The word “adversity” gets thrown around a lot regarding playoff-bound NHL teams, specifically, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs are headed to the playoffs for the sixth straight season, and as everybody knows, they’re looking to avoid their sixth straight early exit. One year after losing captain John Tavares to a scary concussion not even ten minutes into the first round of the 2021 Playoffs, Toronto seems to be headed into another first-round without a key top-six forward; this time, it’s Michael Bunting.
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The Scarborough native has been a pleasant surprise all season. With 63 points in 79 games and an edge to his game, Bunting has quickly become a fan favorite. But after an awkward fall in Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers, he was left with a lower-body injury, and the severity is still unknown.
Losing Bunting ahead of the playoffs hurts for a couple of reasons. Aside from the obvious fact that he’s been one of the Maple Leafs’ best offensive contributors this season, his style of play was crafted for playoff hockey. He knows how to get under his opponent’s skin, and he leads the Maple Leafs in drawing penalties. In the event that he isn’t back for the start of the postseason, here are some possible line combinations the Maple Leafs should consider.
First Line: William Nylander – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
Lots of fans have been clamoring for the Maple Leafs to put these three together since their rookie seasons in 2016-17, when players like Bunting and Tavares weren’t even a thought in Toronto yet. Based on the current group, I think the Maple Leafs’ best bet without Bunting is to load up that top line.
Under normal circumstances, I’d be happy to spread out the offence, but with Bunting out of commission, it seems like a good time to load things up. Nylander has experience playing on the left side, and Matthews has spent a considerable amount of time playing with him and Marner. No other player aside from Bunting has really worked on that top line with Matthews and Marner, and with Nylander riding a hot streak (17 points in his last 15 games), he’s the player I would want to keep that top line going.
Last week I argued that Ilya Mikheyev’s recent play was good enough to keep him in the top-six come playoff time. That was before Bunting’s injury. Now, it’s a no-brainer to keep him on that second line. With the jump Kerfoot has taken offensively this season, he’s worthy of taking what should have been Nylander’s spot next to Tavares.
As far as Tavares goes, I’m not worried that he won’t have one of Marner or Nylander on his wing. I’ve spent most of his time with the New York Islanders playing alongside Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and Matt Moulson. As great as those players are (or were, if you’re Moulson), none of them are Marner or Nylander. At least they weren’t back when Tavares played with them. I feel comfortable giving him a couple of energy players on his wings from him, and considering Kerfoot was one of their better players in the playoffs last season, his production from him is not a concern either.
Third Line: Pierre Engvall – David Kampf – Wayne Simmonds
The Maple Leafs’ third line is going to be the X-factor heading into the playoffs. Last season, fans witnessed firsthand what having a player like Philip Danault did for the Montreal Canadiens, and with Kampf’s strong defensive ability (despite limited offense), his assignments from him in the playoffs are going to be super important.
In a perfect world, Ondrej Kase would be on the third line in place of Simmonds, but as of right now, there’s no timetable for Kase’s return, although he is working towards a playoff return. As long as you have Kampf and one of Engvall or Mikheyev on the third line, head coach Sheldon Keefe can trust them to go out and energize the team while shutting down the opposition. While Simmonds definitely isn’t on the third line on a fully healthy roster, he’s capable of being a placeholder for the time being.
Fourth Line: Kyle Clifford – Colin Blackwell – Jason Spezza
If you told me a month ago that Bunting would be injured ahead of the playoffs, I still wouldn’t have drawn a Maple Leafs lineup with all three of Simmonds, Spezza, and Clifford in it. But in recent weeks, that’s changed. Dare I say it changed when those three went out against the Winnipeg Jets on March 31.
Lately, Clifford has seemed to realize what he needs to do to stay in the lineup. He’s dropped the gloves in three of his last eight games, and he even scored his first goal of the season against the Ottawa Senators a little over a week ago. If Toronto puts an energy guy like Blackwell in between him and Spezza, I’d be comfortable dressing those players.
Maple Leafs Have Other Options
According to Keefe, Bunting woke up on Sunday morning feeling better than expected, which is a good sign. I expect we will hear more about his injury from him on Tuesday, but Keefe’s initial response was that he would “miss some time,” which means start planning to play without him.
If dressing two tough guys and a veteran like Spezza becomes an issue, Keefe has other options. Nick Abruzzese, the team’s 22-year-old 2019 fourth-round pick, could be inserted into the lineup if the Maple Leafs want to favor speed, but he hasn’t done enough to warrant a full-time spot yet.
If they really want to mix things up, Nick Robertson is waiting in the AHL for another kick at the can, with 27 points in 26 games for the Toronto Marlies this season. Either way, the Maple Leafs are once again in a position where they have to battle through adversity, and while losing a player like Bunting is a tough go, they have the pieces to be able to work with the loss.
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How would you arrange the Maple Leafs’ forward lines without Bunting? Be sure to leave a comment below and let me know.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.