With the 2019-20 NHL regular season getting underway tonight, it’s time to tie a bow on the preseason with a look at who impressed, who disappointed, and some thoughts on the season ahead for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A fair amount of roster turnover made this preseason more interesting, as Leafs fans had plenty of new players to watch. Alexander Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Jason Spezza were all trying to make a strong first impression, while Kasperi Kapanen did what he could to prove that he can be effective on his off-wing. There were a ton of depth players fighting for roster spots. With Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman injured, there were plenty of opportunities for the taking in camp.
Rasmus Sandin Steals the Show
While it was fun to get a look at all of the new players in the organization, the star of the show was Rasmus Sandin. It’s tough to tell whether he’s played his last game with the Toronto Marlies, as Dermott’s eventual return from the injured reserve will complicate the lineup decisions, but he’s now convinced just about everyone that he has a bright future ahead of him.
Sandin is a zone exit machine because of his sneaky back-hand passes. His high-end vision also helps him in terms of zone entries and assists. He’s not all that tall, but he’s strong on his skates, an intelligent defender, and wins far more physical battles than you’d expect.
I watched just about every game that Sandin played last year, and it’s safe to say that I was impressed with what he brought to the table. I put him at #4 on my Top 25 Under 25 ballot, ahead of high-quality NHL players like Kapanen, Kerfoot, Andreas Johnsson, and Dermott, which was basically saying: “he’s going to be pretty damn good”. He has a legitimate chance to play on a top-pairing someday, and if he doesn’t, I expect him to be a high-end second pairing defenseman who effectively drives play because of the way that he sees the ice.
While I enjoyed watching the fourth-line forward battles and backup goalie competition, the story of the preseason is that the Leafs have an impressive young defenseman who will complement Toronto’s expensive forwards for years to come.
Other Players Who Impressed This Preseason
Following the Sandin show, the second biggest story of Toronto’s preseason was their third line. This is a key unit to watch for the Leafs, as the Hyman-Tavares-Marner line is bound to be successful and the Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander line might score 1,000 goals. A good third-line could help to produce a more successful playoff run, as the team simply did not boast the same level of scoring depth once Nazem Kadri was suspended.
Kerfoot is not Kadri, but he’s looked as advertised thus far. He did not play a ton of center in Colorado, but he won his fair share of puck battles this pre-season and he seemed to be quite responsible defensively. Similar to many players on this roster, he plays a heavier style than you might expect and knows how to effectively advance the puck up the ice. While I don’t think he will be much of a goal scorer, he looks perfectly fine at center and the Leafs need him to be if they want to take a big step forward.
Ilya Mikheyev has far exceeded my expectations of him thus far. The 6’3″ winger possesses the speed to get in on the forecheck and generate takeaways, as well as the hands to make the most out of his scoring chances. While I’m not sure what to make of his playmaking ability quite yet, he’s playing with a good playmaker in Kerfoot and they seem to complement one another quite nicely. We heard all offseason that Mike Babcock likes this player; I was scared that Mikheyev would be a replacement-level player who ended up getting too much ice time. After a great preseason, both with and without the puck, I no longer have those concerns.
Trevor Moore is quietly one of the most popular players on this team. If you’re watching a Leafs game with a fellow hockey fan, there’s a 90% chance they complement Moore’s game by the end of the night. He works hard, generates takeaways, goes to the net, and moves well. He going to be an elite fourth-line player once this lineup is fully healthy. I like Kerfoot’s playmaking ability with Mikheyev and Kapanen, and that line has all the tools to hold their own defensively as well.
While the fourth line is just not the same without Moore, I have to give credit to Frederik Gauthier and Dmytro Timashov for their strong preseasons. Gauthier was not in the opening night lineup in the past three seasons and many thought he was a near-lock for the Marlies when Jason Spezza and Nick Shore were acquired this offseason. But I actually liked the Ennis-Gauthier-Moore line in last year’s playoffs, and Gauthier was the best player on the ice in his first preseason game. While I would not pencil him into the 2020 playoff lineup just yet, I think he’s earned another extended look.
Dmytro Timashov, 23, was never a star with the Marlies, but he did take a significant step forward towards the end of last season. He rarely shoots the puck and he benefitted from playing on a strong top power play unit, but he’s a competent puck distributor who continues to win more and more battles (he’s always been quite heavy). Given his $695k cap hit, he may get into more games than we expect this season. I don’t expect him to be a game-breaker, but sacrifices have to be made given the Leafs cap situation and they might as well see what they have. I wish him all the best in his NHL debut; it’s great to see a young player get an opportunity after watching him for three years on the Marlies.
Last but not least, I liked what I saw out of Cody Ceci. I went back and watched a handful of Senators games from last season, and while I don’t think he’s a strong top-four defenseman, he’s better than what many of the statistical models indicate. Nikita Zaitsev was a completely awful puck mover last season; Ceci has already completed multiple passes that we never would have seen out of Zaitsev. I won’t be running to the store to buy a Ceci jersey anytime soon, but I’m willing to give him a clean slate in a new organization.
Players Who Disappointed
After Pierre Engvall exceeded expectations in last year’s preseason, I think Mike Babcock was interested in getting a look at him this camp. He started off of a line with Spezza and Moore, but the line had a pretty weak first game and he didn’t seem to be in the competition for long. I like his two-way game, but I’m not sure if the organization views him as a center or a winger. I’m hoping to get an extended look at him at center with the Marlies this season, as there’s always far more competition for fourth-line winger jobs.
Jeremy Bracco had a few encouraging flashes late in the preseason but did not exactly turn heads early on. After notching 79 points in 75 games with the Marlies last year, he had a chance to showcase his playmaking ability, but he did not force the Leafs into a tough decision. Given his lack of strength, speed, and reach, he’s going to have to score in bunches if he wants to make the NHL, and I just don’t think he came close to “wow’ing” them. Fortunately, given that he’s still only 22 and is coming off a huge year in the AHL, there’s still time for him to take that next step forward.
Another player who was not at his best at the start of preseason was Timothy Liljegren. I am still quite high on him as a prospect and think a healthy season in the AHL would do him wonders. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that he’s a high-end puck mover at the AHL level just yet and I’d like to see him slow the game down and become more dangerous in the offensive zone. He’s going to get even stronger and he will have far more opportunity on the power play this year to work on his offensive game, so we’ll just have to give it time. I don’t think he will be up within a month, but many players of his age are just starting their first AHL season.
Finally, I thought Jordan Schmaltz was in a great position to challenge for a spot, but a few too many mistakes cost him. I was surprised that he was on the power play rather than the penalty kill — I think his contributions on the PK differentiated Marincin from the field. I expect that he will be an awesome AHL player, as he’s a competent 6’2″ puck mover who skates quite well.
- I’ll be paying close attention to the power play to start the season, especially the second unit. The top unit probably did not get enough credit for their work last season, but their second unit was a revolving door and it just felt like they were fast-forwarding the game come playoff time. I see Barrie as a high-end power-play quarterback, while Spezza is a high-end faceoff specialist who gives them a shooting threat that they did not previously have. I don’t expect the allocation of ice time to change much, but I do expect the second unit to be better.
- Nick Robertson is going to dominate the Ontario Hockey League this year and will be a big factor at the World Juniors as well. Just like Sandin, he’s an undersized player who plays far heavier than he looks and every coach seems to love him. He owns a significant amount of shooting talent as well, with a one-timer that this organization currently lacks. Given his work ethic, ability to win battles, and goal-scoring talent, it’s tough to see him as anything other than a future NHL player. He’s not a high-end playmaker, but the Leafs sure seem to have something here.
- Nicolas Petan is going to dominate the AHL. I don’t know how he does not have a NHL job, and I thought he played well this preseason. Sam Gagner, who did not make the Oilers out of camp, ended up getting loaned to the Marlies last season. I wonder if that happens again, as it would allow him to play close to home and the Leafs will gladly go the extra mile for one of Tavares’ friends. The Marlies are stacked.
- Egor Korshkov climbed up my depth chart in a hurry this preseason and I probably should have included him in the “players who impressed” category. I’d like to see a little bit more offense from him with the Marlies this year, but he showed that he can win his fair share of battles against NHL players and that has value. I now expect to see him in the NHL at some point this year.
- The Leafs sure looked good this preseason. I think this team has a real chance to take a significant step forward, and while that may not show up in the standings, I expect them to outplay their opponents on a more consistent basis. This team looks way better than last October’s version, and the forward core is now locked up for the foreseeable future. It’s going to be a fun year.
Enjoy the 2019-20 season!