Many things remain on hiatus as the pandemic continues, but NHL hockey is not one of them.
All 31 teams have now officially opened up their respective training camps ahead of a shortened 56-game season beginning on January 13th.
A lot of things will be different this year, but the Toronto Maple Leafs’ need to win their first playoff series since 2004 remains the same.
The first order of business is, of course, constructing the most optimal roster possible over the course of just 10 days. I believe the new formula calls for one dash of skill followed by two scoops of truculence?
Without official exhibition games, players vying for lineup spots will have to rely on strong showings during drills and intra-squad scrimmages – just to stand out.
Here are five players who especially need to make some noise – if they want to keep their hopes for consistent playing time alive.
#Leafs lines at practice (via team’s PR):
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) January 5, 2021
1) Travis Dermott
2019-20 Season: 56 GP – 4 G – 7 A – 11 P – 49.8 CF% – 52.7 oZS%
NHL Career: 157 GP – 9G – 32A – 41P – 53.2 CF% – 54.4 oZS%
For Travis Dermott, this year is the definition of put-up or shut-up. Defenseman typically have a longer development timeline than forwards, but the Newmarket, Ont. native is now 24 years old and has yet to force his way into the top-four.
His defensive efficiency and ability to drive play fell off a cliff last season, evidenced by a CF% over three points lower than his career average – despite the fact that he continued to receive a favorable amount of offensive zone starts.
Some of the decrease can be attributed to the higher quality of competition Dermott was up against last year. Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin both missed significant amounts of time due to injury, and he was forced into a top-four role out of necessity.
Now, he’ll have to fight tooth-and-nail just to see regular playing time at all. The emergence of Justin Holl and the arrivals of T.J. Brodie and Mikko Lehtonen will make things very difficult – not to mention Rasmus Sandin and Zach Bogosian.
So far, he’s spent the first days of training camp on the fourth pairing. If he needed further evidence about the insecurity of his roster spot, well, there it is.
One thing Dermott has going in his favour is his price – a one-year deal with a $874K cap hit. Next summer will also be his first time as an arbitration-eligible player, so there’s more than enough incentive to perform.
Otherwise, it may be time to book a one-way ticket to Seattle.
Keefe on Travis Dermott: “I think he looks really good. The situation he’s in here now has nothing to do with his offseason. We’ve added to our depth on defence, and my message to him is to be ready. We’re looking for him to latch onto a clear identity of who he is.”
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) January 5, 2021
2) Pierre Engvall
2019-20 Season: 48 GP – 8 G – 7 A – 15 P – 51.9 CF% – 43.3 oZS%
NHL Career: 48 GP – 8 G – 7 A – 15 P – 51.9 CF% – 43.3 oZS%
It’s rather odd to see Pierre Engvall practicing with the second group at camp, given his emergence as a roster regular last season.
Being on the outside looking in has mostly come as a result of the new roster additions, although the young Swede also didn’t do himself any favors by only recording one point in his final 21 regular season games last year.
Leafs’ management will certainly be tempted to keep him on the taxi squad, given the fact that he’s waiver-exempt.
On the other hand, the Leafs’ bottom-six is far from settled and their need for depth up the middle is no secret. Especially following the injury to Alex Kerfoot this morning (he’s now listed as day-to-day).
Engvall’s faceoff abilities (39% over 105 attempts) could use some work, but he’s a proficient penalty killer who can consistently use his long reach to frustrate opponents in the defensive zone.
He also drove play at a decent rate last season – posting a 51.9 CF% while only starting 43.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone. There’s a lot to like about Engvall’s all-around game, and it’s not hard to envision him starting the year at 4C.
When are the Leafs gonna trade Pierre Engvall and a 3rd for Trevor Zegras
— Nik Antropov (@NHLNyIander) December 29, 2020
3) Rasmus Sandin
2019-20 Season: 28 GP – 1 G – 7 A – 8 P – 54.7 CF% – 56.1 oZS%
NHL Career: 28 GP – 1 G – 7 A – 8 P – 54.7 CF% – 56.1 oZS%
Rasmus Sandin, alongside Dermott, has started camp on the fourth pairing and has a couple of obstacles to overcome if he hopes to see regular ice time.
The talent is obvious, and some believe that his abilities have already superseded Dermott’s. Sandin’s biggest challenge will undoubtedly be his lack of NHL experience – something that can be said for most 20-year-old defenseman trying to crack the big club.
He has the tools, the smarts, and has apparently packed on quite a bit of muscle over the offseason as well. What exactly all of this translates to remains to be seen, but he can also be shuffled back and forth between the Leafs and their taxi squad (without waivers) and that could end up being the deciding factor.
Despite this, Sandin will likely get into his fair share of games – even if he isn’t a full-time regular just yet. He already looked ready for NHL duties last season following a strong training camp, but his youth and aforementioned lack of big-league experience caught up to him at times over the 28 games he played.
Lehtonen also creates an additional barrier as he’s expected to see PP2 minutes. Sandin’s ability to quarterback a powerplay is one of his strongest assets, but the need for him in that role won’t be necessary if Lehtonen’s powerplay skills positively transition to the NHL.
If Sandin’s game can find some more consistency, he can absolutely earn meaningful minutes. He’s the Leafs’ top defensive prospect, and sometimes pedigree can go a long way.
I hope we one day get to see Topi Niemela and Rasmus Sandin play together.
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) January 5, 2021
4) Nick Robertson
2019-20 Season (Peterborough Petes – OHL): 46 GP – 55 G – 31 A – 86 P
NHL Career (2019-20 Play-In Series Against Columbus): 4 GP – 1 G – 0 A – 1 P
There are three things that are certain in this world – death, taxes, and Leaf Nation’s relentless optimism when it comes to Nick Robertson.
The hype isn’t unfounded, but this is also a prospect who just turned 19 roughly four months ago. Most of his skill set is extremely raw, and his waiver-exempt status makes him a prime candidate for taxi squad duties.
His biggest challenge will be his size. During the play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he looked small and was easily pushed off the puck at times. Given the wealth of forward depth the Leafs have, it would almost be foolish to rush the development of a player who will likely be a lineup staple for years to come.
What’s unfortunate is the lack of certainty surrounding the upcoming OHL season. Sending Robertson back to junior doesn’t seem like the most beneficial move for his development, but at least it was an option.
It’s never ideal for a teenager to spend a prime development year in the press box; however, that could be Robertson’s fate as a taxi squad member if junior hockey continues to be delayed.
The OHL was tentatively scheduled to begin on February 4th, but the timeline is unknown now as league officials collaborate with the government to try and find a solution amidst pandemic concerns.
On a positive note, the Los Angeles County native has been living and training in Canada for several months. The organization knows how tenacious his work ethic is, and that will absolutely increase his chances of making it – seeing as Leafs management is obsessed with compete level.
Like Sandin, Robertson could still play a decent chunk of games as a non-regular. Veterans like Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and even Wayne Simmonds could be given days off here and there for ‘load management’ purposes.
Jason Robertson! Nick Robertson’s older brother, who plays as a prospect with the Stars! Filipino, left wing. Honestly, REALLY lit up the OHL wow. And did I mention the Robertsons are from Arcadia, CA? I love finding players from non-traditional hockey states! pic.twitter.com/EzgSEJ7699
— latt szn (@sushissance) August 22, 2020
5) Jason Spezza
2019-20 Season: 58 GP – 9 G – 16 A – 25 P – 50.6 CF% – 45.3 oZS%
NHL Career: 1123 GP – 341 G – 599 A – 940 P – 52.4 CF% – 55.3 oZS%
As the only true NHL veteran on this list, Jason Spezza’s chances of making the team are far better than anyone who has been mentioned so far.
The former second overall draft pick is certainly at the tail end of his career, but his play could be beneficial in a limited role like last season.
He averaged just under 11 minutes of ice time per game for the Leafs and will likely get into around 35-40 games this season, if not more.
Spezza’s main assets, at this point, are his leadership and faceoff abilities. If he can win important draws and pump up/mentor his teammates, without hurting the team on the scoresheet, that’s probably good enough.
Otherwise, there isn’t much more to say about this absolute beauty.
Jason Spezza started today’s media availability offering his condolences to John Muckler’s family. Spezza said Muckler had a big influence on his career during his early days in Ottawa.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 5, 2021