The Toronto Maple Leafs wrapped up their preseason over the weekend, splitting the home-and-home series with the Detroit Red Wings and finishing the preseason with a record of 5-2-0. With John Tavares and Pierre Engvall both optimistic to return in time for Wednesday’s season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, the Maple Leafs have made some moves, both easy and difficult, in order to have their team be cap compliant before then.
Forward Zach Aston-Reese was signed to a one-year contract after an impressive preseason on a professional tryout contract, and forward prospect Nick Robertson was sent to the American Hockey League (AHL)’s Toronto Marlies to get the team where they needed to be roster-wise. Despite Robertson’s stellar preseason, the last forward spot came down to either him or Denis Malgin, who also had an impressive exhibition, and the latter ended up taking the job since he would have to clear waivers, unlike the former.
I wouldn’t look into Robertson’s demotion too much, as I think the Maple Leafs are well aware that he played himself into a job this season. It feels like there’s still a move or two to be made, and even though it might suck to see Robertson out of the lineup on opening night, I can’t imagine he’ll be in the minors for long. Regardless, let’s take a look at what the Maple Leafs might be icing in terms of a roster for Wednesday night’s game.
Malgin, Aston-Reese Complete Maple Leafs’ Deep Offense
This should come as a shock to nobody, but the Maple Leafs’ offense will once again be their strong suit heading into the 2022-23 season. Bear in mind that head coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff have yet to announce the starting lineup for the season opener, but based on the Maple Leafs’ practice lines on Monday, we’re likely looking at something along the lines of this.
Michael Bunting – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
Denis Malgin – John Tavares – William Nylander
Pierre Engvall – Alex Kerfoot – Calle Jarnkrok
Zach Aston-Reese – David Kampf – Nicolas Aube-Kubel
On the top line, there are obviously no surprises. The pairing of Matthews and Marner led to 60 goals for the former and a pace of over 100 points over 82 games for the latter. And in a season where one of the burning questions heading into it was how the Maple Leafs were going to be able to replace Zach Hyman’s presence on the top line, Michael Bunting came in, did the job, and then some. The Scarborough native finished last season with 63 points over 79 games and will look to take another step further this year.
The second line is absolutely hilarious at first glance when you consider the discourse that took up much of the 2021-22 season as well as the offseason. The Malgin-for-Mason Marchment trade is largely seen as one of if not the worst during general manager Kyle Dubas’ tenure, considering the minimal impact Malgin made for the Maple Leafs in 2019-20 as well as the production the Florida Panthers got out of Marchment last season. Be that as it may, the Swiss forward finished the preseason with eight points in six games (including this filthy goal below) and has earned a shot in the top six. If it doesn’t work out, somebody will take his place.
Meanwhile, it looks like the Maple Leafs will be back to using Kerfoot at centre following the retirement of Jason Spezza in the offseason. Engvall will likely line up on his wing, looking to have a proper breakout season after signing a one-year extension over the summer, and Jarnkrok could man the right side of that line. Both wingers are candidates to take some reps on the second line if Malgin doesn’t work out there, but for now, they complete a defensively responsible third line with solid offensive potential.
Of all the line combinations the Maple Leafs have experimented with, the fourth line you saw above could very well be a constant throughout the season. Keefe used Aston-Reese and Aube-Kubel with Kampf up the middle almost every chance he got, and it’s clear what this line’s purpose will be. They may not break 20 goals combined between the three of them, but they’re going to be a pain to play against given the strong forechecking ability of all three players.
Maple Leafs Defense Will Start the Season Minus Liljegren
Going off of the pairings Keefe was using in practice on Monday, the defensive corps to open up the season will likely look something like this:
Morgan Rielly – T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl
Mark Giordano – Rasmus Sandin
Just like the top forward line, the Maple Leafs’ top defensive pairing of Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie will remain a constant this season. Rielly has played some of the best hockey of his career with a stable partner like Brodie by his side all season, and I can’t imagine they would want to break this up unless injuries force their hand. And until that happens, it’s safe to say these two will grace the top pairing once again in 2022-23.
On the second pairing, there is what I can only describe as a risk with the pairing of Muzzin and Holl together. This pairing is one of the weirdest ones to me, seeing that they were an instrumental part of the Maple Leafs’ defensive corps in 2020-21 and quite literally the opposite of that in 2021-22. A lot of how these two perform together will be dependent on Muzzin’s health, who’s already had a couple of injury scares in the preseason. I can understand why Keefe is starting with this pairing, as there’s at least some familiarity there, but he shouldn’t hesitate to pull the plug on it if they play together the same way they did last season.
On the bottom pairing, you’ve got Rasmus Sandin in somewhat unfamiliar territory on the right side, but lucky for him, he’ll be paired with Mark Giordano, who tends to make just about every player he’s played alongside better. Sandin didn’t look great in his limited sample size on the right side last season, but with Giordano (who said himself he would be able to play there as well) alongside him, he’s in good hands until Timothy Liljegren returns from his injury. After that, I can only imagine a scenario where Holl is moved out to make room for him.
Matt Murray Named Maple Leafs’ Opening Night Starter
This one really could have gone either way considering the Maple Leafs are opening the season with a back-to-back, but Keefe confirmed yesterday that Matt Murray will get the start against the Canadiens on Wednesday, whereas Ilya Samsonov will be in net to face his former team in the Maple Leafs’ home opener on Thursday. Both goalies had a solid preseason, but with Murray only allowing two goals in all of his starts combined, it makes sense that he’s getting the nod for opening night.
It’s early, but based on what I’ve seen from the two netminders in preseason so far, I’m encouraged. It’s worth a reminder that the Maple Leafs spent most of last season with a team save percentage (SV%) under .900, and the only reason they finished with a team SV% of .900 on the nose was because of Jack Campbell’s incredible month of November last season. They have a deep enough roster that all they really need from Murray and Samsonov is stability, and as long as the duo can give them a chance to win games, they should be fine with this tandem, as big of a risk as it may be.
Opening Night Roster Likely Not Maple Leafs’ Final Form
One variable that remains to be seen whether it will affect the Maple Leafs’ opening night plans is Tavares’ health. The team is optimistic about where he is right now, but if he’s not ready to go by tomorrow night, then the Maple Leafs will have to play with 11 forwards due to the salary cap situation. Though your first reaction might be to think this is a reflection of bad cap management, it’s actually due to the amount of competition for roster spots, and playing a game a player short, while not ideal, is actually something teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights both did last season.
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If Tavares isn’t ready for opening night, the Maple Leafs will then be able to recall Robertson on an emergency basis. But like I said, even if Tavares is ready, I don’t think it will be long before Robertson is back with the team. His demotion is simply a reflection of the Maple Leafs’ abundance of depth and his ability to go to the minors without having to clear waivers. And until he’s back, they will be able to get by without him just fine. Either way, the season opens up tomorrow, and for better or for worse, promises to be yet another roller coaster ride.
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Alex Hobson is a writer and a radio producer for 610 CKTB. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.