3 Maple Leafs that Must Improve in 2019-20

If there is one fact of life in the NHL, it’s this: someone is always gunning for your job.

Whether it’s because of their performance or their effort, NHL players can get left behind in a hurry due to the sheer mass of alternative options. The American Hockey League (AHL) is chock-full of players ready to make the jump and with the salary cap, a league-minimum salary can be exchanged. With more and more emphasis placed on scouting talent, competition for NHL jobs has never been stiffer.

Here’s a look at three Maple Leafs players who will need to elevate their game in 2019-20 or risk losing it to another player.

Martin Marincin

Whether it’s Marincin’s play or head coach Mike Babcock’s seemingly endless leash, Leafs Nation has already had enough of the 27-year-old.

Martin Marincin, Maple Leafs
With depth and prospects breathing down his neck, Martin Marincin is on his last chance to elevate his game in 2019-20. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Listed at 6-foot-5, 213 pounds, Marincin has the assets that Babcock appreciates in his depth defensemen and penalty killers: size and reach. That’s fine, but Marincin’s puck-handling skills are cringe-worthy and he offers next to nothing on offense with 30 points across 201 regular-season NHL contests.

With top prospect Rasmus Sandin ready to make the jump to the NHL after a wildly successful rookie AHL season and after the Maple Leafs acquired notable left-shot depth on defense in the offseason, it’s not set in stone that Marincin will make the team out of training camp. However, after inking another one-year deal with the club in the offseason and given his familiarity with Babcock, he does have a leg up on the competition. For what it’s worth, I initially had him skating on the bottom pair when the season opens on Oct. 2 against the Ottawa Senators.

If I was a betting man, I would have Marincin skating with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies once Travis Dermott returns to the lineup at some point in November or, at least, skating as the seventh defenseman if the team decides to go that route. The Maple Leafs have exposed Marincin to waivers before and won’t be afraid to do so again, especially given their depth.

At the end of the day, it’s time for Marincin to step up or he’ll be off the roster.

Nic Petan

There haven’t been too many Western Hockey League (WHL) players in recent memory better than Nic Petan. Between 2012-13 and 2013-14, Petan produced a whopping 233 points in 134 games with the Portland Winterhawks. In the latter season, he was named to Team Canada for the World Junior Hockey Championships and again the following year, tallying 11 points in seven games and taking home the gold medal in the process. Like many others before him, however, his early success has yet to translate to the NHL.

Toronto Maple Leafs Nic Petan
Maple Leafs forward Nic Petan will need to turn his NHL fortunes around in 2019-20 (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

After the Winnipeg Jets drafted Petan in the second round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, he notched just 5 goals and 18 assists in 108 career games across parts of four seasons with the club. Producing in the AHL hasn’t been a problem for the 24-year-old, as he notched 52 points in as many games with the Manitoba Moose in 2018-19, only to record a pair of assists in 13 games with the Jets. As a result, he became expendable and was traded to the Maple Leafs at the Feb. 2018 trade deadline.

He skated in just five regular-season games with the Maple Leafs down the stretch, tallying one goal and a minus-3 rating. With the Maple Leafs in a cap crunch, Petan and the two-year contract he signed this offseason worth an average annual value of $775,000 is very reasonable, if he can produce. If he can deliver some under-the-radar production, he could become a future piece of the Maple Leafs’ puzzle. If he can’t, he might find himself back in the AHL or claimed off waivers. Unlike years past, the Maple Leafs don’t have room to carry spare forwards on their roster. Either you’re in the lineup or you’re elsewhere.

Petan hasn’t been with the organization long, and management showed faith in him with the two-year deal. As a result, he’s likely to crack the opening night roster and will be given an opportunity to produce. That said, the Maple Leafs also loaded up on league-minimum depth up front this offseason, making his seat anything but comfy. After parts of four unsuccessful seasons in the NHL, now is the time for Petan to elevate his game, or else.

Jason Spezza

Spezza’s situation isn’t that he needs to improve, but that he has plenty to prove to his new organization and, apparently, his head coach.

While the coach’s remarks raise some eyebrows to be sure, he was also asked to elaborate on his original quote.

When Spezza signed a one-year, league-minimum deal to play with a Stanley Cup contender in the Maple Leafs, it seemed both parties were satisfied. However, given Babcock’s early comments regarding his new veteran pivot, Spezza’s spot on the 2019-20 team isn’t guaranteed.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jason Spezza
New Maple Leafs centre Jason Spezza apparently has plenty to prove to his new coach this season. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

For one, it would be shocking to see the 16-year veteran left off the roster entering the season. Spezza cleaned up in the faceoff circle, winning
58.2% of his draws last season, tied for first in the league with Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils among players who took at least 800 draws. He’s a positive possession player and nearly half his points came on the power play over the last two seasons – lending his playmaking skills to the second power-play unit. There are multiple roles for a player of his ilk.

However, the Maple Leafs have another strong fourth-line centre candidate in Frederik Gauthier who filled the role in 2018-19. Another option is to keep both Spezza and Gauthier on the fourth line and boast two high-percentage faceoff men who are right and left-handed, respectively.

For a player on the decline in terms of offense, we shouldn’t be expecting Spezza to improve from that standpoint. However, he has plenty to prove to his new bench boss in terms of his ability to handle the fourth-line center role that will likely include plenty of defensive zone starts – a role unfamiliar to the Mississauga, Ontario native who’s started 44.3% of his shifts in his own end throughout his career.

Spezza is not the roster lock we once thought. We’ll see if he is a long-term part of the team in the 2019-20 season.