NHL training camp always comes with a certain level of competition. Various players compete for jobs, look to move up on the depth chart and prove their worth in the big leagues. It’s never any different for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but this time around you can expect even more.
Potential Leafs Matt Frattin, Leo Komarov, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Ben Scrivens and Jesse Blacker, as well free agent and trade additions such as Jay McClement and James van Riemsdyk, will all be looking to solidify the best spots possible in the Leafs’ lineup this fall. As well, players such as Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski will be looking to improve their standing in the organization when training camp opens.
What does all of this mean? It means that you can expect a training camp like no other before; one that should even set the tone for the Leafs as a team this upcoming season.
Prior to the trade that saw James van Riemsdyk join the Maple Leafs in exchange for defenceman Luke Schenn, just about everyone criticised general manager Brian Burke for failing to upgrade his top-six forward group year after year. Now that he has, those same people are beginning to notice an issue up front: an extra forward.
While having an extra forward may be viewed as just that, an issue, it very well could be a good issue to have. Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur and van Riemsdyk will all battle to capture one of the two wings available on the second line, with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul seemingly guaranteed to be handed the top two wing positions. This gives the Leafs an extra scoring forward playing on the third unit, and in the case of MacArthur, one who would also be able to effectively grind it out along the boards and in the corners.
The extra scoring forward creates more positive issues for the Leafs, this time in their bottom-six group. Matt Frattin and Jay McClement, who each recently signed new deals with the Maple Leafs, will have to go up against the likes of Frattin, Colborne and Kadri, all of whom will be looking to lock down a spot on the third and fourth lines. That won’t be so easy considering that Mike Brown, David Steckel, Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi owned spots there last season and won’t go down easy this fall.
Then there is newly-signed Estonian Leo Komarov, who is expected to land a spot with the Leafs in October.
And better yet for the Leafs, the confident Komarov thinks he’ll land that spot as well.
Wait, that’s not all. Adding to the level of competition will be Mikhail Grabovski and Tyler Bozak, who basically split duties down the middle last season as centres 1-A and 1-B. This season, possibly with new linemates, they will each look to solidify their spot as the Leafs’ number one centreman and nothing else.
The trade of Luke Schenn created a concern for the Maple Leafs on the back-end and unlike the problem it created up front, this one is not of positive nature.
While in Toronto, Schenn played much of his time in the top-four. He was frequently paired with rookie blue-liner Jake Gardiner on the second pairing last season, meaning his departure creates a gaping hole on defence. Unless another swap is made, this time bringing a defenceman to Toronto and sending a forward out of town, that hole must be filled by one of Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles, Jesse Blacker, or Korbinian Holzer.
The option to fill the hole with Liles doesn’t sound too bad until you recall that he missed a considerable amount of time due to injury last season. With that, one can only wonder how his health will hold up this season.
Komisarek, 30, has proven that he is no longer the dominant force on the blue line that he was when he was a member of the Montreal Canadiens. It goes without saying that Komisarek, who went minus-13 in 45 games last season, will need to vastly improve his play in order to land a top-four spot on the Leafs’ defence.
The issue with Franson is consistency. He finished last season with 21 points and minus-one rating, which just about sums up his year in a couple of numbers; it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad, either.
Then there are the two rookies, Blacker and Holzer. Blacker, who just wrapped up his first full season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, turned heads while playing for the baby Leafs. In fact, he managed to impress so much that many expect he could be in the NHL as early as 2012-2013.
“He’s been playing well for us,” Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins said of Blacker in November. “He’s more patient than before. We’d like him to be even more patient but he’s so quick to try to put out the fire. He’s a great kid to watch. He’s a much more settled defenseman.”
Holzer, who was drafted 111th overall by the Leafs in 2006, played in two games for the Buds last season. His NHL experience, although limited, is sure to help him in his quest to land a full-time spot with the Leafs this season.
The problem created by the Schenn trade is a big one, but it’s also one that doesn’t need to be fixed through free agency or trade. Rather, it can be fixed simply through fierce competition at training camp this fall. Simply put, that competition is something that could easily make all of the defenders named above better players.
Goaltending is the one position that is overly hard to evaluate for the Leafs at this point in the off-season. With this only being the first week of July and trade rumours involving current Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo never ending, it’s difficult to pinpoint where the team currently stands in net.
What is clear is that James Reimer does, at this current point in time, appear to be the team’s undisputed number one goalie. With the departure of Jonas Gustavsson at the NHL Entry Draft in late June, Reimer officially took over as the top netminder. Until a trade or signing is made to suggest otherwise, Reimer doesn’t have very much competition at the time. That doesn’t mean he won’t have someone pushing hard behind him, though.
Scrivens, who appeared in 12 games for the Leafs last season while Reimer was injured, will be pushing for as much playing time as possible this season. Similar to Holzer, Scrivens’ previous NHL experience should help him in his battle, but not very much. The good news for Scrivens, though, is that he has absolutely no pressure on him whatsoever. Where the pressure lay is with Reimer, who is coming off of a very poor campaign.
If Reimer falters, Scrivens will be right there behind him to snag the number one job in net. That battle, Reimer versus Scrivens, is very similar to every fight that will occur in training camp this fall. Not literally a fist fight, but a fight for position. Given the amount of fighting expected to happen in training camp in a few months, it is sure to be like no other before.
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