The Toronto Maple Leafs shared some positive news regarding John Tavares on Friday morning, announcing that the captain was released from hospital and is now resting at home with family under the care and supervision of team physicians. Thankfully, it seems Tavares has avoided serious structural damage as a result of a collision that resulted in one of the most harrowing situations many have ever seen play out in an NHL game.
Of course, that doesn't mean we will soon see him back on the ice, as the Leafs have officially ruled him out indefinitely.
It proved to be difficult for Tavares' teammates to proceed in the moment, and understandably so. The shocking nature of what happened may have been just as much of a disadvantage as losing the player, and their captain, itself.
But from this point onward, the Leafs must find a way to mitigate his loss in order to reestablish themselves in the series.
And that begins with the lineup decisions for head coach Sheldon Keefe.
Who steps in at 2C?
As deep as the Maple Leafs are at the forward position, Keefe has candidates but not an obvious answer when mulling over the options to replace Tavares at No. 2 centre. In fact at this point, if the Leafs did have one weakness, or a spot of positional uncertainty, it's at the rung right below Tavares on the team's depth chart.
Alexander Kerfoot and Riley Nash are the next two up, while veteran Jason Spezza has loads of experience but hasn't been trusted with top-line minutes since arriving in Toronto. Kerfoot is the most natural fit based on ranking and understanding of the system, but he hasn't nailed down a role in the middle of the ice since he arrived in Toronto and it seems obvious Keefe prefers him on the wing. The limitations from Kerfoot appear to be a significant reason why the Leafs acquired Nash — a strong defensive centre with a hard offensive ceiling — and had him make his debut on the third line with Kerfoot in Game 1 versus Montreal.
All this to say, Neither Kerfoot or Nash are top-six centres at the NHL level, however useful they may be in a lesser role.
With the system lacking replenishing qualities, perhaps the Leafs instead move a winger into the middle. William Nylander and Nick Foligno began as Tavares' wingers in Game 1, and both have experience at centre in their careers as well. Nylander's is specific to Toronto, Keefe, and even the postseason, as he was tasked with centre-ice duties in the bubble last summer when Tavares was bumped up to the top line.
However Foligno has far more experience at the position, toggling between centre and wing for the majority of his career.
And based on the way the Leafs practised Friday, it seems he is the leading option.
On the surface, this seems like a major undertaking for Foligno. But based on the price paid to acquire him, the expectation should be that he can fill the role adequately. That, coupled with the fact that he has Nylander on his wing, leaves no room for excuses.
It seems it's time for Foligno to validate is acquisition.
Who comes in? And out?
Simple arithmetic told us that only one forward would need to be promoted from the taxi squad, but it seems Keefe has landed on two instead. Pierre Engvall and Alex Galchenyuk both practised on normal lines Friday, each on the wing. That left the aforementioned Nash as the odd man out, presumably because the comfort level from Keefe just isn't there yet following his Game 1 debut and the fact that Tavares' injury likely necessitates more from the centres who will play.
Engvall seemed like an obvious choice, partly because he had been playing well, but also the dire need, now, for capable centres. Replacing Tavares on the second line was never in the cards for Engvall, but he has the ability, to be sure, to fill in exposed bottom-six minutes through the middle of the ice. It's possible that both Engvall and Kerfoot see time at centre on the new version of the Leafs' shutdown third line.
Galchenyuk's inclusion is the most interesting development from Friday's practice. Not because of who he's replacing, but because Keefe believes his best second line, now that Tavares is out, includes the former third-overall selection of the Canadiens.
Galchenyuk has impressed since surfacing with the Toronto Marlies and quickly being called up by the Maple Leafs, mainly for his facilitative qualities. Previously a scorer, Galchenyuk has adapted his game in order to fit with the Leafs, and now it seems a major opportunity awaits.
At the moment, it seems the Tavares-sized hole in the Leafs roster will be filled by Foligno and Galchenyuk — two players who weren't on the radar for Toronto at the start of the season.
All that work management did to improve the roster in-season has to pay off immediately with the Maple Leafs facing an early deficit in what's expected to be a meaningful postseason run.
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