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Maple Leafs roster prediction for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Two things seem to be set in stone: the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs and their first-round opponent is the Tampa Bay Lightning. One thing that doesn’t seem to be decided yet is exactly how head coach Sheldon Keefe’s roster will be formed in the first game.

The Maple Leafs bench boss has been messing around a lot lately. General Manager (GM) Kyle Dubas did a great job bringing some fresh faces to the trade deadline, and Keefe went out of his way to look everyone with everyone. While it pissed off some of the Leafs Nation who are on the “they need to develop chemistry” side, the rework gave the coaching staff a real look at some different line combinations.

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While the guessing game will continue until the first night of the playoffs, here’s what I think the Maple Leafs should have in their roster when their Cup race kicks off in mid-April:

Kalle Jarnkrok – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner

The trio that recently played together, Calle Jarnkrok, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, seem to have a lot of chemistry. Matthews was pretty loud about playing more with Jarncroc, who has an amazing work ethic and probably looks a bit like Matthews and Marner Zack Hyman. Its engine and ability to track down pucks certainly have something in common with the former Maple Leaf.

Calle Jarncroc Toronto Maple LeafsKalle Jarnkrok, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irwin/The Hockey Writers)

This is a great first line for the Maple Leafs as two big guns are together and absolutely a must have. Matthews and Marner know how to find each other on the ice, and with a workhorse in Yarnkrok down the left, this combination of lines could really wreak havoc in the postseason.

John Tavares – Ryan O’Reilly – William Nylander

If I were Keefe, I would bring Ryan O’Reilly back to second line at center along with John Tavares and William Nylander. This trio was effective when they briefly played together before O’Reilly broke his finger.

Ryan O'Reilly Toronto Maple LeafsRyan O’Reilly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Souza/NHLI via Getty Images)

O’Reilly will have the biggest impact on the Maple Leafs in the top six. Tavares, on the other hand, had no problem moving to the flank. This is what captains do, they make sacrifices for the interests of the team.

Nylander complements these two very well and has been a force throughout the season. He took his game to new heights in 2023 and there is no doubt that he will be an important factor for Toronto in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I like this trio on the second link because they will win most of the faceoffs and possession of the puck will not be a problem at all.

Related: Maple Leafs should consider splitting playoff goaltending starts

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I’m also very excited to see how O’Reilly will react to his latest defeat. His experience is very important for this team and he will play an important role not only on the ice, but also in the locker room.

The best part about the toe injury is that he was still able to skate and keep his feet in “play shape.” Of course, nothing beats the game. Stay tuned for former winner Conn Smythe to see some play action in the very near future as Keefe can take advantage of some postseason combos.

Michael Bunting – Sam Lafferty – Noel Accari

I have no doubt that Michael Bunting and Noel Accari should play each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Add to that the speed of Sam Lafferty in the center, and this line can piss off opponents and have a very strong effect on the ice.

Noel Accari Toronto Maple LeafsNoel Acciari, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Lafferty and Accari came to Toronto and made a difference from the first game in the Maple Leafs uniform. They are both very defensively responsible and, with Bunting, could form a blocking squad for the Leafs against the Lightning and hopefully a few other opponents during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I was really impressed with Lafferty’s speed and his ability to be on top of the puck. His impact on penalties is also being felt, and he’s set to score a couple of big goals for the Maple Leafs when games matter the most. Lafferty is the perfect compliment in Toronto and praise for Dubas for luring him out of the Chicago Blackhawks before the trade deadline.

As for Banting, he moved from the first line to the fourth and should now find his place in the third line of the team. He has an interesting relationship with Coach Keefe, as they have known each other for over ten years, and this sometimes shows up in their jokes on the bench. Although he may no longer play in the front row, Bunting is a valued player for the Maple Leafs and should be engraved in stone in the team’s third row and second powerplay in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Maple Leafs have gone to great lengths to keep Alexander Curfoot on their roster this season, and while he is likely to be on the team, he will be one of their most important players. Curfoot has been rocking lately after slow stretching, and with his speed, versatility, defensive ability and penalty kill prowess, expect him to make an impact in limited minutes.

Alex Curfoot Toronto Maple LeafsAlex Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This fourth line is not my favorite, but because of the depth in the middle in Toronto, David Kampf was moved to the fourth line. The wild card for me is Zach Aston-Reese vs Matthew Nice. If Nice does sign with the Maple Leafs this season, for me, Aston-Reese is the one who needs to leave the roster to make room for the team’s top player. This would allow Nice to play a limited number of minutes, getting his feet wet in a five-on-five game, and he could still see some time on the team’s second power-play block. At this point, it should still be considered that the prospect of a collegiate club in the playoff roster of the Maple Leafs is still considered unlikely.

As for Kampf, he is a very important player. His ability to stop opponents, kill penalties, win big face-offs and score goals is an integral part of the Maple Leafs’ success.

Defense pairs can change with each game

While offensive lines aren’t too difficult, defensive pairings are a different story in my opinion. It’s not often that a team has nine options, but it was one of Dubas’ goals for the trade deadline to get as many NHL defensemen as possible. This is how I would start the playoffs on the back of the Maple Leafs:

Morgan Rilly – T.J. Brodie
Jake McCabe – Timothy Lilliegren
Mark Giordano – Luke Schenn

While I don’t enjoy playing Luke Schenn and Mark Giordano together, just based on foot speed, I really enjoy having Morgan Reilly play alongside T.J. Brody. Reilly has been struggling to find consistency this season and especially lately, and I feel like he’s at his best when he plays with his security blanket at Brody.

Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Timothy Lilliegren, Toronto Maple LeafsMitch Marner, John Tavares and Timothy Lilliegren celebrate a goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Liljegren is worth paying attention to as he has taken a step back lately. Yes, Justin Hall may be ahead of him in the depth chart, but for me, if I’m Keefe, I only wear Hall if the team decides to play with 11 forwards and seven defenders. If it comes to that at all. McCabe has arguably been the team’s best defenseman since he arrived in town, and in the playoffs he’ll be a force on the ice.

Based on resources alone, I see Keef changing defense pairings from game to game. Having so many capable defensemen is a luxury, and there’s no doubt the Maple Leafs will need every one of them in the future.

The goalkeeper can also have a changeable situation

In the first game in Toronto, if the Maple Leafs keep the lead on home ice against the Lightning, I’d bet Ilya Samsonov. He’s played much better at home this season, and Matt Murray has experience coming off the bench in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple LeafsIlya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvine / The Hockey Writers)

It’s not often that a team goes into the postseason with a tandem approach, but yes, this season in Toronto, that could be the case. Unless one player goes all out, expect both to play in the playoffs.

The goalkeeper is the x-factor for this team. If the Maple Leafs can get an elite goaltender when it matters most, which they didn’t get from Jack Campbell during the playoffs last season, they have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

In my opinion, Keefe should take Samsonov to the first game, give him a short leash. You win, you stay, you lose and you go to the bench. And, if he wins both Game 1 and Game 2 in Toronto, there is a chance Murray will still be on his way to Game 3 as they both hit their stride this season, Samsonov is much better at home in while Murray was more productive on the road.

My prediction came true, now it’s time to wait and see how accurate I can be compared to Coach Keefe’s lineup for the first game. The best thing about winning the Stanley Cup? There is no plan for exactly how to reach the end goal. The Maple Leafs have the most extensive roster in 20 years and this may be their best chance to give the Leafs Nation what they’ve been dying for since 1967.

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