How the Maple Leafs can line up after adding Thornton

Kavin Mistry / National Hockey League / Getty

It's unclear what's left in 41-year-old Joe Thornton's tank, but what's crystal clear is that Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe will get more options when setting his lineup next season.

The Leafs' bottom-six forward group has undergone a transformation this offseason, with the team trading away Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, while bringing in Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, and Alexander Barabanov (who was signed out of the KHL in April). Youngster Nick Robertson could also make the team.

Here are four different ways the Maple Leafs could set their forward lines next campaign, assuming general manager Kyle Dubas is done adding forwards this offseason. For these projections, we've rotated Robertson, Vesey, and Barabanov in and out of the lineup. Pierre Engvall, meanwhile, was omitted because his $1.25-million cap hit may be tough to manage.

Option 1: Stacked top 6

Kevin Sousa / National Hockey League / Getty
Zach Hyman Auston Matthews Mitch Marner
Alexander Kerfoot John Tavares William Nylander
Nick Robertson Joe Thornton Ilya Mikheyev
Jimmy Vesey Jason Spezza Wayne Simmonds

Before adding Thornton, the Leafs would've needed Kerfoot to play center. Opinions are mixed regarding whether he's best suited to be a center or a winger. But Kerfoot struggled during his first season in Toronto, which was spent primarily playing down the middle. Some of his best success came as a winger with the Avalanche in a complementary role on the club's top lines, so we've placed him on the left side with Tavares and Nylander.

The 19-year-old Robertson, meanwhile, flanks Thronton after leading the OHL in goals last year. Mikheyev, who was a hound on the puck last season before suffering a wrist laceration and being quiet in the playoffs, joins them. The finisher and puck retriever could nicely complement Thornton's playmaking ability.

Option 2: Depth down the middle

Bruce Bennett / Getty Images Sport / Getty
Zach Hyman Auston Matthews Mitch Marner
Ilya Mikheyev John Tavares William Nylander
Jimmy Vesey Alexander Kerfoot Wayne Simmonds
Alexander Barabanov Joe Thornton Jason Spezza

There's a real chance Thornton can no longer play top-nine minutes and must be sheltered on the fourth line. That would force Kerfoot back to center. We've bumped Vesey - Kerfoot's former college teammate at Harvard - up to the third line in hopes of recreating their old chemistry.

Putting Spezza and Thornton on the same line may not be ideal because they both lack quickness, but flipping Spezza and Simmonds doesn't entirely fix that problem. We've also inserted Barabanov for Robertson in this scenario to provide a different look.

Option 3: Balanced attack

Kevin Sousa / National Hockey League / Getty
Alexander Kerfoot Auston Matthews Zach Hyman
Ilya Mikheyev John Tavares Mitch Marner
Nick Robertson Joe Thornton William Nylander
Alexander Barabanov Jason Spezza Wayne Simmonds

The previous two lineups are awfully top-heavy, which was part of Toronto's issues in 2019-20. In this lineup, we're banking on Matthews to carry his own unit. As the league's second-highest-paid center, he shouldn't need the help of Marner or Nylander to be effective. Plus, a workhorse in Hyman is there for support, alongside a capable playmaker in Kerfoot.

The third line sees the biggest change in this lineup. Nylander, an elite play-driver and zone-entry specialist, would put Thornton in the best position to succeed. A 30-goal scorer this past season, Nylander would benefit from Thornton's playmaking skills, too. As would Robertson, of course.

Option 4: Let's get weird

Kevin Sousa / National Hockey League / Getty
John Tavares Auston Matthews Mitch Marner
Zach Hyman Joe Thornton William Nylander
Alexander Barabanov Alexander Kerfoot Ilya Mikheyev
Jimmy Vesey Jason Spezza Wayne Simmonds

This isn't a realistic or viable lineup to use over an extended period. It's more of an in-game desperation option for Keefe if the team is trailing and he needs to create a spark.

Toronto ran out it's $33.5-million line toward the end of its qualifying-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets after the club's offense dried up. The trio displayed flashes of brilliance, but the line should really only be used in spurts.

It probably isn't best to give Thornton second-line minutes over a long span, but Hyman and Nylander are there to provide ample support. However, that leaves the bottom six looking quite bleak. Putting Kerfoot between Barabanov and Mikheyev could create a makeshift checking line, though.

How the Maple Leafs can line up after adding Thornton
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