It’s the dog days of summer, but there’s always time and topics to discuss when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Today, let’s examine the likely battles for open positions on the team. The big picture can change, of course, with a major trade before training camp. But with management committed to its core, and to bringing back most of the roster from this past season, there won’t be many available roster spots, and the ones that are open will probably be contested ferociously by players on the periphery.
The Rundown: Matthews and Tavares are the team’s top centers, and arguably, their best two players. They’ll each average approximately 20 minutes of ice time, and serve as the team’s leaders on the ice. Kerfoot has the talent and versatility to play center or on the wing, but with the Leafs still more than $1.4 million over the $81.5 million salary cap ceiling (as they’re allowed to be in the off-season), there remains the possibility Toronto GM Kyle Dubas trades Kerfoot for cap relief and prospects or draft picks. If he does, the signing of former Blackhawks forward David Kampf gets a long look as their third-line ‘C’. And on the fourth line, it will probably come down to a choice between youngsters Brooks and Engvall, and veteran Spezza. Head coach Sheldon Keefe was not shy about using Spezza on the wing, so it may well come down to Engvall or Brooks serving as the pivot, and Spezza shifting over to the side.
The Rundown: Marner will be looking to put another disappointing playoff behind him, and Mikheyev will be looking to improve on a disappointing regular season, but they’re the best, fastest skaters at a position that the Leafs are relatively weak at. Simmons returns on a two-year contract, but he plays a physical game that could injure him and open up competition on the third line, mainly for Kampf. And if Spezza isn’t playing at center, he’ll be the frontrunner at training camp to secure the fourth-line spot on the right side. But he’ll have competition for that job, with former Boston Bruin Kase, physical, former Shark Gabriel and training camp tryout/reclamation project Ho-Sang all pushing to avoid being healthy scratches.
The Rundown: As it is with the Leafs’ right wing, their left wing has talent at the very top, and then intense competition for the remainder of the position. Nylander may start the year on the second line, while Keefe bumps up a player like Ritchie who can benefit from just being the finisher on the top line with Matthews and Marner. Beyond that, the third line is likely to feature either Kerfoot, former Arizona Coyote Bunting, or promising rookie Robertson. If he doesn’t capture the third-line job, Bunting should be a lock for the fourth line LW spot.
The Rundown: Although he’s entering the final season of his contract and could be traded, Rielly is Toronto’s top minute-muncher at more than an average of 23 minutes per game, and he’ll be depended on by Keefe once again to shoulder the load on the back end. Brodie very quietly had a solid season in his first year as a Leaf, and almost assuredly will be back on the top pairing; that leaves veterans Muzzin and Holl to play on the second pairing, and guarantees the third pairing will be a battle between Sandin and Dermott (both of whom have the most NHL experience of any of the three potential third-pair Leafs defenders) and developing youngster Liligren. Biega, who played 62 games in the past two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, likely will be stashed in the American League and serve as an injury call-up if need be.
The Rundown: Campbell and Mrazek will be the Leafs’ two netminders when the regular season begins, and that isn’t likely to change, given the cap commitment Dubas has made to both players. Hutchinson will be given the first look should one of Campbell or Mrazek suffer an injury, but he’ll be the AHL Marlies’ starting goalie, and Woll and Scott will fight it out to be the second goaltender at the AHL level and push Hutchinson for playing time and the possibility of a call-up.