Maple Leafs 2019-20 Roster: Final Forward Spot Battle

For the first time in a couple of years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a few roster spots up for grabs at training camp. Injuries to winger Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott – both of which are expected to keep each player out for at least the first month of the season – are a big reason why these spots still exist. That said, it’s nevertheless an opportunity for a few players to step in and play their way onto the roster once Hyman and Dermott return as well as the inevitability of more injuries down the road.

First, there’s the bottom-pair defense battle that appears to be anyone’s guess at this point early in the preseason. Second – and the topic of discussion here – is the final forward spot, likely on the fourth line alongside offseason signee Jason Spezza. The Maple Leafs’ salary cap crunch could force them to carry just one extra skater this season – a spot likely to go to a defenseman. Therefore, let’s first take a look at what I believe the forward group will look like to begin the season.

Kapanen – Tavares – Marner
Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander
Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Petan
Moore – Spezza – ???

The lefty-shooting Moore can play either wing, so this battle is not exclusive to the right-wing spot. In some cases, it might not even be exclusive to the fourth line based on preseason performance. There are left and right-handed forwards involved in this battle capable of playing either wing (or even centre), so let’s take a look at who they are and their chances of winning the final forward spot entering the 2019-20 season.

Pontus Aberg

About to turn 26 years old on Sept. 23, Aberg signed a one-year, one-way deal with the Maple Leafs in late July after splitting last season between the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks. After scoring just one goal in 22 games with the Wild, Aberg caught fire with the Ducks, notching 11 goals and adding 8 assists for 19 points in 37 games. He was even promoted to the top line alongside Ryan Getzlaf for a good chunk of time.

Pontus Aberg Anaheim Ducks
Pontus Aberg caught fire after catching on with the Ducks midway through the 2018-19 season. (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

As a result, Aberg represents the most recently accomplished NHL player in this battle, perhaps giving him a leg-up in the fight for the final roster spot up front. Officially listed as a left-winger despite boasting a right-hand shot, his ability to play either wing doesn’t hurt his chances, either.

If Aberg doesn’t crack the NHL roster, it would stand to reason that he would likely be claimed off waivers given his hot finish to last season if general manager Kyle Dubas tried to send him to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. If the Maple Leafs prefer more offense in their bottom-six with Kasperi Kapanen moving up to the top line in Hyman’s absence, Aberg would have a quality chance at claiming the final forward spot.

Nick Shore

Shore didn’t play in the NHL last season but rather skated with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, tallying 3 goals and 16 assists for 16 points across 37 games. He saw more favorable results in the postseason where he tallied 2 goals and 3 assists for 5 points in 6 games.

NHL veteran Nick Shore will look to earn a roster spot with the Maple Leafs after spending last season in the KHL. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Contrary to Aberg, Shore wouldn’t make the Maple Leafs on his offensive ability. His career-highs of six goals and 17 points were both set in the 2016-17 season with the Los Angeles Kings in which he skated in 70 games – also a career-high. Since that season, Shore has tallied just 5 goals and 19 points across 64 career games split between the Kings, Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames.

If Shore doesn’t make the NHL roster, his chances of clearing waivers would be higher than that of Aberg given his lack of NHL success since his aforementioned career-season. Dubas would appreciate Shore’s veteran presence with the Marlies to be sure, and I wouldn’t peg his chances of cracking the Maple Leafs’ roster much higher than an outside shot.

Kenny Agostino

Agostino has been a trendy add for several NHL clubs over the last few seasons thanks to his lights-out production at the AHL level. After four productive seasons at Yale University, Agostino immediately became a productive AHLer, tallying 15 goals and 43 points across 67 games in his first professional season. After more quality output the following year, Agostino hit his stride in the 2016-17 season with the Chicago Wolves – the St. Louis Blues’ AHL affiliate – where he tallied 24 goals and 83 points in 65 game, leading the AHL in scoring in the process.

Kenny Agostino Boston Bruins
Kenny Agostino’s overwhelming success in the AHL has yet to translate into a full-time role in the NHL. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That said, his AHL production has yet to land him a full-time role at the NHL level. Agostino has just 8 goals and 30 points in 85 career NHL games between the Flames, Blues, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils. However, his most recent stop was with the Devils just last season where he tallied a healthy 13 points in 27 games – by far his best point-per-game production as an NHLer.

Agostino’s contract is different than all of the depth contracts handed out by Dubas this summer as it is of the two-way variety. Given his long-standing AHL production and NHL production down the stretch in 2018-19, perhaps it took an extra year of commitment to land his services. It would also figure that he would be a popular waiver addition should he not crack the Maple Leafs’ roster to begin the 2019-20 season. Agostino’s name hasn’t been brought up much in camp to this point, but you would have to figure he gets a quality look given the apparent upside.

Jeremy Bracco

A popular candidate to be the first current Marlies forward to graduate to the NHL, Bracco brings a wealth of offensive upside to the table, something the Maple Leafs are lacking in their bottom-six at this point.

Maple Leafs Bracco Canadiens Lehkonen
Jeremy Bracco’s breakout 2018-19 AHL season has him on the brink of a spot with the Maple Leafs in 2019-20. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

The former Windsor Spitfires standout broke out with 79 points in 75 regular-season contests with the Marlies last season before posting another 16 points across 13 playoff games. There’s one caveat to Bracco’s situation with the Maple Leafs, and that is that he likely won’t make the team as a fourth-liner alongside Spezza.

Cut from a largely similar cloth to the pass-first Spezza, it’s Bracco’s vision and playmaking skills that have gotten him this far. Of those 79 regular season points last season, 57 were assists. Of the 16 postseason points, 12 were assists. As a result, if Bracco were to crack the opening night lineup, it would likely be in a third-line role alongside Alexander Kerfoot who is set to score far more goals than that of Spezza and could use a playmaker on his line with Ilya Mikheyev representing more of a power forward profile. That said, whether his skating is NHL ready appears to be another question.

Nonetheless, it would appear Bracco is on the brink of an NHL roster spot, although as a waiver-exempt player, it may not be to start the season.

Mason Marchment

If the vision on behalf of Babcock and Dubas for the final forward spot is a physical element with some grit and sandpaper attached, Marchment would be in line for a surprising jump to the NHL level in the short-term.

Mason Marchment Erie Otters
Erie Otters graduate Mason Marchment has seen his game develop to the point where he could become a factor for the Maple Leafs this season. (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Skating in the ECHL as recently as the 2015-16 season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Marchment play a role with the Maple Leafs this season. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, his primary asset to the Maple Leafs would be a physical element that the team is largely lacking up front, especially with Nazem Kadri dealt to the Colorado Avalanche this summer.

Son of long-time NHL blueliner Bryan Marchment, Mason no doubt gets his tenacity from his old man. However, he’s also seen the offensive side of his game improve to the point where he tallied more than a half-point-per-game with the Marlies last season with 25 points in 44 regular-season games and another seven points in 13 postseason games. He racked up 60 regular season penalty minutes and another 22 in the playoffs.

The 2018-19 season was actually the second-straight season of quality offensive production for a player that never put up gaudy numbers in the junior ranks. The fact that he too is waiver exempt makes it much easier for the Maple Leafs to allow him to continue to prosper in the AHL, however there’s a gut feeling here that a maximum-effort Marchment could play a notable role with the big club in 2019-20.

Frederik Gauthier

Easily the most familiar name of the bunch after skating as the fourth-line center for the entirety of the 2018-19 season, Gauthier could either crack the 2019-20 Maple Leafs in the same role and push Spezza to the right-wing, or as the left-winger set to share faceoff duties with the veteran on their back-hand sides.

Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Gauthier
Maple Leafs forward Frederik Gauthier is a sneaky candidate to return to the club to begin the 2019-20 season. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

There’s no doubt Gauthier filled an admirable role with the team last season. Babcock used Gauthier primarily for defensive zone draws as a whopping 72.9% of his shifts started in his own third of the ice last season. Gauthier fared well in such a role, winning 53.7% of his draws overall and also a very nice 56.4% in the defensive zone. It also appears that Babcock is initially impressed with the 6-foot-5, 235-pound pivot again this season.

The trust and familiarity Gauthier has established with Babcock is a big plus for the hulking centre. The faceoff ability is also key and perhaps he reclaims his role as the fourth-line center with Spezza moving to the right where he skated at times with the Dallas Stars last season. Again, he would likely be an attractive waiver claim at just 24 years old coming out of his first full season in the NHL. As a result, we could see a return of ‘The Goat’ as early as opening night.

Matt Read

Sliding under the radar in camp to this point is veteran NHL forward Matt Read who could be working on his last chance at an NHL opportunity as part of a professional tryout signed in early August.

Former Flyers winger Matt Read is looking to crack the Maple Leafs’ roster on a professional tryout. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Read has the most NHL experience of the bunch, having skated in 449 career NHL games, posting 88 goals and 188 points in that time. His best season in the NHL was his rookie campaign back in 2011-12 where he notched 24 goals and 47 points in 79 games. He hasn’t been able to match that production since and has nearly fallen off the radar in recent seasons. He lasted skated with the Minnesota Wild in 2018-19, tallying one goal in 12 games played.

Read’s road to the Maple Leafs’ roster is an uphill battle, to be sure. At 33, age is not on his side. He hasn’t accrued meaningful NHL production in each of the last five seasons. Whether he is able to make an impression at camp remains to be seen – and he did record an assist in his first preseason game – but he’s very much on the outside looking in.

The Others

There are long-shots at camp, each of who will get a good look but have a minuscule chance at cracking the roster. These names would include Yegor Korshkov, Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Garrett Wilson and Dmytro Timashov. The former three are waiver-exempt while Wilson is injured and near-lock to go through waivers to the Marlies as a result.

The overwhelming consensus is that the final forward spot on opening night will go to one of the players discussed in length. Each has their own assets and skill set to bring to the table at the NHL level. However, with a wealth of options for a presumed single roster spot, the battle is on.