There has not been an abundance of Toronto Maple Leafs playoff games in recent years. But for the second year in a row, the team is heading to the post-season, and they are healthy to boot. That means healthy scratches. It also means the Leafs have depth and options at both forward and defense. It’s easy to predict who Mike Babcock is going to play to start the playoffs. How things will progress from there is much more interesting.
Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Roster Options
Babcock’s Starting Lineup
Most of the lineup is not in question. Auston Matthews will play with William Nylander. Tyler Bozak will play with James van Riemsdyk. And so on. The defensive pairs may shift a bit, but the real questions begin on the fourth line and on the third defensive pairing.
Babcock has already stated Leo Komarov will play and Tomas Plekanec is finding his groove. The first game of the playoffs is likely to see Plekanec centering Komarov and Kasperi Kapanen, who has been a regular in the lineup since late January.
The Ideal Fourth Line
The ideal fourth line changes depending on who the Maple Leafs are playing. If they draw the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs would be better served to play players with speed and a scoring touch. That means exchanging Komarov for Johnsson. Johnsson is very quick and is learning how to score in the NHL, while Komarov is not as quick and has scored only seven goals this season in 72 games. His goals per game this season is his lowest since his rookie season. Komarov will still get the nod over Johnsson due to his physicality and experience. But if the Leafs find themselves trailing in the series, Johnsson is an ideal candidate to step in and help give the Leafs four lines that can score.
Another possibility is if Kapanen struggles, Johnsson could replace him., That would allow Babcock to keep Komarov in the lineup so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kapanen and Johnsson alternating.
The other potential first round matchup for the Leafs is with the Boston Bruins. The Bruins are bigger and tougher than the Lightning. It suits the Leafs to keep Komarov in the lineup over Johnsson in a series with the Bruins. They could also opt to bring Martin in on the fourth line over Kapanen if the series starts to get out of hand. But it really is unlikely though. Brad Marchand may have had more than his fair share of questionable plays and suspensions, but he’s also a Hart trophy candidate, assuming the voters can look past the cheapshots. He’s going to prefer scoring goals to sitting in the penalty box. That being said, Marchand is on record saying he hates Plekanec. If Plekanec can get under his skin, there may be a use for Martin.
The Ideal Third Defensive Pairing
The Leafs are going to stick with Polak. Barring injury, Carrick may not see any ice time at all. But all the numbers say to start Carrick over Polak. They have the same number of points at 12, but Carrick has done it in six fewer games. That’s not much of a difference to make a decision on, but the advanced statistics make a much better argument for Carrick. Carrick has a Corsi For percentage of 52.6 to Polak’s 47.8. Carrick’s Relative Corsi is a plus 3.1 to Polak’s minus 2.4.
Babcock likes Polak because he’s big and can move people away from the front of the net. He also tends to move people into Frederik Andersen, and pucks bounce off him and behind Andersen at an alarming rate. Babcock would say those are just unlucky bounces, and he’s right for the most part. Polak just needs to aim his people tosses a little bit better.
There Will Be Pain
If the Leafs play more than just a few playoff games, someone is going to get hurt eventually. Moore will step in of Plekanec is hurt, otherwise, it’s Johnsson to replace just about any other forward. Lievo will only get a chance if the Leafs are plagued by injury. Carrick will step in if any of the top-asix defensemen are hurt.
The Leafs can’t afford to lose one of their top players, but that’s true for every team. They do have serviceable replacements for much of the roster though. Even in goal where Curtis McElhinney is sporting an 11-5-1 record and a .934 save percentage.
The Toronto Marlies will be on their own playoff run as one of the favorites to win the Calder Cup. Should the Leafs have major injury trouble they’ll need to ask the Marlies for help.
They’ve already called up Kapanen, Johnsson, and Dermott. Next up on the list could be Ben Smith or Miro Aaltonen to play fourth-line center. Jeremy Bracco or Mason Marchment could be brought up as replacement wingers. On defense, Justin Holl has already played two games for the Leafs this season and scored in each of them. Either Garret Sparks or Calvin Pickard could be brought up as replacement goaltenders, hockey gods forbid.
Unless the Maple Leafs go deep into the playoffs, and winning one round counts as deep for some, Babcock is going to be questioned and scrutinized for his lineup decisions, as they’ve done all season. It’s his call to make. We’ll know if his choices were the right ones in a few short weeks.
Main Image Credit: