With the opening of 2016 training camp, the tough task of culling the roster down from 76 to 23 or fewer players has begun for the Toronto Maple Leafs management and coaching staff.
NHL coaches — just as Leafs assistant coach Jim Hiller did yesterday — always talk about competition for jobs at training camp. Often times the media will ask about a player — a high-profile prospect, or a veteran on a tryout agreement — and their chances of making the team, and the coach will respond with a quote about simply taking the best 20 some-odd players.
Coaches aren’t necessarily fibbing to the media or their players when they say the best 20+ players will make the team, but their assessment process is clearly more complicated than the adage sounds. An open competition for roster spots in camp sounds great on the surface, but, as we all know, an NHL club would be unwise to base their roster decisions solely on how players look in a few scrimmages and preseason games in September. A player’s fitness and performance at camp is just one piece in a larger information set that coaches and managers are contemplating while deciding on an opening night roster. Among them are the player’s body of work (obviously), what’s best for the player’s long-term development accounting for age and maturity, and the realities of asset management.
We’ve seen countless young players over the years surprise with a couple of strong performances in preseason — perhaps even surviving an additional round of cuts or two — only to return to their junior team with a message from the organization that goes something like, “Great camp. You’re doing the right things and you impressed the hell out of us. Now go tear up junior and come back even hungrier next Fall.” It’s not always as clear cut of a case as Travis Dermott’s was last Fall — Luke Schenn making the team out of camp in 2008 provides a more controversial talking point — but the organization obviously has to know when to pump the breaks on a solid camp from a youngster who isn’t ready to handle the rigors of the pros and requires more growth in junior.
Asset management adds another layer of complexity. A player trying to play his way onto the team out of camp on an entry-level deal will have to overcome the fact that they can be conveniently stored away in the AHL and freely passed back and forth throughout the season without exposure to waivers (Brown, Hyman, Soshnikov, Rychel). Meanwhile, players on their second contract who have accumulated the experience required to become waiver eligible could now be at the make-or-break point in their tenure with the team come the end of camp (Holland, Leivo). Tough decisions have to be made.
We’ve seen the Leafs get this wrong before under the previous management regime. It was no secret that Joe Colborne had a poor camp in the Fall of 2013, but the Leafs traded a former first round pick with size, skill, reasonably strong AHL production, and an NHL stint with five points in 10 games to his name in exchange for a fourth round pick because their other option — they felt at the time — was cutting him and exposing him to waivers. Those were dismal days, when Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren were guaranteed roster spots over one of the organization’s best NHL-ready prospects at the time (one who could play center to boot). The Leafs eventually ran into injury trouble at center ice that season and were forced to sign then-35-year-old Jerred Smithson — who was no longer even a productive AHLer — to wallpaper over the hole in the lineup.
Fast forward through a complete organizational overhaul to this year, and the Leafs are in a good position: The majority of their individuals on the bubble are promising young players on entry-level contracts who are not waiver-eligible at this time, but there are some exceptions.
Toronto Maple Leafs Waivers Chart
|Player||Signing Age||2017-18 Exempt?||Seasons Completed||Seasons Remaining||NHL GP Remaining||Eligible|
|Soshnikov||22||YES||2||1||3||2018-19 / 3GP|
|Aaltonen||24||YES||0||2||60||2019-20 / 60GP|
|Rosen||23||YES||0||3||60||2020-21 / 60GP|
|Borgman||22||YES||0||3||70||2020-21 / 70GP|
No longer waiver exempt
To summarize the main takeaways from the table:
- Byron Froese, Frank Corrado, Connor Carrick, Josh Leivo and Peter Holland are all waiver eligible as of this Fall.
- Nikita Soshnikov, Nikita Zaitsev, and Zach Hyman — having all signed as free agents in their 20s — could lose their waiver exemption status this season if they were to play 59, 60, and 44 NHL games respectively.
- Connor Brown, Brendan Leipsic, Viktor Loov and Kerby Rychel will lose waiver exemption in 2017-18.
Sorting Through the Numbers
In the words of Lou Lamoriello, good or bad, there’s always a surprise or two in training camp. That could be an injury, or preferably it could be the surprise emergence of a young player that gives the coaching staff some pause for thought. Based on his showing at 2015 camp, his massive season in junior, and the positives reviews coming out of the rookie tournament, perhaps an Andrew Nielsen — eligible for the Marlies or for a return to the WHL — could force his way into the mix on the blue line this season. Those are unknowns we can’t account for here today. Here are the known quantities in terms of who is in the mix at each position.
Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Colin Greening, Peter Holland, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov*, Kerby Rychel, Josh Leivo, Byron Froese (18)
Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Martin Marincin, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, Connor Carrick, Frank Corrado, Rinat Valiev, Viktor Loov (10)
Frederik Andersen, Jhonas Enroth (2)
*Nikita Soshnikov has not participated in contact drills due to a lower-body injury and his status for the start of the season is unknown at this time
Up front, Mike Babcock sounds likely to run Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Auston Matthews and Brooks Laich down the middle, leaving little up in the air at center ice to start the season (there’s some possibility that Byron Froese is still in the mix for the 4C spot, pushing Brooks Laich into the logjam on the wing). James van Riemsdyk, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Leo Komarov and Milan Michalek are seemingly locks for top nine wing positions, and Matt Martin is a lock to start the season on the wing in the bottom six. That leaves three wing positions (leaving space for an extra) up for grabs between Peter Holland (placed on the wing to start training camp, the coaching staff clearly sees him there if he makes the team), Colin Greening, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Zach Hyman, Kerby Rychel, and Nikita Soshnikov. Soshnikov is an unknown at this point due to his injury situation.
My best guess is that Connor Brown and Zach Hyman have the edge among this group along with one of Holland, Leivo or Greening, with one serving as an extra forward. It’s not hard to see the Leafs cutting bait on Holland or returning Greening to the minors — where he spent the majority of last season; the Marlies could loan him out if Kyle Dubas rather not have him taking up a spot in the lineup — if they are outplayed by a Rychel (waiver exempt), Leivo (waiver eligible), or Soshnikov (waiver exempt). Working in Greening’s favour is his strong finish to last season; he looked capable of complementing a line alongside some of the Leafs’ young talent as the designated big-bodied veteran in the “go get the puck” role. The Leafs may have some hope of extracting value from Greening — a UFA at the end of the season — at the deadline, but that’s likely not going to be a chief consideration when it comes to making their decisions out of camp.
On defence, Rielly, Gardiner, Zaitsev, Marincin, Hunwick and Polak are locks to start the year with the Leafs in their top seven. That appears to only leave one spot, unless the Leafs carry eight defencemen, which they may or may not do depending on their cap situation. Connor Carrick seems to have the edge going into camp for that remaining spot, based on his promising finish to last season (at both the NHL and AHL levels) and the fact that he is not waiver exempt. Rinat Valiev and Viktor Loov are waiver exempt; Frank Corrado is not, but he is a year older than Carrick and has not shown as much promise at either level since arriving in Toronto. While a great camp could always change things, in order for Corrado to stick around the Leafs will seemingly need to have enough cap space to carry eight defencemen and he would likely be looking at a similar arrangement to last season — practice reps and press box while hoping to get into the occasional game in the case of underperformance or injury. How long the Leafs would want to continue to leave Corrado in limbo rather than passing him through waivers and giving him a chance to play elsewhere — either in the NHL with another team, or in the minors — is unclear.
Knowing Babcock sorts out his favourite forward pairs while the final third of each line is modular, here is how the pairs appear to be shaping up to start the season:
Leo Komarov – Nazem Kadri – ????
JVR – Tyler Bozak – ????
???? – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Matt Martin – Brooks Laich – ?????
There’s a question mark shaping up at first line right wing, a spot which presents the big challenge of lining up against the other team’s best players. It may not be the ideal spot for a rookie to start off (Marner). While Babcock has suggested that Nylander will start on a sheltered line with Matthews, it may ultimately make more sense to move him onto Kadri’s wing. Connor Brown’s name comes to mind here, but he has been playing on a line with Bozak so far at camp (similar to last Fall) — a fit the coaching staff seems to like. While Nylander is certainly not going to be a traditional shutdown defensive forward, he is insulated on the wing and he can play defence with the puck on his stick. The Komarov – Kadri duo also lacks a big-time shot threat, something Nylander can provide. And the stats back up the fine job Nylander did at center to end last season from a shots against perspective.
The other significant unknown resides at third line left wing. If Auston Matthews is going to be eased into the fray — for as long as that is going to take him; if the the World Cup of Hockey is any indication, it won’t be very long — he’ll see a healthy share of easy zone starts against the other team’s second and third lines. While Matthews is adjusting to the team, the league, the coaching and the systems, it makes some sense that he could also carry another rookie in need of some insulation (Marner). Babcock, as is well known, prefers having a puck retriever complement the skill on his units. As a coach that also likes to optimize for lefties and righties, that theoretically leaves the third line wing spot down to Greening, Michalek and Soshnikov. Soshnikov can be sent to the Marlies freely and is currently battling an injury, while Michalek has some pedigree and will be coming in hot from the WCOH. Greening, as previously mentioned, played well alongside Nylander, and produced at a 40-point pace over a 30-game sample in the second half of last season. Also in the mix is Josh Leivo, who — unlike Hyman, Soshnikov and Brown — is not waiver exempt.
Alec’s Opening Night Lineup
Food for thought only
Leo Komarov – Nazem Kadri – William Nylander
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Connor Brown
Greening/Michalek – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
Matt Martin – Brooks Laich – Zach Hyman
Peter Holland/Josh Leivo
Morgan Rielly – Nikita Zaitsev
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Martin Marincin – Roman Polak
I won’t pretend that my preferred lineup is any more accurate than yours, and there is a lot to sort out in the next few weeks. Bring on preseason.