Leafs hockey is back for the start of 2019 preseason out in St. John’s Newfoundland (5:30 p.m. EST, TSN4&5).
The Leafs will dress their top line — more accurately, one of their two top lines — in Kasperi Kapanen – John Tavares – Mitch Marner for the first preseason matchup today against the Senators. It’s a prime opportunity for Kapanen, who took advantage of a similar situation to start the season last Fall when he moved up onto Auston Matthews’ wing during William Nylander’s contractual holdout.
The challenge is a little different this time, though, as Kapanen will play his off-wing on the left side of the line. His hands don’t always keep up with his feet even when he skates on his strong side, so he’ll need to adjust to making and receiving passes on his backhand, in addition to adjusting both on the defensive-zone half-wall and when driving the net off the wing at the offensive end.
All that said, there couldn’t be a better situation to find yourself in as a winger offensively than playing on John Tavares’ wing opposite Mitch Marner. The former draws so much attention at the net and the latter is elite at creating time, space, and prime offensive looks for his linemates.
This game will also mark the unofficial debut of Tyson Barrie on the blue line, where he’ll pair off with Jake Muzzin as the two look to rekindle the chemistry from their success together with Team Canada at the 2015 World Championships.
Both entering contract seasons, the pairing is in line for a heavy dosage of top-matchup assignments in 2019-20. In that respect, it’s the best matchup pair the Leafs have iced in many years on paper. Barrie hasn’t played the toughest minutes on his team historically, but Muzzin showed down the stretch and into the playoffs last season that he’s a quality shutdown defender who could capably buoy a lesser partner like Nikita Zaitsev; Barrie represents a considerable pairing upgrade for Muzzin, as does Muzzin over Barrie’s most common playing partners in Colorado.
With Morgan Rielly playing in tomorrow’s game in Ottawa, both Muzzin and Barrie should receive power play time, where it will be interesting to watch how Barrie’s big right-handed shot changes the dynamic on the man advantage.
Also making his (preseason) Toronto debut is veteran free agent signing Jason Spezza, who is being asked to adjust to a different role on this Leafs team. The likelihood of him moving up the lineup to start the year diminished greatly when the Mitch Marner contract was finalized, so he’ll likely be looking at depth minutes and maybe some PP + PK time if he can prove his worth on special teams. Spezza is still an elite faceoff taker, brings a one-timer option, and can really thread the needle, but his foot speed is the big question mark.
Of course, it’s preseason, and the above-mentioned players are all guaranteed opening-night lineup spots and will be shaking the rust off more than anything over the next few weeks. The more interesting battles are taking place further down the depth chart:
Battles to Watch
– Justin Holl vs. Jordan Schmaltz: Both right-handed defensemen will be in the lineup today and both are competing for the final right-side defense spot that is there for the taking. Holl is entering the second year of a two-year contract looking to earn more minutes and spend a lot less time in the press box than he did in 2018-19. He has certainly paid his dues in the organization, but offseason acquisition Jordan Schmaltz enters camp with more pedigree and NHL experience.
Both own good frames and are good puck-movers at the AHL level. We’ll see if they receive some shorthanded ice time in preseason; their ability to play a secondary role on the PK could be a deciding factor, although neither has spent significant time there at the NHL level.
With Dave Hakstol taking over the defense pairs from now Senators head coach DJ Smith, Holl will receive a fresh evaluation, but Hakstol is also familiar with Schmaltz from their time together at the University of North Dakota. Both players are waiver eligible.
– Jeremy Bracco: The right winger lit up the AHL last season offensively, but he’s mostly viewed as under-developed defensively and physically for the NHL level at this time. How will he look after his second professional offseason? Can he put himself into the mix for a right-wing spot on opening night? With Zach Hyman hurt and Kapanen shifting to the left side of the Tavares line, it’s not like a job isn’t available. Bracco will get plenty of power-play looks in the preseason as a dominant man-advantage half-wall QB at the OHL and AHL levels.
– Martin Marincin vs. Kevin Gravel: The left-side bottom pair spot is also there for the taking due to Travis Dermott’s injury to start the season. Marincin is a known quantity to Mike Babcock — although not to Hakstol — and his abilities as a penalty killer have kept his NHL prospects alive in the organization, but he’s not the best puck-moving option at 5v5. Gravel enters the year largely viewed as Marlies-bound, but his size will grab attention (6’4, 215) and he spent most of 2018-19 at the NHL level with Edmonton, where he saw shorthanded ice time.
– Mason Marchment, Adam Brooks, Pierre Engvall, Egor Korshkov: These four are likely Marlies bound, but there is some intrigue with Marchment, Korshkov, and Engvall, in particular. The lack of size and bite in this Leafs lineup makes Marchment an intriguing fourth-line LW option, but the jury is out on how close to NHL ready he is in the skill and speed aspects of the game. A nice development story for the organization, Marchment owns a deceptive skating stride and an ability to finish in addition to an inherited mean streak passed down from his father.
Brooks showed well in 2018 preseason before health concerns set him back for the first half of the Marlies’ season, but he finished the year strongly and played well in the playoffs. His smarts and work ethic make him tough to write off entirely as a potential 4C for the Leafs someday. Engvall’s size and speed package became that much more intriguing when he transitioned successfully to center ice with the Marlies last season, although more AHL development time is likely in the cards here.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
Kapanen (24) – Tavares (91) – Marner (16)
Engvall (47) – Spezza (19) – Moore (42)
Marchment (36) – Brooks (77) – Bracco (29)
Timashov (41) – Gauthier (33) – Korshkov (96)
Muzzin (8) – Barrie (94)
Marincin (52) – Schmaltz (2)
Gravel (25) – Holl (3)
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
Duclair (10) – Pageau (44) – Batherson (19)
Balcers (38) – Tierney (71) – Rodewald (53)
Abramov (85) – Norris (37) – Formenton (59)
Kelly (45) – Beaudin (64) – Scherwey (93)
Brannstron (26) – DeMelo (2)
Lajoie (58) – Ebert (23)
Englund (39) – Goloubef (29)