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Gameday: Babcock makes a surprising lineup decision ahead of Sabres game

Wow… who saw that coming?!

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According to a report from Sportsnet analyst and Toronto Maple Leafs insider Chris Johnston, Leafs forward Matt Martin will be in the lineup tonight when his team takes on the Buffalo Sabres from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, NY.

The Leafs later confirmed the news and Martin met with the media just following the team’s gameday skate.

“It’s exciting for sure, it’s been awhile since I’ve played a game,” said Martin. “I’m excited to get back into the thick of things here and keep it simple, just try to get the feel for the pace and everything again.”

The Leafs have gone 13-4-2 since taking Martin out of the lineup and the veteran enforcer admitted that watching his team win from the press box has tested his self confidence.

“I don’t know… you can only control what you can control. You try to stay positive as much as possible, but some days are easier than others,” remarked Martin. “At first I thought it might just be a couple [games] and then it hit a month…”

Leafs linked to Kovalchuk and Thornton

When the 3pm deadline struck on the NHL’s trade deadline a week ago today it was clear what approach the Toronto Maple Leafs had taken. They’re all in for the playoffs this season. 

Sure, the Leafs only tinkered with their roster by adding veteran centre Tomas Plekanec from the Montreal Canadiens, but more importantly than that they elected to retain the services of pending unrestricted free-agents James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov. The trio of forwards represents an “own rental” for the Leafs and it’s expected that all three players will walk away from the team, for nothing, in free-agency this upcoming offseason. Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello was in the awkward position of figuring out whether he was a buyer or seller at the deadline and didn’t waver for a moment… again the Leafs are all in.

Still, how does Lamoriello's movement, or lack thereof, at the deadline affect plans for the 2018-19 version of his team? If indeed van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Komarov depart, who’ll replace them? JVR and Bozak in particular will be tricky to replace, as it’s not like top-six scoring wingers and defensively reliable top-nine centers grow on trees. The Leafs will have to dig deep and search hard for replacements. 

In his latest column for the Toronto Star, Leafs beat reporter Kevin McGran theorizes some replacements for JVR and Bozak both from within the organization and on the open market. The most likely choices from within appear to be Andreas Johnsson and Carl Grundstrom on the wing and Miro Aaltonen and Frederik Gauthier at centre. But, how about the open market? Could the Leafs convince former New Jersey Devils superstar Ilya Kovalchuk to help put the Leafs over the top? And down the middle how about future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton from the San Jose Sharks? Both former NHL superstars will be unrestricted free-agents and open for bidding on July 1st.

From McGran:

Ilya Kovalchuk will try to return to the NHL. Could be a JVR replacement. Don't forget Joe Thornton is a UFA. Marleau's buddy. Babcock loves him.

Interesting. The Mike Babcock factor CANNOT be dismissed. The Leafs’ head coach has a way of inspiring and motivating his players like few other coaches in NHL history. A Babcock and Thornton reunion in Toronto could do wonders for both the player and the head coach. And how great would a Patrick Marleau and Thornton reunion be? As for Kovalchuk, he’s a bit of a mystery after playing five seasons in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg, but if he can be signed to a reasonable deal and put up 15+ goals on the power play, then why not?

For what it’s worth, McGran feels like Kovalchuk is a natural replacement for JVR:

Not the same player, mind you, but probably close to the same amount of offence. But Kovalchuk's salary demands will be far less than JVRs, and easier to fit in with the new order that's coming. Kovalchuk will be hungry for a Stanley Cup to go with his Olympic gold.

What do you think Leafs fans? If Kovalchuk and Thornton sign in Toronto this summer, are you happy with the moves? Or would you rather they put all their eggs in one basket by re-signing JVR? Remember, term will be key seeing as how William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews will all be up for contract extensions, as well.