The Toronto Maple Leafs kick off 2016 preseason versus the Ottawa Senators tonight in Halifax, Nova Scotia (6 p.m. EST, TSN 4 & 5).
Among the notable prospects featuring for the Leafs are Mitch Marner, Connor Brown Trevor Moore, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapenen, and Andrew Neilsen. We will also get a peak at Kerby Rychel, who suits up for the first time as a Maple Leaf. Judging by the line rushes in practice today, it looks like Rychel is going to receive first-line looks on Nazem Kadri’s left-wing opposite Connor Brown, who will line up on the right.
Rychel has seen his former first round pick pedigree drop after some disagreements with the Columbus Blue Jackets about his opportunity and usage. This will be a fresh start under a much different system in Toronto. Other prospects who have arrived through trade or free agency have made mention of how much different it is playing in the Leafs‘ system; there’s a premium placed on holding onto the puck and making plays, playing with speed, and creating offence. Rychel will have to take some time to learn the system, which lanes to skate in, how to move the puck, and where to stand positionally.
Kadri, who spent a year under Mike Babcock, has now developed familiarity with the system, and he is also now considered a “veteran” on a young hockey team. Likewise, Connor Brown spent a year with the Toronto Marlies playing under Sheldon Keefe, who mirrors the systems of Mike Babcock on the penalty kill, the power play and at even strength. He, too, played a number of games under Babcock in his audition on the Maple Leafs and will have a firm understanding of the duties asked of wingers within the system. Rychel’s linemates should help him with the acclimation.
On the second line, Mitch Marner has been paired with Colin Greening and Brooks Laich. It doesn’t appear to mean much, but it does perhaps suggest that Babcock sees — as we’ve assumed — Laich as a centerman for the Maple Leafs this season. Greening enjoyed a 30-game rejuvenation in Toronto under Mike Babcock, specifically while playing with the highly-skilled William Nylander, after coming over in the Dion Phaneuf trade. Most assumed Greening was Marlies bound at the time, but he understood the system well already and thrived in it:
I played in a similar system with Paul MacLean. Paul and Mike are very, very similar coaches and coaching styles
– Colin Greening
Both Laich and Greening are big bodies who can create some space for Marner, and perhaps some protection if need be. As it is pre-season, there is always the potential for a fringe player taking a few liberties with the opposition’s talent (Zach Stortini and Max McCormick are both in the lineup for the Senators tonight).
Brooks Laich spoke at length about playing alongside Mitch Marner in a post-practice interview that’s well worth the read.
I played with a guy in DC – Niklas Backstrom, who people could never seem to catch. Mitch is another guy like that, who – once they just get in front of you and get you on your hip – he is so good at the awareness of where players are that he can twist this way if your body moves this way, or he can twist that way. They just know where players are behind them, so they never get caught, and they look really fast. Mitch is also a very good skater. I think that’s something underrated about him. He’s going to be a heck of a player. I can’t wait to see what he can do.
On the third line, Andreas Johnsson, a highly productive young player in the SHL the past three seasons, will get into his first preseason action with the Maple Leafs. He arrived during the playoffs for the Marlies and was concussed two games into his North American tenure, but he told the media recently that there are no lingering effects. He will look to gel — at least for this game — with the hard-working but skill-limited Bryon Froese as well as Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen is looking to take another step this season on the Marlies, where he showed moments of brilliance last season but is looking to develop some consistency to his game.
Brandon Prust will be playing with Marc-Andre Cliche and NCAA standout — and new Marlie — Trevor Moore.
On defence, the group is pretty thin. Frank Corrado will play alongside Jake Gardiner while Andrew Neilsen — one of the standout performers at the rookie tournament — will play his offside alongside veteran Matt Hunwick. Andrew Campbell will pair up with right-shot defenceman Raman Hrabarenka, who is on a professional try-out with the Maple Leafs.
Antoine Bibeau will get the start in net, but — as is tradition with pre-season games — Kasimir Kaskisuo will likely see some action at some point, too.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
|Left Wing||Center||Right Wing|
|Kerby Rychel||Nazem Kadri||Connor Brown|
|Colin Greening||Brooks Laich||Mitch Marner|
|Andreas Johnsson||Byron Froese||Kasperi Kapanen|
|Brandon Prust||Marc Andre Cliche||Trevor Moore|
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Jake Gardiner||Frank Corrado|
|Matt Hunwick||Andrew Nielsen|
|Andrew Campbell||Raman Hrabarenka|
Jim Hiller Pre-Game Interview
In a preseason game, how important is it to put some of the youngsters in a position to succeed, and thus you see Nazem centering the line that he’s got [alongside Kerby Rychel and Connor Brown]?
Jim Hiller: We want everybody to succeed. It’s not just the younger players, but the older guys too. For a younger guy, you get to play with an established veteran. You kind of look at the lineup and you get a little extra jump in your step. That usually helps you have a better game.
And vice versa. Mitch Marner getting to play with a couple of veterans in Greening and Laich. A lot of people have said, “that kid is going to make them better.”
Hiller: Yeah, that’s right. They’ve had a chance to watch Mitch, who I think has had a real strong training camp. They can realize that if you get the puck out to him, those two are big, strong guys who usually drive the net. You saw Greening shoot and score pretty often at the end of last year. They’re excited to play with him.
As a coach, is there a part of training camp that is more important to you for the development of players? Is the game more important to you?
Hiller: What you want to see is people get better. There are always little setbacks along the way. You want to see how they’ll respond. To me, it’s just a marching process day [after] day [after] day. You don’t make the team in one day. You don’t not make the team in one day. You just keep going on. There are different challenges that come up. You’re watching to see how they handle some of that adversity.
What’s the ideal number of games for a player to play that is going to be on the roster? Brooks said he’d play every night if they’d let me.
Hiller: I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what the ideal number is. I think if you talked to most guys, they’d like to play every game. Of course you can’t do that. You’ve got to mix it around. Some of the older guys sometimes just like to take a tune up. I think it’s really just dependent upon the player. There’s no real ideal number.
Is Tyler Bozak okay? He was on the roster yesterday.
Hiller: Yeah, he’s fine. You’ll probably see that happen a lot when the rosters get mixed up and changed around for different reasons to see different players with different people.
Overall, your thoughts on the three days in Bedford in terms of what you saw from the guys?
Hiller: I thought it was good. I thought it was extremely competitive, and I think fast. That’s the real word that jumped out to me – the speed of the players, the pace of the games. You guys saw the games, too. I think speed was really the one word that came out of the camp for me.
Do you plan on splitting your goaltenders tonight?
Hiller: We’ll see. I got that answer down pat!