It’s August and if you’re like me, September can’t come fast enough. I am enjoying the extreme heat and wonderful weather we are having but I miss hockey, I miss the Leafs! Due to that I think it is a good time to begin looking forward to training camp, with less than a month to go until camps open across the NHL. In particular the boys in blue will be set to go starting September 13th at Master Card for their medicals and physicals and then they will head to Niagra for training camp September 14-16 with their first preseason game on September 18.
Ever since the Leafs drafted Auston Matthews every season has had a little more anticipation in the air and this year it is no different, in fact maybe higher than ever. The expectations in the organization have started to increase with back to back playoff appearances, both of which ended in first round exits. Now the fanbase along with ownership want more and we may be on the verge of seeing it as the Leafs managed to grab the big fish, John Tavares, in free agency. It was a huge move for the franchise and helped push the team a little higher (hopefully) up the food chain when it comes to the top dogs of the NHL. However, work still needs to be done and this roster is by no means perfect but you never know who could surprise coming out of camp when given the right chance and opportunity. Looking at the roster there are many questions to be answered and hopefully this piece is able to answer some of them and we may have a better picture of how the roster will look come opening night for the big club.
Based on what we know so far we have a good idea on how the top six will look as head coach Mike Babcock has already informed everyone where Tavares will fit into the lineup and how that will change lines from last season.
Looking at this top six it can definitely stack up against almost any team in the league as the high powered offensive upgrade of Tavares will give bigger value to a player like Hyman and with Marleau moving up to the top line we might see another 30 goal season for the virtually ageless vet. There’s not much to debate here until we see these lines in action, however it will be very entertaining to watch this offense. The only question at the time of this article will be the status of William Nylander. At this time he does not have a new contract and is waiting for a long term offer from the club. It is possible that Nylander could start camp without a new deal and that may harm his progress for this season if it causes any sort of hold out from either side; however, I believe it should be settled in plenty of time before camp opens. I don’t want to talk too much about the top six as we should just enjoy the amount of talent and not question who is going to take the lead and not make problems where they are not. We know that Auston has no problem with John Tavares being added to the lineup and anyone who would be upset by that has no want to win. As for the captain issue, it will be sorted out when it needs to be but I don’t think the Leafs will have a negative season because they don’t have a captain. I also believe that no matter who they choose it won’t drastically change the team as I think both would be great leaders.
Photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press
The bottom six of the forward roster could be very interesting with many new additions along with players from the Marlies that have surprised during their Calder Cup run. There will be no shortage of competition to make the big club, but this is how I see the bottom six rounding out.
These line have a chance to move around but Kadri is obviously a lock in the 3C spot and Johnsson and Kapanen based on last year’s performances deserve and will have a permanent spot on this team. Connor Brown again will start the season on the 4th line but don’t expect him to stay there or be your typical 4th liner. Brown gives his all every shift and does a lot for this team even if it does not show up in the box score at the end of the night. As for the rest of the 4th line, I have Tyler Ennis filling in the 4th line LW spot (sorry Leivo). I think Ennis has a lot to prove and he has the ability to still be a great talent in the NHL. He has struggled in the past few seasons and after a very disappointing season in Minnesota he was bought out by the Wild. He has not been the same player since groin surgery in 2016 but he still has potential to pull himself back to a 30-40 point player on a very good contract for the Maple Leafs. As for the 4C it was a difficult choice as the Gauthier project from last season looks like that will not be happening again this season and I doubt we see him in the NHL again for this team unless it is under an emergency basis. I think the SHL standout Par Lindholm will round out the lineup for the Leafs. He has put up decent numbers on the larger ice in the Swedish League and I think he would be a good fit between the speed of Ennis and Brown on the 4th line. He is also able to chip in with some special teams play as well and that could be of great benefit for this team. However, I would not be surprised if other players showed up to compete and possibly steal those spots from Ennis or Lindholm. Jooris and Cracknell are both players that could fit into that 4C slot as well. They both have NHL experience however it is their consistency that has caused them to fall in and out of NHL lineups in the past. As for wingers, Leivo and Grundstrom could also surprise in camps.
I honestly hope Leivo he does make the lineup eventually, however he seems to have fallen out of favour with Babcock but shows flashes of brilliance when he does get into the lineup and can skate and shoot with some of the best wingers in the league. I think if he does not make the roster out of camp he could be a big trade chip when looking for upgrades on the defensive side of the team. As for Grundstom, I believe he will make the team eventually but I don’t think he’s ready just yet and there is no sense in rushing him to the big league if not needed. Another year in the AHL with the Marlies should do him a lot of good. Same goes with Timashov, I really like him and his offensive ability but I think his skating needs some work before he is truly ready to compete for a spot on the Leafs.
Based on this it seems as if there will be only two spots available on that 4th line and I’m very interested to see how it shapes up as there isn’t as much space to make an impact anymore on this club when it comes to the forward unit. However, the powerplay and penalty kill lines will be completely different with the departure of JVR, Bozak, Komarov, and Moore. Expect players such as Tavares, Brown, Marleau, Hyman, and Kapanen to take a step up and get more special teams time.
Let’s move to everyone’s favorite Leafs topic; the defence. It is a very frustrating topic as no matter how well the team has been performing, the downfall kept being the back end. If it was a bad pass, bad change, a turnover, or just allowing an excessive amount of shots, the team really needs to find better ways to keep the puck out of the net and make life easier for Andersen. At this time the Leafs have not made any changes on the back end, aside from losing Polak to free agency, so this is how I see the Leafs back end shaping up come this season.
Nothing really different to report from last season, only change is Igor Ozhiganov. I have been waiting for awhile to see him play in the NHL and I really think he will be good enough for this club. After playing in the KHL, if he can jump into the league the way Zaitsev did I think we have a really good player and he shoots right which is a very sought after trait. It is always hard to determine how well a player will perform jumping from the KHL to NHL. Aside from that it is very frustrating to see that no big changes have been made on the back end as we are expected to see a very similar season defensively unless they don’t overplay Hainsey and Zaitsev can bounce back to what we saw from him in his first season as a Leaf. I expect Rielly only to get better and show again how he is a top pairing guy as well as Dermott will continue to improve and be a lock on the back end. Connor Carrick will probably end up again being the 7th defenceman and watch most games from the press box. As for who could surprise, I think the defence could be very open depending on how some players perform and I have a few in mind that just might and would not surprise me if I see them make the opening lineup.
Now before everyone jumps on the Liljegren bandwagon let’s give the kid some time. I don’t think it is a good idea to rush him into the league especially when the defence is weak. It’ll be difficult to allow him to learn the game if you can’t pair him with someone that can cover his mistakes. So for the time being let’s give him a little more time on the Marlies to develop. Players such as Borgman, Rosen, and Marincin all had stints with the Leafs last season only to be sent to the Marlies where they won the Calder Cup. That added experience may help all three try and push for the 6th or 7th spot D however, I don’t know how much of an upgrade they would be. Again, it will all depend on the performance of Carrick and Ozhiganov because I believe if either of those players step up they will likely stay in the lineup fulltime. Unless the Leafs make a big deal before training camp these are the options we have and I do believe as good as the offence will be if the defense is as poor as it was at times last season the Leafs will again struggle to make it far in the standings or in the playoffs.
Probably the most solid part of the lineup is the goaltending. Andersen has showed that he’s able to carry a team and can take a heavy load of games and shots however, I believe the Leafs need to lighten up on what they allow him to do. They need to play the backup goaltender more often and give him more days off, especially when he faces one of the highest shot totals in the league.
No surprise Andersen is the starter coming into this season, however I still think Leafs start the season with McElhinney to back him up. He went 11-5-1 in 15 games for the Leafs with a 2.15 GAA and a .934 Sv%. Now based on his numbers last season he at least deserves a chance to go at it again and prove that these numbers were not a fluke however there is always a chance the Leafs go a different route. They can choose to send McElhinney to the minors by putting him on waivers in an attempt to give him a chance elsewhere if they pick Sparks or Pickard to be the backup instead but these moves could also depend on several others as I believe at some point this season one of Sparks or Pickard are traded in an attempt to bring in some defensive depth.
I could be wrong but based on all three goaltenders I would not have any issue with any at the back up position as long as Sparks gets some more time in goal as he has not seen NHL action in awhile and I worry he won’t have the success he has had in the AHL. Pickard on the other hand has more NHL experience and there is a reason the Leafs brought him in from Vegas last season. I believe ultimately Pickard will end up as the true back up by seasons end. However at the end of the day the Leafs and Babcock need to find a way to lighten Andersen’s work load. Sure he can handle it, but with a weak defensive core it seemed to me as if he was burnt out by the time the playoffs came and it was only a matter of time before his body gave up. Even then he still managed to help push 7 games with the Bruins in round one.
Based on the roster, the Leafs have a shot to make a definite run in the playoffs, if somehow the defence takes a significant step forward. Yes, goaltending and offense need to stay consistent as well but there is no denying that the defence is the largest weakness and if that can improve this team can cause some serious damage. The roster also has to be built stronger just to get out of the division as the Lightning, Bruins, Panthers, and Sabres have all made upgrades to their teams and the Atlantic division won’t be as easy or as big of a laugh as it was last season. So don’t expect another 105 point season from the Buds, however I still see them finishing 2nd in the division behind the Lightning.
The Leafs roster is far from perfect and they are sitting as a contender to win the Stanley Cup, but I think in order to make it happen moves will need to be made. It will be a difficult task just to get to the playoffs this season, however I think based on the upgrades made by the Leafs that they should have no issue getting to the dance. The depth will determine how far they get into the playoffs and I myself am excited to get a new season started… and, along with everyone else, awaiting to see John Tavares make his debut in a Leafs uniform. With about a month to go until training camp starts I can’t wait for hockey to be back and see where this team will go this season. I think we are in good hands with the management, Babcock, and the players we currently have. It is time to get this started, hockey season awaits and I am ready.