The players have reported to their teams, training camp is underway, and preseason is about to begin. The new NHL season is upon us!
The Leafs are largely returning the same team that finished fourth overall last season. Their top five forwards are all returning, and it’s possible (maybe even likely) that their top two lines will look exactly the same as they did last season for large stretches of 2022-23. Their defense is largely the same minus losing Ilya Lyubushkin and depending on what happens with Rasmus Sandin’s contract situation. The goalie situation is brand new; only time will tell if management made good decisions there.
Of course, there were some changes down the lineup, and there is hope that a young player — or maybe even more than one — will emerge. That’s where the focus of this training camp will lie for me.
Here are five training-camp storylines I will be keeping an eye on.
Who will be the fourth center?
The first thing to note here is that I didn’t explicitly say fourth line center.
While the Leafs value David Kampf, he has struggled to produce for large stretches of his career. Last season, he enjoyed new career highs playing alongside productive players in Ilya Mikheyev (gone), Ondrej Kase (gone), and Pierre Engvall (out to start the season). It’s possible his production falls off – that, in theory, could make him more of a fit alongside equally unproductive but solid checkers such as Nicolas Aube-Kubel or potentially Zach Aston-Reese.
That aside, we know Kampf will play at center somewhere in the lineup. So will Auston Matthews and John Tavares, but who will round out the group? Adam Gaudette and Calle Jarnkrok are both starting camp on the wing even though both players have played center in the NHL at times in their career. For whatever it’s worth, Alex Kerfoot started camp at center, which is something Keefe has gone to whenever necessary. Engvall is out to start, but he has also played there at times.
I won’t even mention William Nylander, but I maintain he could and probably should be getting reps at center knowing where John Tavares is in the age curve.
There are options here, although I’m not sure if any of them are good ones. All of those players have played their best on the wing. In a world where an additional good center option emerges – potentially pushing Kampf to the 4C spot – the Leafs would almost certainly own the deepest group of centers in the league.
Who wins the coveted left wing spot beside John Tavares and William Nylander to start the regular season?
Sheldon Keefe already noted the Bunting – Matthews – Marner line is going to reunite. He has started camp by auditioning Adam Gaudette beside Tavares and Nylander. I’m sure it’s the first of many auditions that we’ll see.
Alex Kerfoot has been a favourite of Keefe’s in that spot. He mentioned Nicolas Aube-Kubel as an option, and while he almost certainly can’t score enough to justify it, maybe – just maybe – he makes them better defensively to the point where they add up to a net-positive line that outscores opponents regularly. I wouldn’t bet on it, but hey, it might be worth a shot.
Calle Jarnkrok represents an option who can be a bit of a swiss-army knife and chip in all over the ice. You could also make a case for Pierre Engvall.
The biggest upside option is probably Nicholas Robertson – and not just because he’s the shiny new toy. He has pedigree and was productive in the AHL last season, but it should be noted he only has two points in 16 NHL games so far. It’s three in 20 if we include playoffs. It might make more sense to start Robertson lower in the lineup – if he even makes the team – and have him work his way up the roster.
This was the biggest issue with the forward group last season, through the offeason, and now into the start of the 2022-23 season. Management hasn’t meaningfully addressed it. They enter with a bunch of maybes and will hope someone emerges to stake a claim to the spot.
With Michael Bunting, the Leafs struck gold, and Keefe indicated they are hoping the same revelation plays out again, this time on line two. If there is one thing we can be sure of, it’s that whoever wins it and/or simply starts there out of camp won’t be the only player that plays there during the season. It’s going to be a revolving door.
If it’s Kerfoot in this spot, it would be particularly telling since they already know what they have in him.
Who wins the bottom-six spots?
This is the area of the lineup that could swing in a number of different directions. Compounding the issue is that Pierre Engvall is out to start the season.
The players we can be quite certain will be in the bottom six to start the season are as follows:
- David Kampf
- Nicolas Aube-Kubel (we could actually debate this one, too, but he’s young enough and brings enough of a different look that I think he is pretty well guaranteed to start there).
- One of Calle Jarnkrok/Alex Kerfoot (it could be both, but at minimum, it will be one while the other potentially wins the top-six spot).
This leaves the following players battling for lineup spots: Nicholas Robertson, Adam Gaudette, Wayne Simmonds, Joey Anderson, Kyle Clifford, and Nick Abruzzese to go along with any other potential Marlies/prospects/wildcards. Zach Aston-Reese is also there on a PTO and has a good chance to make the team provided they can fit it in financially.
Keefe appeared to imply they were interested in ZAR early in the summer but couldn’t afford it under the cap constraints so it sounds like he was a player they have been interested in for months. The Engvall injury really opens up possibilities; with Engvall healthy, the third line is probably already set (Engvall – Kampf – Kerfoot/Jarnkrok). Without him, it can go in all sorts of directions.
For all the speculation about Wayne Simmonds not making the team, he has a path to making the roster with Engvall out and even more so if Robertson doesn’t emerge in camp to win a roster spot. When in doubt, they’ll go with the veterans. Adam Gaudette appears to be another player who would have to play his way off the roster rather than onto it.
I think ZAR has the potential to be a fan favourite (if nothing else, he appears to drive Buffalo nuts, so I have a lot of time for that – he fought 3 different Sabres in the 2021 calendar year alone).
There are spots for the taking here. Who is going to step up and take them?
What happens with Rasmus Sandin?
Both sides aren’t budging right now. If you were to ask me, it only makes sense for the player to do so. Sandin has flashed potential, but here is the number of games he’s played in each of the past four seasons:
- 2018 – 2019: 44 + 13 playoff games
- 2019 – 2020: 49
- 2020 – 2021: 10 + 5 playoff games
- 2021 – 2022: 51
Sandin simply hasn’t played enough hockey in recent years. This is a critical time in his career where his game should be developing. Now he’s missing, at least, the start of training camp and potentially the start of the regular season. At some point, he simply needs to get his year going and turn in a full season.
He’s undeniably talented, but he also makes glaring mistakes that would likely be ironed out through experience. It wasn’t very long ago that Sandin ranked ahead of Timothy Liljegren on the depth chart. It’s no small coincidence that one player has remained healthy, the other hasn’t, and now Liljegren has surpassed Sandin.
Sandin has established himself as a talented player with potential, but he hasn’t shown he can healthy and hold his own as a legitimate top-four defenseman. He has to earn that – in part by simply staying healthy. His goal should be getting to camp and earning a spot, not trying to negotiate his opportunity and/or a spot in the lineup through his contract.
William Nylander’s play was notably impacted after his holdout in 2018, and he was already a legitimate, bonafide, top-of-the-lineup NHLer. Sandin has not come close to establishing himself to the same degree.
For the Leafs, they have six good NHL defensemen when healthy, but how often are they really healthy? Jake Muzzin is already hurt. Mark Giordano is 38. Justin Holl’s 2021-22 was up and down, to say the least. That said, Sandin is hurting his career by holding out more than the Leafs are hurt by his absence.
Hopefully, this whole saga concludes sooner than later. Everyone wins if it does.
How do the defense pairings shake out?
There are already a number of questions here to start the season: Will Jake Muzzin be healthy to start the season? Will Rasmus Sandin sign and be ready to start in October? When will Timothy Liljegren be back?
The Leafs could feasibly reunite two good pairings from last season: Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano – Timothy Liljegren (once healthy). That would, in theory, slot Justin Holl as the right-handed defenseman on a pairing that could be rounded out by Victor Mete, Jordie Benn, Jake Muzzin when healthy (hopefully), or a dark horse like Filip Kral nabbing some minutes (under the radar, he has really flashed promise).