Going in to training camp without big expectations, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ exhibition season brought few solutions and little in the way of positive surprises, ahead of what is expected to be a challenging year. Asked prior to the Leafs’ final preseason tune-up – a 2-1 loss to his former Detroit Red Wings club – if the job in Toronto was as big as he thought, head coach Mike Babcock offered that the task is “bigger.” With final cuts taking place and opening night rosters to be set for Tuesday, the Leafs appear to have more questions than answers heading into the season.
After winning the first three preseason games, including a sweep of split-squad contests against Ottawa, the Leafs lost five straight to conclude the exhibition schedule. Toronto scored just 17 goals in the eight games – and only seven in the five losses – while also being shut out on consecutive outings against Montreal and Buffalo. Without Phil Kessel, the team is clearly missing elite goal-scoring talent and will likely struggle to find the back of the net this season.
Replacing Kessel’s offence won’t be simple. Nazem Kadri, who needs have a standout year as a top-six centre, impressed offensively with a goal and four points to lead the team, while showing flashes of his potential in the final preseason game. He’ll be given every opportunity to play with the Leafs’ skilled players – perhaps even on the top line – and it’ll be up to Kadri to capitalize with a breakout season. Brad Boyes had the lone tally on Saturday, and has been a great story in turning a PTO into a one-year deal, 15 years after being originally drafted by the team. Boyes, veteran Joffrey Lupul or speedy winger Michael Grabner could start in Kessel’s former spot, alongside James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak – with the group as a whole expected to carry the offensive load. Winning a lot of close, one-goal games may be this team’s measure of success.
Who is the No. 1 goaltender?
Babcock has openly stated he wants to have a defined starter in the crease and for that player to know he is the No.1 goaltender. As the season begins, neither goalie appears to have stepped up and definitely seized the job. Still, James Reimer appears to have the inside track to start against Montreal on Wednesday, posting a .910 save percentage in the preseason, while Bernier has looked shaky at times recording a mark of .882.
Leafs pre-season goaltending
James Reimer .910 sv% (187 mins)
Jonathan Bernier .882 sv% (208 mins)
Opening night starter TBA
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 4, 2015
Though Babcock may elect to give the nod to Bernier in the opener on the basis of his recently signed two-year contract, both netminders are going to be needed early in the season. The Leafs play three back-to-backs in the opening month of the schedule, including the first weekend – with games against Detroit and Ottawa next weekend following Wednesday’s curtain-raiser. If Bernier plays against the Canadiens, it’s likely Reimer will face the Red Wings or Senators, and could see up to three or four starts before the end of October. The choice to start is a slim one, but both goalies may have to be kept fresh in the early going.
Alan is a journalism graduate of Ryerson University in Toronto, and writes about the Maple Leafs for THW. He has covered the game for the National Post, Yahoo! Sports Canada and The Hockey News.