ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — One of the many things that had Mike Babcock raving about the roster construction at the outset of Toronto Maple Leafs training camp was the opportunity to host legitimate competition for NHL roles, minutes and money on the 23-man squad.
With the on-ice portion of training camp beginning in St. John’s, N.L., here are the spots up for grabs, and those who will have the opportunity to seize a role as the Babcock-led coaching staff evaluates for the next three weeks.
Another thing that happened at media day was Mike Babcock making it abundantly clear that Frederik Andersen’s load will not be managed at the expense of accumulating wins in what’s expected to be a hotly-contested Atlantic Division race. So it seems pretty imperative that the Leafs have a capable backup with the trust of the coaching staff to spell Andersen, as the numbers support the idea that workhorse netminders just don’t have the same effectiveness in the post-season.
The problem for the Maple Leafs is that there are no guarantees that goaltender will be in camp. It will be veterans Michael Hutchinson and Michal Neuvirth duelling for the the right to carry the clipboard on most nights for Andersen, and neither would be immediately considered a plus at the position.
Hutchinson is under contract, having signed a low-priced one-year deal in June after being brought in to replace Garret Sparks last season, while Neuvirth will have to earn his way on a professional tryout.
Neuvirth has had more NHL success to this point in a career that’s been mostly up and down. He should have a supporter in former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol, who’s recently joined the Babcock coaching tree. However, it’s Hutchinson that will have a head start on building rapport with the person who matters most, and that’s Andersen. The two have been in contact throughout the summer, even sharing a few golf rounds.
With no clipboards on the course, Andersen apparently let Hutchinson carry his bag.
How did Big Golf Guy Freddy Andersen bond with Michael Hutchinson over the summer?— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) September 5, 2019
He out-drove him. pic.twitter.com/shCeH11e17
Defencemen five through eight
Another learning from the Babcock presser is that the Maple Leafs are set on their top four — at least to start the season. It’s safe to assume following the informal skates that led us to training camp that Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci will work in one pairing, while Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie will reunite on the second unit after working together previously for a Hockey Canada outfit.
While many would prefer to have Ceci in a low-stress, highly-sheltered bottom-six role from the outset, it’s clear that Babcock and general manager Kyle Dubas believe in this player, and he will have every opportunity to prove himself alongside a world-class defender in Rielly.
Travis Dermott will slide into a top-six position when he’s healthy enough to return from his shoulder injury, of course, and that’s expected to be after about a month. For now, two opening-night roster positions are up for grabs, in addition to the support roles with the club.
Returnees Justin Holl and Martin Marincin will compete with newcomers Ben Harpur, Jordan Schmaltz and Kevin Gravel for those roster openings, while prospects Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and Traverse City standout Teemu Kivihalme have the chance to force their way onto the opening night lineup.
With Zach Hyman rehabbing, Mitch Marner negotiating and John Tavares staying back to catch a few extra moments with his newborn son, Jace, not a single member of the Maple Leafs’ wildly successful second line will be on the ice to start training camp. But one of the most intriguing opportunities — a chance to line up adjacent to the 47-goal scorer — will begin in earnest once the new father does rejoin the team.
For left- and right-wingers alike, how long these vacancies remain open is to this point unknown. However, with Hyman’s timetable still undefined, and Marner carrying the potential of returning to the ice as early as tomorrow, it’s a particularly interesting opportunity for wingers able to play the left side.
Additionally:— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) September 13, 2019
Trevor Moore probably has an inside track as the only depth left-winger returning from the post-season roster, but European import Ilya Mikheyev will certainly take a spin with Tavares, while Nic Petan and Pontus Aberg are also part of that NHL-ready left-wing logjam. Other Toronto Marlies and prospects potentially involved in the competition include Pierre Engvall, Egor Korshkov, Mason Marchment and the club’s top pick from last summer, Nic Robertson.
On the right side, Kasperi Kapanen is expected to open camp as the Marner placeholder, but the plan in the future is to have him form a speedy pairing with new third-line centre Alexander Kerfoot.
In Marner’s absence, there are nine roster positions spoken for, potentially leaving four forward positions up for grabs.
Returnees Frederik Gauthier and Petan will battle it out with the NHL-experienced Kenny Agostino, Nick Shore, Aberg and Matt Read, while American Hockey League standout Jeremy Bracco leads the wave of farmhands looking to break through.
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