Training Camp Breakdown and Projections

It’s that exciting time of the year again, the beginning of training camp. For the
Toronto Maple Leafs there is a lot of positions that are locked in barring some unforeseen circumstances but at the same time there is a lot of healthy competition vying for the opportunity to start with main roster come opening night. We are to break things down and take a in depth look at each position. We’ll start with the forwards and work our way back through the line up.

Forwards

I’ll start with the locks on this roster. It’s a no-brainer that the top line of Matthews, Marner and Bunting will remain untouched. The trio proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are one of the best lines in all of the league. The top line developed chemistry early on and were able to sustain it throughout the season and into the playoffs which help lead to the success this line. Matthews recorded his first 60 goal season setting a new franchise record surpassing Rick Vaive’s record he held for 40 years on route to his second consecutive Rocket Richard Award as well as the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay award. Marner put up 97 points and Bunting set career highs, finishing third in Calder voting. This line looks to further that success this season and the group spent a good portion of the offseason together bonding and growing that chemistry. If this translates on the ice as anticipated, expect to see more hardware to be handed out to this line.

We move onto the second line. The Captain, John Tavares will once again anchor this line and expect William Nylander to flank him on the right. Now the left wing spot is going to be up for competition once again. Incumbent Alex Kerfoot will be the leading candidate for this spot. Last season he saw the bulk of the time flanking the left side of this line and put up some respectable numbers in doing so (GP:82 G:13 A:38 P:51 +19). However another leading candidate for this position will be Nick Robertson. He is looking to land a permanent role on the big club. Injuries and the pandemic have really hampered his development and opportunities to carve out a role but if he can stay healthy he’d like to claim this spot. His skill set is best suited in a top six role as he has excellent vision and the capability to score. He’s worked on better preparing himself for an NHL role this offseason by adding some bulk to his frame, putting on approximately 20 pounds. He also worked on improving his lower body strength to give him a more explosive first step.  If Robertson’s hard work pays off this will bump Kerfoot down the depth chart which isn’t a bad thing at all.

The bottom six is where the competition really heats up. There is a lot of depth here as you have the likes of Kampf, Engvall, Clifford, Simmonds returning. Add to that the new faces, Adam Gaudette, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Calle Jarnkrok and recently inked to a PTO Zach Aston Reese… vying for the last remaining spots. Throw in Nick Abruzzese, Pontus Holmberg, Joey Anderson and Alex Steeves into the mix and you’ve got some tremendous depth that will be fighting for these jobs. The latter group are long shots as I see the bottom six looking like:

Jarnkrok – Kampf – Engvall/Kerfoot

ZAR – Gaudette – Aube-Kubel

Extras: Clifford, Simmonds

Even with this said, by no means is it set in stone. I am confident in the third line above staying intact. Even though the Leafs lost Mikheyev in free agency to the Canucks they replaced him with Calle Jarnkrok who is a defensive specialist and like Kerfoot he is a swiss army knife. You can slot him in any of the forward positions with no concern. He kills penalties, he’s disciplined, only accumulating a meager 6 PIM’s last season in 66 games split between Seattle and Calgary. Although, there has been a new development in the injury front with Pierre Engvall being sidelined for the duration of training camp and could be out until after the start of the regular season. He is to be re-evaluted on Oct. 3rd and we’ll know more then. This will provide an opportunity for someone else to step up or if things were to pan out with Robertson starting with the second line, Alex Kerfoot could slot in place of the giraffe until he is healthy.

The fourth line will be interesting. This line will look nothing like it did last season. Jason Spezza is now retired and has joined the front office, Colin Blackwell signed with Chicago in the offseason. Kyle Clifford will likely start the season as a Marlie or a healthy scratch. Which brings me to Wayne Simmonds. He will likely end up a cap casualty and be waived as its going to be difficult to crack the roster for him. He’s a great presence in the dressing room and the guys love him, but the tank is looking awfully drained for him. This will be a tough conversation and Dubas will need to address Simmer and his stance with the team… possibly going down to the Marlies as well and help mentor the younger players. With all of this said, the Leafs fourth line will project as shown above with the three newcomers filling it out. They will bring a lot of adrenaline and energy. Aston Reese is known for his relentless forechecking and willingness to throw is weight around. Gaudette is respectable at faceoff dot and is also will add to the physicality while also being able to contribute a little bit of offense.

The one to really watch on this line is Aube-Kubel, the cup winner has a lot of upside and keep an eye on him as he could put up some surprising numbers. One thing is for sure, this group will make their presence known when it’s on the ice. In addition, there are some remaining invitees to camp who are going to be hard pressed to earn a spot, but don’t count any of them out. The likes of Steeves, Abruzzesse, Holmberg and Anderson will really have to make a statement to jostle a roster spot from the others. All of these are likely bound for the Marlies which isn’t a bad thing as they will get more time to develop and play bigger roles for them. Plus let’s be honest, in the grind of an 82 game season injuries happen and one if not more of them are just a call up away from getting an opportunity with the big club.

DEFENCE

One thing Toronto did has addressed this offseason was getting some depth on the back end signing Victor Mete and Jordie Benn, along with resigning both Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren to a two year contracts. As of the time of writing this article RFA Rasmus Sandin is still unsigned and the only other subtraction to the blue line was Ilya Lyubushkin who signed with the Sabres. The true question is on the back end who is going to be Rielly’s D partner. Is it going to be Brodie? They seem to work well together as Brodie is a steady presence that seems to help balance out whomever he is paired with. Or will Justin Holl have a bounce back season and show signs of the Justin Holl from a couple years ago? Or does a guy like Jordie Benn shock us all and steal the spot. Another possibility could have been Liljegren however he is injured and will miss all of training camp and the start of the regular season. The timetable for him to be out is 6 weeks, which puts him at an early-mid November return. Given this recent turn of events this opens the door for Victor Mete. The once highly touted prospect is now 24, which is still young but at this point its make or break for the D-man. The former London Knight has the tools to be a good defenseman but just hasn’t seem to put it all together. But if he can finally figure it out the Leafs may fall into some found money. At worst he will provide some depth to help fill out the Marlies D. As it stands this is my prediction for how the pairings will look like on opening night:

Rielly – Brodie

Muzzin – Liljegren/Holl

Giordano – Benn

Extra: Mete

Barring any moves this looks to be a solid D corps. Given the additions of Benn and Mete that certainly helps alleviate the situation given the loss of Liljegren and absence of Sandin. However, if the Leafs are to get pen to paper with Sandin that will relieve some of the strain of the loss of Liljegren but as it stands the two sides are still at a stalemate. Until something breaks free on that front we can’t factor Sandin into the equation.

Goaltending

Last but not least we will examine the goaltending. This position was completely overhauled this offseason both members of the tandem from last season left town. Campbell signed with the Oilers and Mrazek was traded to Chicago. The Leafs followed that by trading for Matt Murray and signing Ilya Samsonov. Many have raised concerns and some have even stated that this is the biggest concern. There are a lot of the naysayers out there that are preaching doom and gloom while stating it was a mistake not to resign Campbell. However, many of these are same ones that questioned the goaltending going into last season. So many of the questions that were raised about Campbell last season are being echoed again about Murray and Samsonov.

I am not one of these people. This tandem in my eyes are an upgrade on last season tandems. Don’t get me wrong there are health concerns with Murray but given the fact there is familiarity with the coaching staff and management and the goalie along with Toronto’s top tier medical staff it helps alleviate some of the concern. Even more with having Samsonov, if the worst were to happen. The 25 year old Russian is on a one year pact with the Leafs. This will be a “show me” contract, if the former first round pick of the Capitals can re-establish himself as a legitimate goaltender this will only bode well for both club and player which I believe is quite plausible. Both of these men are hungry with a lot to prove and will carry a chip on their shoulders to quiet the critics as well. The main thing to concern themselves with is staying healthy, as long as that is the case, both will push each other to perform at their best. However, if the injury bug were to hit, the Leafs do have Erik Kallgren that can step in as he did last year and hold his own. But hopefully that is not an avenue we need to venture down.

Final Thoughts

Although there is not a lot of spots up for grabs, there will be some intense competition for the roles that are open. Some of our prospects have made some significant strides and will push for an opportunity. Meanwhile the offseason acquisition’s will be striving to make their case for a roster spot. One thing is for sure depth was the theme of the offseason and the Maple Leafs addressed that in spades. Now it’s up the players to battle it out and leave management and the coaching staff with some tough decisions to make of who will round out the opening night roster for the 22-23 season. Buckle up folks, this will be fun.