Here's what the Leafs' optimal forward groups could look like for Game 1 of the playoffs

Cole Hayes
April 17, 2022  (1:57 PM)

We are roughly two weeks away from the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and it appears that the Leafs are slated to take on one of the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning, as long as the next two weeks worth of games isn't a disaster. The Leafs have been trying different combinations in their bottom 6, specifically on the 4th line and the remaining 8 games are similar to the preseason in a way - as the Leafs are looking to find their optimal lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs. But what does that look like?

Line 1
The Leafs first line should not be split up unless it is because of an injury. Barring Matthews and Marner forgetting how to score again, the Leafs have the best top line in the Eastern Conference going into the playoffs. Auston Matthews is on the verge of hitting 60 goals and will likely win both the Rocket and Hart trophies, while also being one of the best two-way forwards in hockey. Mitch Marner has a different kind of magic to him. His playmaking is still elite, he's great on the penalty kill, and he is now a shooting threat as well. Meanwhile, Michael Bunting has broken out in a big way. The Scarborough native is at 60 points on the season and if you thought he was a pest in the regular season - just wait until the whistles are put away in the playoffs. The Leafs' top line should be kept together at all costs.
Line 2
I've liked the Leafs second line of Kerfoot-Tavares-Mikheyev. Three hardworking players that can put the puck in the net. Ilya Mikheyev has found another gear in 2022 and is not only one of the few people that can beat Connor McDavid in a foot race but his hands have finally caught up to his feet. Kerfoot stepped up in last year's playoffs and Mikheyev and Tavares compliment his game better than Nylander does. Lastly, Tavares is an underrated tough player. He's great in tight and he's phenomenal at winning puck battles, especially now that he has two players the will get in the corners with him. Tavares is playing some of his best hockey and the Leafs' 2nd line is most optimal with Mikheyev and Kerfoot as JT's flanks, though Mikheyev is also a part of an optimal third line, so we'll likely see some in-game adjustments there when needed.
Line 3
This line could be the Leafs version of the HBK line. Engvall-Kampf-Nylander. Two defensively responsible forwards who can chip in with some secondary scoring and one purely offensive winger who can put the puck in the net. Nylander is the Leafs' version of what Phil Kessel was to the Pens in their Cup runs. We know that Engvall and Kampf will show up in the playoffs, but the x-factor of this line is William Nylander. If he can be the player that we saw in last year's playoffs and not the one that needs a wakeup call from Sheldon Keefe every other week, the Leafs forward corps goes from great to phenomenal. This line could be the difference between a deep run and a first round exit. As mentioned above, Ilya Mikheyev can also be made available to this line for some pure shutdown assignments if the game needs to have a more controlled tone to it.
Line 4
This is where things get interesting. The Leafs have been trying guys out on the fourth line as of late but there isn't a clear idea to what the Game 1 lineup looks like. I'm going to rule out Nick Abruzesse. He's a smart player, but not a good fourth liner, especially in the playoffs due to his lack of experience. This narrows it down to 4 players, Colin Blackwell, Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Clifford, and Jason Spezza. Blackwell has looked like the bottom-6 version of Michael Bunting since arriving to Toronto and has made the Giordano trade even better than it already was. He's in my lineup.
In the playoffs you need sandpaper, and while he's struggled this season, Wayne Simmonds has been a lot better lately and he was good in last year's playoffs. I wouldn't want to face Simmonds in a 7-game series and he belongs on the Leafs' 4th line. He's in for me.
Leaving it to Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford. Blackwell's ability to play centre makes this a more difficult decision. In many of the Leafs' "measuring stick" games, Spezza has found himself out of the lineup but playoff Spezza is a different animal. Whether it be his fight that rejuvenated the Leafs in the Columbus series, or scoring timely goals against Montreal, Spezza has shown he steps up in the playoffs. Kyle Clifford has a Stanley Cup pedigree and plays a style that is suited for playoff hockey. That being said, Spezza provides both scoring and intangibles and for that reason, my optimal playoff 4th line is Blackwell-Spezza-Simmonds.
The Leafs have a lot of forward depth and can use it to match up with opponents. Clifford would be my 13th forward but if the Leafs need a spark to their bottom-6, he's the next man up. If they need a spark to their top-6, you have Nick Abruzesse and Nick Robertson in the system. They are a deep team with no excuses this season. With a playoff lineup of Bunting-Matthews-Marner, Mikheyev-Tavares-Kerfoot, Engvall-Kampf-Nylander, and Blackwell-Spezza-Simmonds. This is a team that could and should go on a deep playoff run.
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Here's what the Leafs' optimal forward groups could look like for Game 1 of the playoffs

Will Jason Spezza be in for Game 1 of the playoffs, or will he end up being the Leafs' 13th forward?

He'll be in the lineup for Game 123375.2 %
He'll be an extra skater7724.8 %
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