he looks poised to make the NHL jump this season and could play a top-six role this season. Expect Robertson to make the team’s opening night lineup.
Looking Ahead For the Maple Leafs Lineup
According to my predictions, the Leafs opening night forward lineup will look something like this (assuming Kase is healthy):
Bunting- Matthews – Marner
Robertson – Tavares – Nylander
Ritchie – Kerfoot – Spezza
Mikheyev – Kampf – Kase
While it is still too early to tell, it looks like Wayne Simmonds, Adam Brooks, and Pierre Engvall all will not be on the Leafs opening night lineup as well as Joey Anderson and Kurtis Gabriel. However, don’t put it past Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe to surprise us all as they have done in the past.