After a flurry of offseason moves (while keeping the same core) and a training camp that brought some pleasant surprises, the Maple Leafs opening night roster is set.
To get here, the Leafs moved on from Sam Lafferty, trading him to Vancouver for a fifth-round pick, as they elected to keep Fraser Minten up with the team after a strong training camp.
It’s an interesting move with a lot of layers to it considering that Lafferty is basically a 25-point forward and Minten is a 19-year-old receiving an extended look.
The Leafs are a cap-space-strapped team – like many in the league – and so every decision has knock-on effects.
Keeping Minten, for now, allows them to keep an extra body around the big club in case of injury. That is a tough thing to quantify, but it is a noteworthy part of this equation. 12 forwards locked into the lineup come hell or high water makes it difficult to do much of anything. If a player struggles for a week, the coach can’t sit him. If the lines aren’t working, the coach can mix and match among the 12 but isn’t able to introduce a new player into the equation to properly shake it up.
If it’s adding a seventh defenseman – and it remains to be seen who the Leafs will call up as an extra body – it gives the Leafs an option so that they don’t have to play 40-year-old Mark Giordano night in and night out. If they had kept Lafferty, they would not have had the flexibility to keep more than 12 forwards, six defensemen, and two goalies until someone inevitably got hurt.
Now, the Leafs have a little wiggle room. They signed Noah Gregor, who put together a great preseason showing and absolutely earned a spot, and they added a fifth-round pick. There are benefits beyond the extended look at Minten.
On the flipside, they got rid of a legitimate NHL forward in Lafferty. He’s played 210 games in the league, he’s coming off a modest career-high season of 12 goals and 27 points, and he brings a few things to the table with his speed, right-handed faceoff option, capable penalty killing, and an option to slide over to center.
As much as it is often dismissed – players like this can be acquired for very little at all times – a team can never have enough legitimate NHL players. Down the stretch and often through the playoffs last season, the Leafs couldn’t even identify 12 forwards they liked enough to dress. They regularly elected to play with 11 and 7. They legitimately did not have 12 good enough options to justify it.
The Leafs didn’t make these moves to open up room for a bonafide NHLer. They did this to extend the audition of an unknown NHL quantity.
Fraser Minten deserves credit for making this happen. He played well in the preseason. But now the question is how does it translate when the real games begin, and how long will it persist?
There are two key dates of note. The first is the nine-game mark, the number of games Minten can dress in before the first year of his entry-level contract kicks in. If he reaches game 10, it moves him closer to his first payday/a bigger cap hit.
If Minten doesn’t hit the 10-game mark, they just moved a bonafide NHLer for a limited trial and would need to backfill the spot with other question marks, be it Pontus Holmberg, Nick Robertson, or possibly a Bobby McMann. They are all potentially capable but by no means proven.
The second key date is the 40-game mark. A player must dress for 40 games in a season to accrue a season for free agency purposes. It moves them a year closer to unrestricted free-agency status.
If Minten proves himself through the whole regular season, it will be a great success for the Leafs. Even if that were to happen, though, the questions about how it will translate come playoff time would still be there. We just saw Timothy Liljegren play a notable role last regular season – and he has 141 regular season games of experience – only to struggle to get into the lineup in the playoffs.
Looking at the playoff lineups of the past five Cup champions:
- There were no rookies taking regular shifts on the Vegas Golden Knights in 2023.
- The Colorado Avalanche had one in 2022: Alex Newhook.
- The Tampa Bay Lightning dressed one rookie over back-to-back runs: Ross Colton.
- We have to go back to the St. Louis Blues to find two rookies who played a notable amount in a Cup run, and even then, Robert Thomas scored all of six points in 21 games and Sammy Blais produced three in 15 (the Blues played 26 playoff games during their run).
While Matthew Knies played in the playoffs last year – and performed well – he’s still a rookie. As things stand now, Minten gives the Leafs two rookies up front. The reality is that in the playoffs, teams with rookies playing prominent roles generally do not succeed.
The other part of the equation is that the Leafs halted the Nylander-at-center experiment. Even if Minten plays half the season – a fairly successful showing for his purposes – if he doesn’t stick and succeed, the team will go right back to either searching for a 3C or moving Nylander back there at a much more difficult period of the season to make the transition. Now is the time to experiment, not after Christmas.
If they have to return to Nylander at center many months down the road from now, it’s going to beg the question if it was even worth it all.
What would make it unequivocally worth it is if Fraser Minten excels and sticks in the league. So far, he has managed to surpass all expectations and do just that.
– The speed of Max Domi and William Nylander played well off of each other through the neutral zone and attacking offensively. We saw something similar with Nylander and Alex Kerfoot over the past few years, but Domi is more skilled with the puck. The fit with Tavares and Nylander has always been a bit awkward, and it’s clear Nylander works well with players who play at a high pace.
– Between adding Domi, Matthew Knies full-time, and Noah Gregor, the team does have a bit more speed in the lineup. To say nothing of John Klingberg, who moves around nicely on his feet and his head-manning of the puck to the forwards gets his teammates skating, too. The team felt slow vs. Florida, and while this isn’t a speed-to-burn team now, there seems to be more pace to play with, including a player or two on each line that can really move.
– Rather quietly, the Leafs goaltending wasn’t particularly sharp in preseason outside of Martin Jones. Last season was only the second time Ilya Samsonov played over 40 games in a season, and the first stint (back in Washington) did not go particularly well. The jury is still very much out on him. Of course, Joseph Woll is completely unproven. I don’t think they could have justified going any other direction in net this offseason — the goalie market is cold and both players have earned these positions with their play last season — but they will need to prove worthy.
– In the last three seasons, Nick Robertson has played all of 27, 38, and 17 games. There’s nothing wrong with him going to the AHL. He needs to play games. We can see signs of it within his game at times in terms of using his teammates. His shot and skill are there, but he needs to work better off of his linemates, trusting them to create for him and allow him to get his shots off.
– Noah Gregor earned his spot and looks very much capable of taking a regular shift on the fourth line. He can carry the puck, his speed makes things happen, and he can penalty kill. If he’s going to be anything more than this, though, he’s going to need to prove he can be a good checker. He played on a poor Sharks team that was going nowhere, but now he’s on a top team with high standards. Can he carve out a role to close periods? Can he protect leads? Can he be counted on against top players on the other team? He’s not here to be a scorer when the team is down, so he’s going to have to show well elsewhere.
– Among my surprises in the preseason, Pontus Holmberg might have played his best game of the exhibition season on the left wing with David Kampf and Ryan Reaves. It appeared to free up his offensive game, and he tried to make more plays with the puck rather than simply maintaining good defensive positions at center. Something to file away as an option.
“Everybody thinks change has to come from outside. It’s players evolving, taking on a little bit more. Look at Timothy Liljegren. He’s really taken a step. Even the top guys like Auston (Matthews) and Mitch (Marner) and John (Tavares), all the experiences that they’ve gone through. There’s been growth with them, maturity. The experiences that you go through, it hardens you a little bit. You get a little bit more scar tissue on you… I’ve still got to learn the team. There’s a process you go through in training camp, but you really learn it when the live bullets are coming in. That’s going to be an education I’ve gotta go through.”
– Brad Treliving on what kind of changes he foresees with this Leafs team this season
It’s fair for Treliving to want to properly evaluate the team himself before deciding who to keep and move on from. It’s noteworthy that he called out Timothy Liljegren as well. He’s the only defenseman on the team under 30 (Jake McCabe just turned 30).
“I am hoping that he takes more comfort in that if I go to it. Because of the progression of Minten and of keeping an eye on this situation with how it has played out, we shifted away from William on it.
It was not as many reps as we anticipated, but I still think it is more than he has had in the past in terms of a consistent run, so if we feel the need to go to that, it is an easier transition for him to do so.”
– Sheldon Keefe on William Nylander at center
I’d be really disappointed if the coaching staff is already moving on from William Nylander at center. He looked more than capable in the preseason, and Nylander playing center in his prime right now is a far bigger needle mover for the team on the whole than any of the other possibilities we’re seeing trotted out.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time. We’re starting to get a feel for each other out there and starting to create more offense and have extended offensive-zone shifts where we’re really working the puck down low.”
– Auston Matthews on connecting with his new linemates
On paper, I quite like the line, but so far it hasn’t exactly been love at first sight. I have already previously noted that it felt like they were trying to figure out where each player goes on the ice in the offensive zone, a process that will likely continue for weeks to come.
When it’s all said and done, though, if this is going to be a line, they can’t merely be good. They have to be arguably the best line in the league. The Leafs are uniting their top left winger, center, and right winger on one line, even though they could create all sorts of combinations using the three individuals across three different lines. I think it’s important to get these three going together, but we’ll see how good it really is.
Tweets of the Week
Of note with veteran #leafs goaltender Martin Jones currently on waivers: Any team putting in a successful claim will owe him a $100,000 bonus payment tomorrow.
The timing of that bonus was structured into the $875,000, one-year contract he signed in August.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) October 9, 2023
This was a clever move by the Leafs. Ultimately, if Tampa Bay had more concern about Jonas Johansson, they probably would have claimed him regardless, but they have to flex their financial muscle and make it as unappealing as possible to claim him. Every little bit helps, and it gives the Leafs excellent insurance in net.
News: General Manager Brad Treliving announced today that Curtis McElhinney has been hired as the Director of Goaltending Development and Scouting, Jake Muzzin has been named a Pro Scout and Chris Bourque will assume a new role as a College Free Agent Scout.
— Lance Hornby 🇺🇦 (@sunhornby) October 9, 2023
I wanted to take a second to recognize Jake Muzzin. He had a fantastic NHL career, and if I could draw up an all-around defenseman that was a tier below the Chris Prongers of the world, it would more or less be Muzzin: big, could lead a shutdown pairing, physical, able to contribute offensively, and a big-game player. It’s a shame that his career has ended the way it has. It’s not the send-off he deserves.
Kudos to the Leafs for hiring him as well as Curtis McElhinney, who never should have been waived.
Today, Scotiabank Arena unveils plans for a multi-million dollar ‘Reimagination’ renovation, further enhancing the venue as a best-in-class sports and entertainment destination, slated to begin in Summer 2024. pic.twitter.com/ONJDwnTwKM
— Scotiabank Arena (@ScotiabankArena) October 10, 2023
I am cautiously optimistic about this. I’ve always found it difficult that the hockey arena doesn’t feel like a hockey arena. It feels like a venue that the Leafs happen to play out of. When you go to the stadiums of historic sports teams, you feel it everywhere. I get that it’s difficult when there are concerts, basketball games, and who knows what else happening at the SBA at any given time, but I hope they can toy with that line better moving forward.
Also of note is an upgrade to the Hot Stove lounge, which is what this site is named after (not Satellite Hotstove like so many seem to think!).
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. As much as I understand the John Klingberg signing – especially after looking through the other options, and I appreciate the need for more offense from the point – I just don’t understand the usage so far. Not only did he miss basically all of the preseason, but he’s coming off a poor 2022-23 season and should have to earn what he’s given instead of having it handed to him.
For all the criticism levied his way, Morgan Rielly has quarterbacked the Leafs power play the last two seasons, and they have finished first and second in the league in the category. Klingberg walks in, misses most of preseason, and takes over the role?
He’s also getting pushed right into the top four even though, again, he has struggled lately. Salary aside, not only has Timothy Liljegren looked good in the top four – alongside McCabe in the preseason – but he was largely good there throughout the regular season last year, too.
Klingberg is signed to a one-year, prove-it deal. It’s not like he signed a massive multi-year deal and is here to stay, and yet he’s getting shoehorned right into top roles over players who have produced real results in Toronto for multiple seasons. After missing most of preseason and coming off a poor season, I’d make him earn it.
2. Optics aside, I think that Timothy Liljegren is stylistically a better fit to pair with Jake McCabe. While McCabe can somewhat capably play in a tough-matchup role, he is a bit of a risk-taker. He will get pulled out of position chasing big hits. He will step up on riskier plays in the neutral zone. At times, he struggles to transition the play up the ice with the puck on his stick. While Klingberg can help in the puck-moving department, he is even more of a wildcard in terms of decision-making and pushing for offense whereas Liljegren is simply a steady player, doesn’t take many risks, and and is good in transition with the puck. He makes the simple reads.
A few seasons ago, Liljegren acquitted himself well in a matchup role alongside Jake Muzzin, and while McCabe is certainly no Muzzin, Liljegren has also improved since then and McCabe can hold his own. I liked the pairing a lot in preseason (I understand it’s only preseason), and I’d like to see them get some regular-season run.
3. I think the forward group should be quite fluid to start the season. There are a lot of talented forwards to sort through, and locking lines in place right now would be foolish. They should explore different possibilities throughout the first 20-30 games and settle on combinations as lines prove effective. At this point, I won’t comment too much on the forward line combos.
4. One thing I’ll be looking out for more this season: Does the team show a sense of occasion?
Ultimately, no matter what they do in the regular season, many fans will roll their eyes. That doesn’t mean it’s a useless exercise with no value, though. Over the past few seasons, I have often found the team to be lackluster in games that had a bit more meaning to them.
In the first game of the season last year, they lost in the final minute of regulation and Sheldon Keefe was clearly frustrated by the puzzling performance.
In a big game against the Oilers in Edmonton – hyped as two of the world’s top players facing off – the team came out completely empty and was entirely outclassed in a 5-2 loss (they beat them a few weeks after that, in fairness, which was a great response).
After trading for Luke Schenn, he almost instantly played in a homecoming game in Vancouver, a matchup that is usually a noteworthy game anyway as the Leafs play the Saturday night game in BC on Toronto time almost every season. They were surprisingly bad in a 4-1 loss.
Similarly, they lost 6-3 in Auston Matthews’ annual Arizona homecoming. We all know what happened with John Tavares‘ return to the Island way back when.
They have often seemed aloof or unbothered by these types of games of note in terms of elevating their game. I would like to see that change this season starting with game one.
5. I’m simply excited that hockey is back. Hope everyone enjoys the games this week!