As the Toronto Maple Leafs prepare to kick off their training camp for the 2021-22 NHL season, one factor of having success in the league is in their favor: their overall depth. While it’s true Toronto doesn’t have first-rate depth in all positions, the ones that really count – the center spot, on defense, and in goal – all are stocked with talent that many of their opponents would be glad to employ.
The Leafs’ salary cap challenges this coming year has been well-chronicled, but GM Kyle Dubas, having fully bought into the strategy to build around four key forwards (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander), has done about as well as can be expected in the other areas of the roster: Toronto’s defense corps has a solid first-pair punch in Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie, and their second pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl may be one of the better ones in the game. Their third pairing of two of Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott and Timothy Liligren has competition for ice time and to avoid being a healthy scratch. And their goaltending tandem of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek will create a healthy battle for regular-season games played, and the privilege of starting in the playoffs.
Similarly, up front, the Leafs’ center position, is stacked with offensive firepower: Matthews, Tavares, Alex Kerfoot and Jason Spezza all have shown the ability to contribute meaningful minutes, and the latter two can also play on one of the wings if need be. If there is a deficit, though, it’s on the Leafs’ wings: once you get past Nylander and Marner, there is a drop-off in skill, but even then, the potential for good things to happen is there: new free-agent signings Nick Ritchie, David Kämpf, Michael Bunting, Kurtis Gabriel and Ondrej Kase will be vying for three obvious job openings, and they’ll also have returning Leafs Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall and Wayne Simmonds, and rookie up-and-comer Nick Robertson to contend with. That means, on any given night, at least two of that new group, if not three, will be healthy scratched by head coach Sheldon Keefe. That’s a good problem for a club to have, especially in a year in which NHL participation in the Olympics is going to tax the team to a notable degree.
In this once-every-four-years environment, the risk of injury, either in the Olympics or during regular season action, is going to be as high as it’s ever been. So even all the aforementioned names may not be enough at any given point, and Keefe will have to turn to talents such as centers Adam Brooks, Michael Amadio and Denis Malgin, and forwards Joey Anderson, training camp tryout and former Islanders prospect Joshua Ho-Sang to fill a void. It’s more than likely that group will spend much of the season with the American League Marlies, but having their AHL team in the same city is a unique advantage for the Leafs, and being able to call up players who know how the big-league team plays should serve them well.
There are numerous opportunities for Leafs wingers to assert themselves as bona fide NHLers, and talents such as Robertson and Ritchie are best-suited for the top-six part of their forwards group. But there are no assurances that one or both of them will seize the day and take one of those wing jobs. It could turn out that Bunting, for instance, will rise to the occasion and make a great case to play alongside Tavares on the second line. Mikheyev, who reportedly asked for a trade after seeing his ice time drop last season, also could experience a rebound from a 6.5 shooting percentage last season, and lock up a spot in the top six.
The Leafs tried similar cap-compliance tactics last season, employing veterans Joe Thornton, Alex Galchenyuk and Jimmy Vesey, with varying degrees of success. The fact that none of those three are returning this season is as much a result of the one-year contracts they all had signed as it is their performance under those fleeting deals. Mikheyev, Spezza and Gabriel are the lone forwards under one-year contracts this season, and Engvall, Kase and Brooks will be restricted free agents next summer, so the churn-and-burn effect may come to pass once again.
The immense pressure the Leafs are under to erase the memory of last season’s awful playoff collapse to the Montreal Canadiens will help shape the performance of their team this year, but so will their depth. They’ll be in a major battle just to make the playoffs now that they’re back in the Atlantic Division, and the way their wingers respond to the challenge will play no small part in the results. Dubas is following through on his philosophy to build down the middle up front and on the top-four on defense, and now it’s on those core talents to either reward his confidence, or face big-time change next off-season.
So, although Toronto’s goaltending is as crucial as anything this year, the performance of their wingers will also dictate the longer-term future of this team. If they all falter, Leafs fans won’t be likely to enjoy the results in the win/loss columns. If they all play to their potential, it will be a problem that Keefe and Dubas welcome. Depth matters in the modern-day NHL, and Toronto has it where it counts. That should come as a reassurance to Buds fans – at least, until the games begin. Then it all falls on the shoulders of the group Dubas has assembled. They control their fate, for now, at least.
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