What have we learned so far about the shape of the roster as the Oct. 13 regular season opener draws near?
A fair bit, with a few details still left to be determined.
1 Ritchie ($2.5M) Matthews ($11.6M) Marner ($10.9M)
2 Bunting ($950K) Tavares ($11M) Nylander ($6.9M)
3 Mikheyev ($1.65M) Kampf ($1.5M) Kase ($1.25M)
4 Kerfoot ($3.5M) Spezza ($750K) Simmonds ($900K)
5 Brooks ($725K) Engvall ($1.25M) Semyonov ($850K)
Others vying for spots:
Nick Robertson, Michael Amadio, Josh Ho-Sang, Nikita Gusev, Joey Anderson, Kurtis Gabriel
While we love to talk about roster battles at camp, it’s more or less clear already how the forward group will shake out. The only real question is who lands the 13th forward spot, which we’ll get to in a second.
The locks are Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Ilya Mikheyev, Wayne Simmonds, Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza and Ondrej Kase.
Who plays where is another story.
We’ve gotten hints of what Sheldon Keefe may be thinking on that front. Plans can change, but for now, the Leafs coach seems intent on giving Ritchie the first shot with Matthews (when he’s healthy) and Marner and Bunting the first go-around with Tavares and Nylander.
Meanwhile, Kampf and Kase have spent the entirety of camp together. If Kampf is going to lead a revamped defensive line — Keefe said Wednesday he feels comfortable with Kampf playing “against anybody at any time” — it’s conceivable that Kase joins him, with an opening at left wing for either Mikheyev or Kerfoot to fill.
I’d lean Mikheyev for two reasons.
One, he doesn’t fit an O-zone-heavy fourth line that will presumably include Simmonds and Spezza. Two, add him to Kampf and Kase, and the Leafs have got a line with three long and relatively thick players that can really skate and pressure the puck.
Kase offers the line a hint of scoring potential.
Is it ideal to play Kerfoot — coming off an impressive playoff and with a $3.5 million cap hit — on the fourth line? Probably not. But maybe Keefe splits minutes relatively evenly between the bottom two lines, with Kampf-led units spelling the Matthews group in the defensive zone while Spezza-led groups are spotted shifts at the other end. (Kerfoot is going to play a significant role on the penalty kill, so he’ll nab extra minutes there.)Another thing to keep in mind: The way the Leafs start the season won’t be the way they finish. In the opener last season, Joe Thornton and Jimmy Vesey were top-six wingers. By playoff time, Thornton was on the fourth line and Vesey was playing for Vancouver.
Everything won’t work as intended.
It’s possible Ritchie doesn’t click with Matthews or that injuries strike.
In Kerfoot, Keefe knows he’s got someone who can move all over the place, someone who can play centre or wing on any style of line.
“That’s one thing that Kerf has done a really good job of with us is being able to execute in various roles, but also just be willing,” Keefe said, raving about the “remarkable” job Kerfoot did against Montreal in the playoffs, when his role grew in Tavares’ absence.
It’s looking like Matthews will take part in a full practice at some point next week. It’s possible he gets into that last preseason game against Ottawa on Oct. 9. It’s also possible his first game action won’t come until the opener against Montreal or soon after.
Matthews spent more time on Wednesday morning getting his shot back in working order alongside skills coach Darryl Belfry. Belfry moved him around to different spots on the ice, where Matthews shot and received passes from various angles.
Matthews is still chipping off the rust you would expect from someone who had wrist surgery not all that long ago (mid-August). Sometimes, the puck squirted off his stick while he dribbled it. I’ve still yet to see him fire a one-timer.
But back to the roster.
The only real battle remaining is for the last job up front (presuming, of course, that the only extra player the Leafs keep around is a forward). The competition would seem to come down to Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Nick Robertson, Kirill Semyonov, Michael Amadio, Josh Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev.
Ho-Sang and Gusev are still long shots at this point.
The Leafs won’t have Roberston in the NHL if he’s not playing. Barring injuries that create a hole up front, he’s probably a cross-off and headed to the Marlies for an important year (or less) of development.
Semyonov, signed to a one-year entry-level deal in May, has got the makings of a useful worker bee.
“There’s definitely been positive things there,” Keefe said of the 26-year-old. “Smart player. Competitive player. But showed (in his preseason debut) that he also makes plays and contributes offence too.”
Semyonov is exempt from waivers. It’s likeliest he joins Robertson with the Marlies. Maybe that causes to him bolt for the KHL — in which case, well, what can you do?
Amadio ($750,000) makes some sense as an extra forward, but not at the expense of Brooks, a Keefe favourite, or Engvall, an NHL regular last season.
Engvall has been bothered by a lower-body injury at camp, so he’s yet to play a preseason game.
Assuming the Leafs are healthy otherwise heading into final cuts, they may have to ask themselves which player — Brooks or Engvall — they value more. Or rather, which player they would be (more) OK with losing on waivers. Also: Which player is more likely to be claimed?
Brooks has a $725,000 cap hit this season. Engvall is on the hook for $1.25 million.
I’d keep Engvall around. He’s a more useful NHL player than Brooks. But if he flails in the days ahead, all bets are off.
He missed the cut at the start of last season.
1 Rielly ($5M) Brodie ($5M)
2 Muzzin ($5.6M) Holl ($2M)
3 Sandin ($894K) Dermott ($1.5M)
4 Dahlstrom ($750K) Liljegren ($863K)
Others vying for spots:
Alex Biega, Mac Hollowell, Brennan Menell
We’ll see this top six at some point soon.
Keefe has used the early part of camp to pair up younger D with veterans, but that will change when the roster shrinks next week.
Two things to keep an eye on as the season draws near:
Maybe Liljegren comes along and suits up in one of those games. The Leafs will be right up against the salary cap, though, so it might be tough.
Not much to break down here, though Petr Mrazek seems to be making a positive impression on his new team.
“He’s just got a great personality about him,” Keefe said. “Between he and Jack, we’ve got two guys that are confident, comfortable with who they are, they’re easygoing — yet, serious and very competitive at the same time.”
Keefe hadn’t decided or wasn’t prepared to say which goalie would start against the Habs in the opener. But it doesn’t really matter beyond ceremonial purpose, with a game the next night in Ottawa.
Point Rielly Sandin
Bumper Marner Bunting
Net-front Tavares Ritchie/Simmonds
Half-wall Nylander Kase
Half-wall Matthews Spezza
The mystery is mostly over.
We know how the Leafs plan to construct their power play to begin the year. The star unit is back, but in a different formation.
Marner has been working diligently throughout camp to adjust to his new position in the middle of the ice. (From the sounds of it, he’s using Lightning stud Brayden Point as a model.)
When practice ended on Tuesday, he tapped Morgan Rielly to fire point shots that he could deflect on goal. A short while later, with help from Ritchie and power play lead, Spencer Carbery, Marner got himself more familiar with firing shots from the bumper spot.
It appears as if Rielly will reclaim his role as point-man on the top unit. And that makes sense. Better to go with the vet, initially anyway, with so much pressure on the power play to perform this season.
Carbery and Keefe gathered together most of the revamped top unit for pre-practice work on Wednesday. (Spezza stood in for Nylander, who missed practice.)
One thing that stuck out from those first on-ice machinations: Carbery wants shots coming from everywhere, whether it’s Rielly from the point, Nylander and Matthews on the half walls, Marner in the middle or Tavares attacking the net from in tight.
The unit seemed to work more deliberately too.
That’s a “good-looking power play,” Spezza said as the group shuffled off the ice.
The only other question to be answered is who claims the last forward spot on the second unit. Spezza will be there on the right half-wall. Bunting has been stationed consistently in the bumper spot and should grab that spot on PP2. He scored three goals on the power play in Ottawa on Wednesday night. One of Ritchie or Simmonds will grab net-front duties. The other gig could belong to Kase.
D1 Muzzin Brodie
D2 Holl Dermott/Rielly
F1 Marner Kerfoot
F2 Kampf Mikheyev
With all the focus on Carbery and the power play, we’ve probably overlooked the potential contributions of Dean Chynoweth, who’ll be leading the penalty kill and defence in place of now-Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol.
Chynoweth comes from Carolina where he oversaw an elite penalty killing unit and top-tier defence. He will obviously have some new ideas for the Leafs on both fronts. In one drill this week, he had the penalty killing group work on “gapping up” in the neutral zone against power play that was practically on top of them.
Kampf should absorb primary faceoff responsibilities for Chynoweth and the PK this season. Spezza figures to linger as a FOGO option for right-side draws. Marner, Mikheyev and Kerfoot will round out the forward bunch, with opportunity to be had, potentially, for Kase.
Keefe said Dermott and Rielly will chew up the shorthanded minutes that went to Zach Bogosian last season. Here’s betting that Dermott gets a more regular look next to T.J. Brodie on the second unit. That’s an easy way to get the 24-year-old, assuming he performs, a couple of minutes extra every night.