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Leafs’ position battle primer
By Nick Richard1 year ago
With training camp underway and the Leafs hitting the ice for the first time on Thursday, we will begin to see the 2022-23 roster take shape over the coming days and weeks. There are plenty of returning faces that are expected to be in familiar roles, and the offseason didn’t see the club make any real big-name additions, but that doesn’t mean that it will be status quo on opening night.
There are jobs up for grabs, and injuries to Pierre Engvall and Timothy Liljegren, along with Rasmus Sandin’s absence, will only open the door wider for the players on the fringes of the roster. There is the matter of who will play alongside John Tavares and William Nylander on the second line if head coach Sheldon Keefe opts to keep them together, there are a handful of players vying for their place in what will be a revamped bottom-six forward group, and there is the obvious hole on the blue line with Liljegren and Sandin out of the picture – at least temporarily.
Thursday’s on-ice session offered our first look at groupings and line combinations, but as Keefe has already alluded to, those initial looks are likely to be a far cry from what we will see when the Leafs begin their season in earnest against the Montreal Canadiens on October 12th.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the potential openings and which players are most likely to be competing for them.
Second line winger
The top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Michael Bunting is expected to remain intact, and Tavares will likely start the campaign flanked by Nylander on one of his wings, but the search continues for the right fit in the third member of that unit. Nylander can play on either side and has actually preferred to play the left at times over the last couple of seasons, providing Keefe with some flexibility in how he rounds out his second line.
Kerfoot is the closest thing to an incumbent for the second line wing spot, having spent time there over the last couple of seasons with varying degrees of success. Behind the Matthews-led first line, the trio of Kerfoot, Tavares, and Nylander were the second most utilized unit for the Leafs last season, playing over 200 more minutes at even strength than the next most common line combination on the team. Kerfoot enjoyed a career year in 2021-22, setting career-highs in assists and points, and he actually outscored both Tavares and Nylander at 5v5 in fewer minutes.
Even in the midst of a career year, however, it never really felt like Kerfoot was the right fit on the left side of the second line. He does a lot of things well but he isn’t an offensive driver or dynamic scoring threat, and he doesn’t provide the tenacity or puck hounding ability that Bunting brings to the first line. Keefe also seemed to lose faith in the trio in the second half of the season as he and his staff concocted a few different combinations to try and get Tavares and Nylander going down the stretch.
Likely still the default option, if Kerfoot is flanking Tavares and Nylander on opening night, it probably means that no one else was able to take advantage of their opportunity and run away with the job. It might not be a perfect solution but is one that Keefe knows can achieve at least moderate success.
Having just turned 21 years old ahead of camp, Robertson is still very much a developing player. He has had a rough couple of years, missing significant time with various injuries, and he has yet to grab hold of an NHL roster spot, but he was borderline dominant down the stretch for the Marlies last season, and he appears primed to take a step forward in 2022-23. There is little reason to doubt Robertson’s offensive potential, especially after scoring at a 40 goal pace as a 20-year-old in the AHL, and he offers a more dynamic offensive skillset than anyone else competing for this spot.
Now in his third full season of pro hockey, this is the clearest path Robertson has had to roster spot out of camp. “He’s going to play with good players. He’s going to get an opportunity to establish himself as a player that can contribute on offense,” Keefe said on the opening day of camp.
Robertson worked hard to add strength in the offseason, and while he will never be an imposing physical presence at 5’10”, he is now a sturdy 183 pounds, and the hope is that can help him withstand the rigors of an NHL season. Besides staying healthy, the key for Robertson will be showing he can utilize his linemates and let the game come to him a little more, rather than trying to do too much on his own. He has an elite-level shot (perhaps bested only by Matthews on the current roster), better vision than he’s given credit for, and he brings energy to each shift – seemingly an ideal fit alongside two talented offensive players in Tavares and Nylander.
It would stand to reason that the ideal outcome for the Leafs would be for Robertson to have a strong camp and preseason, staking claim to a prominent role with the club for a minimal charge on the salary cap. He could still earn a place lower in the lineup, but it feels like the time is now for Robertson to be given an extended look in a situation that sets him up for success.
The biggest addition up front for the Leafs this year, Järnkrok brings versatility, experience, and some goal scoring pedigree to the Leafs’ lineup. He has never topped 16 goals in a season, but he has tallied at least 15 four different times and scored 13 goals in 49 games during the abbreviated 2020-21 campaign. Järnkrok has been a reliable source of secondary scoring for most of his career and he also plays a well-rounded game.
Järnkrok is a quality shooter who can capitalize on dangerous chances, he brings some speed in transition as well as on the forecheck, and he has good defensive instincts. He doesn’t drive offense on his own, but he has handled top-six minutes in the past, acting as a complementary offensive contributor who can be trusted to handle difficult matchups.
During the first on-ice session of camp on Thursday, Järnkrok lined up on the right side with Matthews and Bunting, perhaps hinting that the Leafs see him as more than just a third line checking forward. “He has the skill set to be able to play with Auston or John. He could play anywhere in our lineup,” Keefe said of Järnkrok.
Gaudette signed a one-year, league-minimum deal with the Leafs on the opening day of free agency this past summer. Set to turn 26 at the beginning of October, he is hoping to recapture the form that saw him put up 12 goals and 21 assists in 59 games for Vancouver back in 2019-20.
He hasn’t produced at nearly the same rate in the last two seasons, scoring just 10 goals and 15 assists in 98 games split between Vancouver, Chicago, and Ottawa, but he looked more like his old self at last spring’s World Championships. Suiting up for Team USA, Gaudette netted six goals and two assists in 10 games to lead the club in scoring for the tournament.
Gaudette is a shifty and tenacious forward with a quick-release wrister and the offensive sense to hang with more talented players. Like Järnkrok, he opened training camp skating in a prime position, lining up on the left wing with Tavares and Marner as his running mates. A spot in the bottom-six seems a more likely destination for Gaudette, but he is still relatively young, and he was a big-time scorer coming out of college with 142 points in 116 games over three seasons with Northeastern University. There could still be some untapped offensive upside in there, and the Leafs are hoping Gaudette can fulfill it in Toronto.
“We think he can really score. We need some guys to come in and pop, not unlike the way Bunts did last year. We see Gaudette as a candidate to do that,” Keefe said on Thursday.
The departure of Ilya Mikheyev and the injury to Pierre Engvall have created a level of uncertainty regarding the makeup of the Leafs’ bottom-six to start the season, but they have one sure thing in third line center David Kämpf. The third line had been a point of concern for Keefe in his first couple of seasons at the helm, but Kämpf solidified that unit, in whatever form it took, in his first season with the Leafs. He became one of the coaching staff’s most trusted and relied upon players, taking on an absurd amount of defensive zone starts and still managing to drive play to the tune of a 52.2 xGF%.
If Robertson – or someone else like Gaudette – manages to win a job in the top-six to start the season, Kerfoot and Järnkrok are the most obvious candidates to play with Kämpf. If, however, Robertson doesn’t claim that spot, the Leafs may decide it’s better for him to return to a top line role with the Marlies rather than toiling in a checking role with the big club, which would create another opening for someone else to fill.
Bennett Jull outlined the battle for fourth line spots in greater detail for TLN on Thursday, but here’s a quick look at the primary options to make up the bottom of the Leafs’ lineup:
Signed to a one-year, $1 million deal shortly after free agency opened, Aubé-Kubel is a safe bet to earn a spot somewhere in the lineup. He was held without a point in 14 games during Colorado’s Stanley Cup run, but he chipped in with 11 goals and 11 assists in 67 regular season games. Aubé-Kubel wasn’t signed to be a big-time offensive producer, though, and it is his energy and physicality that drew the Leafs to him. Of all NHL forwards who played at least 500 minutes at 5v5 last season, he ranked 36th with 11.6 hits/60. Aubé-Kubel doesn’t just hit either, he hits hard.
With that willingness to throw his weight around and the ability to chip in 15-25 points, Aubé-Kubel could wind up being a nice little find for the Leafs at the bottom of their lineup. He is still just 26 years of age too, and if things work out, he could become a more permanent fixture on the fourth line.
Aston-Reese was signed to a PTO just days before camp, but a contract with the Leafs feels like a formality at this point. “He’s a guy that we had interest in as free agency got going,” said Keefe of Aston-Reese. Without a lot of money to be thrown around in the free agent market, he is one of a number of quality NHL players who were left without a chair when the music came to a stop, and it appears as though the Leafs will be beneficiaries of that by landing Aston-Reese.
He has never put up big offensive numbers, but his underlying defensive metrics have been consistently strong and he has been one of the league’s more physical players over the last few seasons. Last season, he was credited with throwing 221 hits – 10th most among all NHL players. A potential fourth line featuring Aubé-Kubel and Aston-Reese would give the Leafs a physical element they’ve been lacking for too long.
Speaking of physicality, Simmonds has brought that in his time as a Leaf, but he just doesn’t have the legs to be a consistent threat on the forecheck at this stage of his career. He got into 72 games for the Leafs last year, tallying five goals and 11 assists, but play was often tilted towards the Leafs’ end when he was on the ice, and his lack of footspeed became more glaring as the season wore on.
There could still be a place for Simmonds on this roster as his leadership and toughness are still valued by his teammates and the coaching staff, but with all the fresh faces vying for jobs, there is a real chance that he ends up hitting the waiver wire before the season starts.
Clifford is in practically the same situation as Simmonds, without the pedigree of being a former 30 goal scorer. His physicality and leadership are still worthwhile attributes to have around, but the Leafs have now brought in younger and quicker players to bring those elements to their lineup.
It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Clifford will be placed on waivers, and he will likely spend most of the year in a leadership role for the Marlies, serving as a plug-and-play call-up option if injuries arise on the fourth line.
He’s back! After an uninspiring first tour with the Leafs back in 2019-20, Malgin returned to his native Switzerland, where he was a star in the Swiss National League for the past two seasons. Over the last two seasons, he put up 94 points in 93 games, and he had an impressive showing at last spring’s World Championships, finishing fifth in tournament scoring with 12 points in eight games.
He signed back on with the Leafs on a one-year, league-minimum contract and will be looking to replicate the success he had earlier in his career. Before being traded to the Leafs, Malgin had flashed some offensive upside, putting up 22 points in 51 games for the Panthers as a 21-year-old.
It’s probably NHL or bust for Malgin, but he has the offensive skill to produce at the NHL level in a complementary role, and a strong preseason could earn him a spot. If not, he’s a prime candidate to have his contract mutually terminated to facilitate a move back to Europe.
Anderson was acquired in exchange for Andreas Johnsson ahead of the 2020-21 season as a young, potential depth option, but he has gotten into just six games for the Leafs over the last two seasons. He is fresh off the best season of his pro career, though, and led the Marlies with 26 goals in just 56 games.
He has good hands and instincts around the net, competes hard, and plays a responsible game away from the puck – all attributes befitting an NHL fourth liner. The one thing holding him back is a lack of quickness, but if he can add even half a step, he could earn a spot on the opening night roster. If not, he’ll be subjected to waivers, and it seems likely that at least one team around the league would place a claim on the 24-year-old winger.
Steeves, 22, had a great first season of pro hockey with the Marlies in 2021-22. He scored 23 goals and 23 assists in 58 games and even earned a brief NHL call-up, picking up an assist in three games.
Like Anderson, he could stand to add a bit of footspeed, but he is a different level of scoring threat. Where Anderson does most of his damage with anticipation and hard work around the net, Steeves is a legitimate threat from range with the way he is able to shoot the puck. He is likely ticketed for duty with the Marlies to start the year, but if he can pick up where he left off, he is a prime candidate to earn another look with the Leafs if they find themselves in need of more offense out of the bottom of their lineup.
Abruzzese signed with the Leafs after his college season ended last year, getting into nine games and registering his first NHL goal. He appeared overwhelmed at times but grew more comfortable with each passing game, showing flashes of his offensive vision and passing ability.
He is another player who will have to continue to adjust to the pace of pro hockey, and he is in tough to earn a place on the opening night lineup. He likely would have debuted with the Marlies rather than the Leafs last season had he been eligible. Abruzzese should play a prominent role for Toronto’s minor league club from the get-go, and if he is able to carry over his offensive production from his time at Harvard, he could find himself in the conversation with Steeves as a potential call-up during the season.
Admittedly, Holmberg is a real long shot to break camp with the Leafs, but he is still a bit of an unknown quantity and has the potential to surprise. He has been on a steady upward trajectory for the last couple of seasons, starting with a 2020-21 playoff run that saw him earn MVP honors as he helped lead Växjö to an SHL title, and he followed that up with a career year in 2021-22, notching 41 points in 46 games.
He joined the Marlies late last season and stepped right into their top-six, chipping in two goals and two assists in six games. Previously known more for his two-way, energetic style of play, Holmberg has seemingly unlocked more offense in the last couple of seasons. If he is able to make both of those elements translate to North America over an extended sample size, he’s a dark horse to take over as the Leafs’ fourth line center sooner than some might expect.
It wasn’t long ago that it seemed like the Leafs had more NHL defensemen than lineup spots for them, but with Sandin’s contract standoff carrying into camp and news that Liljegren will be out of action for at least six weeks, someone is going to be required to step up and fill those minutes.
There are five spots spoken for on the blue line already, and a resolution between Sandin and the Leafs would certainly change the equation, but here are the names that are currently in the running to fill a bottom-pairing role for on opening night:
This would seem to be Benn’s job to lose as of now. A veteran of nearly 600 NHL games, Benn might not bring much flash and dash but he is a reliable presence who would help to solidify the Leafs’ defensive corps. He could be a fit alongside Mark Giordano, focusing solely on his own zone and letting Giordano handle the primary puck-moving duties on the pairing.
Along with his steady defensive game, Benn would bring some snarl to the lineup. Even if Sandin signs in the next couple of weeks, there is a world where Benn makes it as the seventh defenseman. When fully healthy, the Leafs may be forced to waive Benn, but if they are able to retain him, he could serve a similar purpose to that of Zach Bogosian from a couple of seasons ago, albeit to a lesser extent.
Mete isn’t quite as experienced as Benn, but he does already have 236 NHL games under his belt at the ripe old age of 24. He offers a different skill set to what Benn would provide, utilizing his smooth skating and puck-moving ability to push play up ice but he hasn’t fulfilled the offensive potential that many saw in him when he broke into the league.
For Mete, it will likely come down to what kind of player the Leafs want in that role. Benn represents the safer option but Mete could win the job if the Leafs feel he is a better facsimile for what Sandin and Liljegren bring to the lineup. There is a good chance he hits the waiver wire as well, and given his combination of age and experience, a rebuilding team could scoop him up.
Dahlström was a workhorse for the Marlies last year and even suited up for three games with the Leafs, tallying a pair of assists in limited action. He picked up 14 assists in 49 games for the Marlies as well, but if he makes the Leafs, it won’t be for his offense.
He is a big, powerful blueliner at 6’5″ and 229 pounds, and he has decent mobility for a player his size. He isn’t going to be a primary play driver, but he understands his defensive responsibilities and can disrupt plays with his size and reach. Dahlström’s chances appear slim, but he was mentioned by name when Kyle Dubas was asked about potential blue line options on the opening day of camp and could earn a spot by default if Benn and Mete don’t play up to expectations.
Some might call Hollowell a poor man’s Mete. He is an undersized, smooth skating puck mover who loves to push the pace and jump into the play. His development has stagnated a bit, however, and now set to turn 24 before the season, this could be Hollowell’s last chance to show that he is an NHL-caliber player. The odds aren’t in his favor and with all the names ahead of him on the depth chart, he once again appears destined for the AHL, but a strong preseason could turn some heads within the organization.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com, Evolving-Hockey.com, and NaturalStatTrick.com)
(Contract information from PuckPedia.com)
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