Examining the Leafs' 4th line options for the playoffs

Published April 15, 2022 at 7:35
The Toronto Maple Leafs have reached an interesting stage of the season. With their playoff berth secured, all that remains is the jockeying for position as the Eastern Conference teams battle for home ice advantage. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has been using these games as a testing ground of sorts, tossing together a variety of 4th lines for use in any situation.

The Leafs have 5 players for 3 spots, with a variety of strengths among them. Let's go through each of them, shall we?

Kyle Clifford is the first up of the Leafs' "big boys". Standing at 6'2» and weighing in at 211 lbs, Clifford has developed a reputation as a journeyman grinder around the league. While not blowing anybody away with his offensive ability (he has only provided 2 assists in 17 games), he provides a strong physical presence that can be used against other physical teams. He's not a strong possession player by any sense, but that's never been his game to begin with. He provides a steady physical presence in his limited minutes, something that the Leafs have improved upon as of late.

Scarborough's own Wayne Simmonds comes next. Standing at 6'2" and weighing a lithe 185 lbs, Wayne Train's goal production has taken a hit compared to last year. While he isn't the player that he used to be, he can still be effective on a heavy-hitting checking line. He has definitely lost a step, but Simmonds' physicality will be a welcome boon come playoff time. While this is likely Wayne's last full season in the NHL, he still has enough left in the tank to be among the rotation for the Leafs' 4th line in the playoffs.

Up next is deadline acquisition, Colin Blackwell. In 10 games with the Leafs, the relatively undersized (5'9" and 190 lbs) Blackwell has scored twice and established himself as a high-energy physical presence that is capable of scoring the odd goal or two. He has quickly endeared himself to Leafs' fans with his play and garnered enough trust from the coaching staff to earn a look alongside Auston Matthews in their most recent loss to the Buffalo Sabres. He isn't going to wow you with his offensive skill, but he's definitely no plug. He plays a playoff style that has likely cemented himself as the only full-time member of this 4th line group.

Moving to the Leafs' more skilled options, we have Jason Spezza in what is likely his last year on NHL ice. In 65 games this year, Spezza has scored 10 goals and 21 points and has been an effective member of the second power play unit. While he has never been a defensive star, he has improved immensely upon his defensive zone play in Toronto and taken to the role of wizened veteran for the team. While he isn't an everyday option anymore, he has proven that he can be an effective player when given proper rest and deployed in a limited offensive role. He would likely slot in against opponents with less of a physical slant than others.

Finally, the last potential 4th liner is rookie Nick Abruzzese. In 4 games with the Leafs, Abruzzese has yet to make a mark on the scoresheet, after lighting it up for Harvard in the NCAA this year (33 points in 28 games). But he has shown glimpses of talent during games and is still adjusting to the NHL pace. He projects as a skilled middle-sixer, but unless he can figure his game out before playoff time, he may find himself outside of the lineup unless an injection of skill is sorely needed.

All of this in addition to one of the Leafs' top-9 dropping down upon Ondrej Kase's return to the lineup (who deserves a top 9 slot himself with his play this year). We've seen Alexander Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall take shifts on the 4th line this year, and Kase himself has played there as well. The Leafs have put themselves into a good spot, with players of various skill sets vying for spots in the lineup. They can tailor the lineup to the opponent, going for skill and speed or grit and toughness depending on the night (something we saw on Thursday with Clifford-Blackwell-Simmonds lacing it up against the Capitals).

One hallmark of the Lightning's recent Cup wins has been having players on the 3rd or 4th lines that would be deserving of top-6 spots themselves on most teams. Dubas has seemingly emulated that, with players like Kerfoot, Nylander, Kase, and Mikheyev all taking turns outside of the Leafs' top-6. Whoever ends up dropping down to the 4th line will only be there because the Leafs' top-9 is so stacked.
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