When the Toronto Maple Leafs kick off their 2021-22 regular season, team management is going to hope some young players step up and contribute meaningful minutes. But those youngsters aren’t going to have the same amount of learning space other young Buds players were fortunate enough to have in their initial days in the NHL. The pressures that are on this Leafs’ team will force head coach Sheldon Keefe to go with whoever helps the club win, and if less-experienced prospects have some rough stretches in their acclimation to hockey’s best league, they are very likely not to be given enough of a long leash to find their way.
That certainly wasn’t the same situation young stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander found themselves in when they began their NHL career in Toronto. Because the Leafs were coming off rebuilding years, Marner, Matthews, and Nylander – all to different degrees – were able to find their NHL footing without immediate pressure to win. And you can make a good case that patience with them helped out, although talents like those of the three core players didn’t necessarily need it. Matthews in particular was built for, and prepared for, the NHL – a fact underscored by his winning of the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie player (and the first Leaf to win it since Britt Selby won it in the 1965-66 campaign). Marner, meanwhile, set a Leafs’ team record for most assists by a rookie when he posted 42 of them. If anyone has needed a little more time to blossom, it was Nylander, who spent a couple of seasons with the American League’s Toronto Marlies to figure out how to consistently compete at the NHL level. He clearly was skilled but required seasoning to hone his craft, and he’s hardly alone in having to experience the AHL route before his NHL career truly took off.
However, this season, the Maple Leafs are a much different team than the ones Matthews, Marner and Nylander were when they embarked on their NHL journey. After a dismal playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens last spring, Toronto finds itself painted into a corner, and has no room for error. The Leafs need not only to make the playoffs, but to win at least a couple of rounds to justify keeping their core together. Anything less than that will trigger a significant breakup of that core, and it’s not certain Toronto’s rookies will be completely safe from being part of a blockbuster trade or two.
That means prospects such as 19-year-old winger Nick Robertson, 22-year-old defenseman Timothy Liligren, and 21-year-old blueliner Rasmus Sandin are truly going to have to earn a place in the Leafs’ lineup. Toronto GM Kyle Dubas has spent this summer adding discounted depth players throughout the lineup, and with the acquisition of veteran forwards Nick Ritchie, David Kämpf, Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, and Kurtis Gabriel, and defenseman Alex Biega, the road to earning a full-time NHL job has now had obstacles put up for Liligren, Sandin and Robertson. Sandin is most likely to stick with the Leafs, as he’s skated in 37 NHL games over the past two years and is most familiar to Keefe. But even then, Sandin has competition for ice time with the Buds, as 24-year-old D-man Travis Dermott also will be attempting to lock up minutes on Toronto’s third pairing of blueliners.
That said, there’s no question Robertson and Liligren will have a more challenging time establishing themselves as core Toronto components to begin this coming season. In addition to the aforementioned new Leafs, Robertson will have to outperform veteran depth players such as winger Joey Anderson, 24-year-old centers Adam Brooks and Denis Malgin, training camp tryout forward Josh Ho-Sang, and former Kings and Senators forward Michael Amadio; and Liligren will likely begin his season with the Marlies, as he tries to overshadow Sandin, Dermott and Biega in his quest to become an NHLer. Nothing less than notable excellence will get Robertson and Liligren on Keefe’s radar, and they’ll have training camp as well as big-time minutes at the AHL level to force Keefe to find a place for him on the NHL roster.
In the bigger picture, the Leafs can’t afford to let Robertson, Sandin, and Liligren find their way in a Toronto jersey. There is too much at stake for months-long experiments and patience now. It is all about immediate performance, and if Robertson can steal a job out from under more experienced teammates, or if Liligren outshines Sandin and Dermott, Keefe will happily employ them rather than veterans expected to be NHLers this season. But it certainly won’t be easy, and it definitely puts all the pressure on the rookies and least-experienced Leafs.
No goals in training camp from Robertson, who isn’t a third-or-fourth-line type of player, will cement his status as an AHLer to start this season. Too many goals allowed on their watch will push Sandin and Liligren to the side as Keefe turns to others to crank down on the defensive side. It’s really that simple. The opportunities are there, but ultimately, this is a season where underperformance will be addressed swiftly, and not necessarily to the liking of the underperformers. So, Leafs’ fans, you should be wishing Robertson, Sandin, and Liligren good luck as they settle into training camp. They’re likely going to need it.