Photo Credit: © Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Babcock’s Expectations For His Fourth Line are Clear. Who Can Meet Them?

The Toronto Maple Leafs currently sit five days out from their home opener on October 2nd with what appears to be one vacant roster spot remaining: fourth-line left wing. Naturally, the coming week will be pretty vital in figuring out which candidate seems fit to fill it, with the most important (and for some players, final) showcase taking place in Detroit later tonight.

Set to ice their “Bubble Lineup” for one last litmus test, Mike Babcock has made his expectations abundantly clear to his remaining roster hopefuls. And to properly communicate them, I’ll let him tell you himself.

That last sentence is particularly intriguing. Babcock’s comments this morning, like pretty much everything he says to the media, were likely directed at a few players in specific. Players like Dmytro Timashov, for example.

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When praising the 22-year-old for unexpectedly forcing his way into the roster conversation with a strong camp earlier in the week, Babcock also managed to sneak in how Timashov needs to cut down on his turnovers moving forward. Clearly, that is an area which needs cleaning. And with Babcock having now laid out the blueprint for making his team in a literal fashion, Timashov can either fix his puck control issues on the fly or head back to Coca-Cola Coliseum instead.

The former option will be easier said than done. Timashov is a risk-taker. His game thrives on all-encompassing puck possession, with the undersized winger routinely “going rover” in the offensive zone in an attempt to sniff out open ice. That strategy tends to work when applied against AHL competition, and it actually even suited the top-six role Timashov filled on the Marlies for the past two seasons. However, taking the puck for a ride is decidedly more difficult in the NHL. And with the margin of error now razor-thin, there’s a good chance Timashov opts for a safer approach tonight in the hopes of not throwing away his best shot at big-league employment.

Then there’s Nic Petan.

By all accounts to this point, Petan has put forth a strong training camp and even stronger preseason. The 24-year-old definitively led the way during the first half of the Leafs’ home-and-home set with the Montreal Canadiens last week, taking over the flow of the game whenever he was on the ice and looking much like the NHL calibre forward many thought him to be.

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Just look at the patience and vision on display here. Petan has tools. And on Wednesday, he put them to use for an entire regionally broadcast television audience to see.

That being said, Petan still seems to be turning into a player that Mike Babcock refuses to come around on, if he hasn’t done so already. And given the veteran coach’s noted stubbornness, that may end up being a death sentence.

Petan has performed well, yes, but his relative lack of defensive capability and exclusion from either special team configuration make him an odd fit on a typical Babcockian fourth line. He just doesn’t do what his coach looks for from that unit.

As has been the case with other similarly skilled depth players like Josh Leivo in the past, Petan needs to be able to do more than play an offensive role in order to succeed in his current circumstances. The Leafs are simply too deep upfront to grant him the ice time his skill set requires. He needs to diversify.

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Can Petan still be an effective contributor while playing ten minutes a night alongside Frederik Gauthier? Frankly, that remains to be seen. In Babcock’s mind, though, there are likely a few other “Bubble Guys” who can fit that mould better.

Another strong showing from Petan tonight could do wonders in securing his spot on the final roster — perhaps more so than any other Leaf on the ice. A lacklustre effort, on the other hand, may seal his fate definitively.

Regardless, tonight’s contest will almost certainly be one of the “safest” hockey games in recent memory. Catch the fever!