The penultimate preseason game for the Maple Leafs will feature Kirill Semyonov centering a top line with Mitch Marner and Nick Ritchie, and possibly the last chance for Nikita Gusev (PTO) to make his case for a contract ahead of the midweek roster cuts (7 p.m., TSN 2&4).
Recruited from the KHL, Semyonov has unsurprisingly been the recipient of good opportunities to show his stuff in this exhibition season, including two games alongside Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Bunting and now a look in between Marner and Ritchie. He hasn’t looked out of place skill-wise in terms of his ability to complete plays and get himself into shooting positions while being responsible defensively and playing a prominent role on the penalty kill. Last night in Ottawa, he got himself on the scoresheet for the first time with two third-period assists on both Leaf goals, to go along with his six shots on goal through three preseason games.
This will be Semyonov’s fourth-straight preseason appearance tonight — the Leafs are giving him a good hard look, as they promise to do with all KHL recruits, and Semyonov has made a reasonable case for himself so far, with an opportunity to add an exclamation point if he can save his best for tonight’s prime opportunity. Whether or not he gets squeezed out by the numbers game for opening night, the Leafs could mix him in for a few regular-season appearances based on not just the promises made to give him a real opportunity but also on the merits of his performances to date. He is waiver exempt on his one-year entry-level contract, but it’s unlikely he crossed the pond in order to spend much time making $80,000 in the AHL.
As for Gusev, it is getting difficult to picture it working out in Toronto. He hasn’t clearly unseated any roster players under contract to date — including Pierre Engvall, who made an impact immediately in his preseason debut last night — and there arguably isn’t a natural fit within the Leafs‘ lineup mix if it’s not an extended look next to Tavares or Matthews. He appears to be redundant on this Leafs team and has been outshone by all of Nick Bunting, Ondrej Kase, Josh Ho-Sang, Pierre Engvall, Kirill Semyonov, and arguably even Michael Amadio and Adam Brooks, but perhaps Leafs brass sees the situation differently.
Up front, Ilya Mikheyev will skate with John Tavares and William Nylander, which makes one think he has the edge for the spot for opening night (he’s also played with Tavares before opposite Hyman when he had more offensive success pre-injury back in 2019-20), but Sheldon Keefe cautioned against reading too much into it:
Sheldon Keefe has Mikheyev with Tavares and Nylander right now, but don't count on it to stick:
"I don't know that we'll have a consistent player there [to start]. We've got competition and we've got different options."
Said salary cap, special teams, etc will play into it.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 5, 2021
Indeed, the Leafs have some options to try out here. If Ritchie doesn’t jive alongside Matthews and Marner, he could receive a look next to Tavares, and Michael Bunting would also bring some elements to this line between his jam and touch around the net. Kampf-Kase seems to be a staple so far in camp for Sheldon Keefe, but switching Nylander over to the left and giving Kase a look on the right wing of a proper scoring line sounds like a worthwhile experiment as well.
Game Day Quotes
Mitch Marner on how he goes about dealing with the criticism and outside noise:
Staying away from reading whatever you guys write or reading what anyone on the outside thinks. I think that is how you have to handle it. Just stay away from it. Trust what you have been doing your whole life to be the best player you can be, and try to keep getting better every summer. Staying off of the social media aspect is part of it, and just focusing on what you can focus on.
Marner on his approach to social media:
I just delete it and get rid of it completely. Just kind of take yourself away from it, and be in the here and now. Mindset-wise, for me, it was better just deleting some things and getting off of it completely, and letting my team handle that stuff. That is how I have dealt with it this past summer — getting off of it, focusing on myself, trying to be a better player throughout the summer, working hard, and focusing on the things I can focus on.
John Tavares on Ilya Mikheyev’s desire for more opportunity and growth offensively:
Miky is really hardworking and extremely driven. He wants to be a real difference-maker in all areas of the game. It is great he has high ambitions and wants to go out there and be a key player and make a difference in all areas. You see the speed and the tools that he has — the raw ability — and it is just continuing to work at it and fine-tune that.
I think he will only continue to feel more and more comfortable in his own skin as well. It is not easy coming to a new place — a new country — and the pandemic hit, which only made things more difficult for a guy like him learning the language and fitting into the culture here in our group.
He just seems much more comfortable with a better feel for things. He continues to try to work as hard as he can to take advantage of the opportunities, wanting to be a key member of our group. I think he wants to continue to be able to grow himself offensively, but I think on any team that wins and has success, you see how many key players aren’t always counted on to score every night and can do so many different things. He is one of those guys for us and has the bonus of possibly being even better offensively this year.
Tavares on the pressure Mitch Marner faces as a local kid in the market:
I have always said that I give him, Auston, and Willy so much credit for being at such a young age and being able to deal with that off of the get-go [entering the league] and be able to do what they do.
I think Mitch will only continue to evolve and mature through those experiences with playing here and what it entails. So far, he has done a tremendous job already.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#20 Nick Ritchie – #94 Kirill Semyonov – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#97 Nikita Gusev – #77 Adam Brooks – #18 Michael Amadio
#43 Brett Seney – #85 Semyon Der-Arguchintsev – #29 Kurtis Gabriel
#44 Morgan Rielly- #78 TJ Brodie
#48 Carl Dahlstrom – #47 Timothy Liljgren
#61 Brennan Mennell – #56 Kristians Rubins
#35 Petr Mrazek
#50 Erik Kallgren