4 Marlies who could take the Toronto Maple Leafs’ last forward spot
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
By Alex Hobson2 months ago
We’ve reached the point of the offseason where most of the big signings have been made already, so the only things to look forward to news-wise are depth signings, contract extensions, and the occasional trade here and there. This point in the offseason is referred to as the dog days of summer, with two months to go until the beginning of training camp and three months before the regular season starts.
New Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving got most of his work done on the first two days of free agency, bolstering their offense with the signings of Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, upgrading the back end with the John Klingberg deal, and replacing the set of fists left by Wayne Simmonds with those of Ryan Reaves.
Assuming Treliving stands pat on the free agent front from here on out, the Maple Leafs’ forward group is likely going to shake out as follows:
Tyler Bertuzzi – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
Matthew Knies – John Tavares – William Nylander
Max Domi – David Kampf – Calle Jarnkrok
? – Sam Lafferty – Ryan Reaves
There’s still an abundance of veteran depth forwards available, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Maple Leafs fill that extra role with a Zach Aston-Reese type like they did last year. But on the other hand, there are a lot of Toronto Marlies forwards who are chomping at the bit looking to grab that final spot on the roster.
With the graduation of forwards like Roni Hirvonen, Dmitry Ovchinnikov, and Ryan Tverberg to the Marlies, some of the players who got a taste of the NHL last year will be looking to take the next step in 2023-24. It’s also important to note that Lafferty can play centre and wing, so the positions of these Marlies likely won’t be as much of a factor as they typically would be. So, who are the contenders for the spot?
Pontus Holmberg, C/LW
As it stands right now, I think Holmberg is far and away the most likely option to crack the team out of training camp. He has more NHL experience than anyone else, and I’d say he impressed enough to remain a full-time NHLer in his stint with the Maple Leafs last year, but had the unfortunate drawback of being injury insurance. So, when the team got healthy again, there was no longer space for him.
That said, the Maple Leafs’ sixth round pick in 2018 contributed 13 points in 37 games in his stint with the team, and was a massive playoff contributor for the Marlies as well, scoring six goals en route to eight points in seven playoff games. His hockey IQ has long been the strongest part of his game, which will help in his full-time transition to the NHL, and while his faceoff ability and defensive game could use some work, I think the spot is Holmberg’s to lose in training camp.
Bobby McMann, C/LW
You’re probably thinking “Alex, if you’ve settled on someone to take the job already, then what’s the point of previewing the rest of the candidates?”, and the answer to that is that I am not the coach, nor do I make the decisions surrounding the team. Holmberg definitely has the best list of credentials, but if he has a bad training camp, those credentials go out the window. So, we’re going to shine some light on the other candidates anyways, including Bobby McMann.
Originally signed out of Colgate University to an AHL contract in 2020, McMann is the perfect example of a story that should inspire undrafted players everywhere. The now 27 year-old exploded for the Marlies last year, scoring a whopping 21 goals and adding eight assists for 29 points in 30 games. He got a small taste of NHL action with ten games, but only managed one assist. The 6-foot-2, 207 pound strong, power forward type who could be a nice option on the fourth line with Ryan Reaves on the other side, and like Holmberg, he also plays all three forward positions. Even if he doesn’t take that job right out of training camp, I’d be shocked if he didn’t get at least one call-up during the season.
Alex Steeves, LW
The one edge that Steeves has in his game over McMann and Holmberg is his speed. He’s without a doubt the fastest Marlie, and his speed was a big factor to his signing to an entry-level contract back in 2020-21. While McMann and Holmberg both just finished their debut AHL seasons, the 23 year-old just wrapped up his second season with the Marlies. With 51 points in 65 games this season and 46 points in 58 games last season, he’s certainly proven that he can produce at the AHL level at this point.
In Steeves’ case, he’s probably going to have to have a knockout training camp to steal the spot from either player I just listed, but given the offensive ability on display in the minors two years in a row, he might be dangled as trade bait before spending another full year with the Marlies. His speed could undoubtedly add a boost to what will likely be a slow bottom six, but without the hockey IQ of Holmberg or the physical frame of McMann, he’ll probably be in tough to crack the team out of training camp. That said, a strong September can make all the difference in the world.
Nick Abruzzese, C
If Holmberg, McMann, and Steeves weren’t in the Maple Leafs’ system, Abruzzese is somebody who would be right on the cusp of making the team. But, that’s not how a depth chart works, and since these three players are still very much present in the system, he’s going to be in tough to make the roster out of training camp. But, like I’ve said at least twice, maybe three times, a good training camp can make all the other factors disappear. Abruzzese was a puzzling pick for some at the time, drafted as a USHL overager in 2019, but a strong freshman season with Harvard University that saw him produce at a clip of over a point-per-game shot him up the prospect rankings.
He played his first full season with the Marlies last season, finishing with 48 points in 69 games and seven points in seven playoff games. One advantage that he has is that given the type of game he plays, you can probably get away with playing him in the bottom six. But, I would think it’s more likely that he starts the season in the AHL and becomes a call-up option. He did tally two points in two NHL games last season, albeit a small sample size, so maybe he gets another look sooner than we think.
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