As the other half of the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp roster laces up the skates for their first game of preseason tonight in Ottawa (7:30 p.m. EST, TSN 4 & 5), you could make a good argument there is more roster-battle intrigue at play for this game than there was last night in Newfoundland.
As fun as it is going to be to see Auston Matthews and William Nylander together and back in action — Nylander, in particular, after a summer in which he hit the reset button and dominated at the World Championships — it’s obviously a shake-off-the-rust exercise for the roster locks.
A lot of the focus is naturally going to follow Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren this evening.
While Liljegren has a year more of professional experience, it might be Sandin that has the easier path to an opening-night lineup spot — though, to be clear, both could take jobs for opening night with standout camp performances based on the depth chart situation at the present.
With Travis Dermott out rehabbing for the first month at least and just Martin Marincin, Ben Harpur and Kevin Gravel in between the 19-year-old and a bottom-pair spot on the left side, Sandin has it all in front of him if he wants to make his NHL debut this Fall. Liljegren has a little more to overcome with Justin Schmaltz in the fold, in particular, but he’s right in there with a shot as well.
One obstacle standing in the way of the pair is the business side of it in that they’re both waiver exempt, make $925,000 in base salary (vs. league-minimum options), and the Leafs are going to have to carry a smaller roster than years past to make their cap work; they’re not just taking opening-night lineup spots, they’re potentially forcing others out of the organization altogether. They’re going to have to make the Leafs move things around and change their plans with their play this preseason if they’re to make the team.
When it comes to the debate over the developmental benefits of playing bottom-pair minutes on the Leafs versus top-pair minutes on the Marlies, Kyle Dubas made it clear prior to camp that the team would be happy to see either in the NHL helping drive play on the bottom pair in 12-15 minutes of ice time if they’re ready for it.
If they can’t play in your top four, though, is it better to let them over-ripen with the Marlies than play them in 5-6-7-8 roles?
Dubas: I think it depends on the number of minutes you’re giving to that pair. Even still, those are still big minutes. Even if it’s 10-15, or whatever the time is, I think it’s still important that you’ve got the best people in there to drive play and have them out there controlling the game if they can — if they’re ready for that. If it is going to be in those minutes and they’re not quite ready for it, I think we would prefer to have them with the Marlies, where they’ll play a ton.
Sandin showed well last camp — beyond-his-years poise and decision-making with the puck, competitive without it, good gaps defensively — and that translated into his first AHL season with the Marlies. Despite an injury setback midway through, he was playing 20+ minutes for the team down the stretch and into the playoffs — a rare and special feat for an 18-year-old. His maturity and head for the game may well get him to the next level as soon as this season, whether that’s out of camp or partway through.
Liljegren also came along as the year went on with the Marlies. While Sandin has passed him in the eyes of many fans and pundits — who have been looking for gaudier point-totals from a quote-unquote offensive defenseman — he’s taken on more and more responsibility and handled it well with the Marlies, making in-roads both defensively and in his physical maturity. If he’s able to add a half-step to his top gear, he would be right on the cusp as well.
Beyond Liljegren and Sandin, there are a ton of bubble players in action today. With the top six and top four set in stone, Matt Read (PTO), Ilya Mikeyev, Nic Petan, Kenny Agostino, and Pontus Aberg are all in the mix to fill out the wing spots in the Leafs’ bottom six; in particular, it will be interesting to see who lines up next to Alex Kerfoot in his Leafs preseason debut. Returning from the KHL, Nick Shore is also contending potentially for the final right wing spot — if not at center — to start.
On defense, Cody Ceci will make his debut on his likely opening-night pairing with Morgan Rielly, while Ben Harpur and Teemu Kivihalme are looking to put themselves in the conversation for that opening-night bottom-pairing spot on the left side of the defense.
In net, Michael Hutchinson will play the first two periods and is looking to get a further leg up on his competition in Michal Neuvirth (PTO), who has been bitten by the injury bug (again) and isn’t currently available for game action.
Add in Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, and Tyler Ennis donning the Senators jersey for the first time versus the Leafs, and there is plenty to watch for tonight.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander
Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Petan
Aberg – Kossila – Shore
Agostino – Gaudet – Read
Rielly – Ceci
Harpur – Sandin
Kivihalme – Liljegren
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
Tkachuk – White – C. Brown
Ennis – Anisimov – Ryan
Paul – L.Brown – Veronneau
Carcone – Szwarz – Sabourin
Chabot – Guennette
Borowiecki – Jaros
Murray – Hainsey