It was exciting to have Leafs hockey back, but this was certainly preseason-calibre and not aided by the poor ice at the Canadian Tire Centre (or the faceoff rule change). The result explains itself, but the Maple Leafs were really sloppy and couldn’t seem to get a save.
A few quick thoughts, mostly about those on the bubble:
– Travis Dermott did his chances of winning the spot on the bottom-pairing left side no harm last night. When he goes back on a puck defensively, he’s slippery and an excellent problem solver; there was one play in particular late in the second where he pulled off a nifty between-the-legs bump pass that kick-started the transition the other way. His gap control was excellent, and he’s aggressive about stepping up in the neutral zone to disrupt entries — all enabled by very quick feet and smart reads. He made countless good decisions under pressure in this game. It’s early days, but he’s passed the first test with flying colours; as Sheldon Keefe remarked, he’ll be a natural fit in a Babcock system. Taken in combination with his progression with the Marlies last season, there’s no doubt in my mind there’s top-four NHL upside here. The partnership with Timothy Liljegren — who was welcomed to the NHL early in the night while breaking into the offensive zone, but acquitted himself well in his first ever taste — was a bright spot.
– Also in that mix for the bottom pairing spot is Calle Rosen, who started slow but improved markedly as the game went along. He fired on sight at the offensive blue line as the game progressed; the puck really explodes off his stick when he winds it up and he’ll also get his shot off quick to get pucks through. The Leafs power play isn’t built around a big point shot, but it would be an asset the Leafs could use on their blue line (Zaitsev and Gardiner have firepower, but aren’t high volume shooters). It’s going to be fun to follow this Dermott vs. Rosen vs. Marincin vs. Borgman competition.
– Earlier this week, Mike Babcock made an interesting comment about Miro Aaltonen, mentioning that he didn’t think he was quick enough on first impression but soon realized that’s not really the case. Aesthetically, his skating isn’t a pretty picture, but he typically arrives on time and he actually covers ice pretty efficiently. He’s competitive and crafty with the puck as well. Babcock’s list of players he liked last night included only Dermott and Rosen followed by a long pause; I’d throw Aaltonen in there, too.
– Nikita Soshnikov is going to have to find another level than what we saw last night; he’s already got the waiver consideration working against him. Josh Leivo had a mixed game; he was a little behind the pace but did pick it up on a few shifts in the second period and showed some hunger. The other player in that mix for a roster spot to start the season (although not necessarily a lineup spot right away) is Kasperi Kapanen, who was energetic but seemed out of sync, like most Leafs players. No one really nudged themselves out ahead in this battle based on game #1.
– As far as the top line – they owned the run of play and created lots of possession and opportunities, as per usual (on top of the PP magic). Much like all of last season, I spent the game flip-flopping about Hyman’s spot on this line at different times throughout the night. There was a moment late in the second where Hyman took an extra second or two to corral the puck (on his offside) while William Nylander was streaking through the middle begging to be sprung on a breakaway; that resulted in a dump in rather than Nylander in alone on the goalie. At the same time, Hyman’s relentlessness in hunting pucks down on the forecheck and his tireless motor kept several plays alive that looked over and done with.
– Too early to panic about the backup position, right? Too early.