There are few questions remaining when it comes to the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs. When you make an astronomical leap in the standing as the Leafs did last year, and return the majority of your lineup, there aren’t too many holes to fill, in this case, there will actually be a few pegs left over. One hole that needs filling however is the Right Wing slot on the fourth line. It’s pretty obvious that the top 3 right wings will be William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Connor Brown, so who fills the final spot? Well, there’s no way that the Leafs brought in Patrick Marleau for three years at upwards of six million dollars per year to be a fourth liner, and he’s typically played on the left side in his career, so he’s out. Marleau would be a perfect fit with Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown. James Van Riemsdyk is a similar story to Marleau in that he’s probably too offensively skill and makes too much money, in addition to being a fixture on the left side. Zach Hyman could be a fit in the spot, and although playing on the left side last year, has a bit more utility in where you can place him in the lineup, however Head Coach Mike Babcock seems to like Hyman with Matthews and Nylander, so it seems likely he’ll stay there. Nikita Soshnikov, another Babcock favorite, held down the position for a lot of last year, and would be a leading contender again this season, if not for a concussion that has limited his training time, putting him behind the eight ball coming into camp. Ben Smith and Eric Fehr will almost certainly start the season with the Marlies, assuming they both clear waivers. That leaves Leo Komarov, Kasperi Kapanen, Kerby Rychel and Josh Leivo battling for one open spot on the right side of the 4th line. Let’s handicap this race, shall we?
Kasperi Kapanen: Kapanen excelled in this spot late last season, and in the playoffs, scoring timely goals to tie the Leafs playoff clinching win against his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as scoring twice including the double overtime winner in the Leafs game two victory in Washington. Kapanen is unquestionably the best play of this bunch, but he has a couple of things working against him. The first problem Kapanen has, is that he’s still exempt from having to clear waivers to go down the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, so there’s no danger of losing him for nothing if he doesn’t make the Leafs. With JvR and Komarov likely moving on from the Leafs at the end of the season as free agents, there’s a clear long term path for Kapanen, it just doesn’t look like this is his year. The second thing working against him is that it’s probably better for his development to play higher in the lineup and dominate at the AHL level than it would be for him to fight for 10-12 minutes a night as a fourth line grinder with the Leafs.
Prediction: Sent to the Marlies
Kerby Rychel: Rychel is a bit of an unknown, in that he hasn’t played in the NHL yet. He also wasn’t protected in this June’s expansion draft, where Vegas ultimately plucked Brendan Leipsic from the Leafs. Although he was an AHL all star last year there have been some questions about his training and his effort. In all honesty, he’s probably a long shot for this position, in fact, the only reason he’s really included in this list is that he requires waivers to go down to the AHL and I doubt very much that the Leafs want to lose him for nothing without ever getting the chance to see what they have.
Prediction: Extra Forward
Josh Leivo: Leivo was excellent in his limited opportunities with the Leafs last year, scoring two goals and adding eight assists for 10 points in just 13 games played. Leivo is in a similar situation to Rychel in that he requires waivers to go down to the AHL. Unlike Rychel however, the Leafs have already proven that they don’t want to lose Leivo by protecting him in the expansion draft. While he has those things going for him, he’s got a couple of problems here. Leivo isn’t exactly what you’d call a defensive specialist, and Mike Babcock was hesitant to play him in this role last year when any other option was available, so it stands to reason that he’d be unlikely to do so this year. Unfortunately for Leivo, he’s probably going to have to wait for someone to get hurt or traded in order to get his chance this year, much the same as last season.
Prediction: Extra Forward
Leo Komarov: Uncle Leo has been a fixture on a line with Nazem Kadri for the most part since the 2014-15 season, and for the most part, that duo has been charged with shutting down the opposition’s top players, especially since Mike Babcock took over in 2015. I think this is the year that changes, and it isn’t a knock on Komarov at all, but rather the fact that his skill set allows you to place him pretty much anywhere in the lineup, and he’ll wreak havoc, not only being one of the better defensive forwards in the league, but one of the most annoying ones as well. The Leafs fourth line is going to be buried with defensive zone starts and charged grinding the puck down to the other end of the ice, behind the elite faceoff skills of new acquisition Dominic Moore, and the heavy, grinding style of Matt Martin. Think of a Football team that has a running back that they hand the ball to when they’re backed up to their own goal line, because they know he’ll get them a couple of yards, so they can at least breathe. That’s what this line will be. It certainly won’t be pretty, but Leo fits that description to the letter, and that, coupled with his ability to play either wing, and even take a faceoff in a pinch, is why he will be the fourth line right wing for the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs
Prediction: Fourth Line RW