The Toronto Maple Leafs kick off the 2022-23 regular season on Oct.12 in Montreal against the Canadiens. Heading into this season they will be a Stanley Cup Playoff team, however after that is anyone’s guess at this point. General manager Kyle Dubas is hopeful some roster tinkering throughout the summer months will result in a competitive training camp, where jobs are won and lost by work ethic and execution.
The internal competition will play itself out throughout and leading up to the five preseason games, as Toronto is expected to have some battles for depth forward spots, along with two goaltenders who both want to be starting on opening night. Here are three Maple Leafs who are going to be in tough to make the 2022-23 opening night lineup:
Wayne Simmonds is in a dog fight to make the hockey club this season. One theme I saw from Dubas over the summer was his interest in bottom-six forwards. Toronto signed Nicolas Aube-Kubel, a fierce forechecker who is recently coming off a Stanley Cup victory with the Colorado Avalanche. They also locked up Calle Jarnkrok to a four-year deal as he’s basically put his name on the third-line for the foreseeable future. Add in Adam Gaudette who signed a one-year deal and Zach Aston-Reese who is invited to camp, and all of a sudden it’s starting to get a little crowded. As a result, Simmonds will need to be at his very best if he wants to stick around Toronto once camp concludes.
The 34-year-old veteran is a pending free agent who wants to play out his contract for his hometown team. Simmonds battled some untimely injuries in his first season with the Leafs and in 2021-22, appeared in 72 games, recording 11 points. He’s not the best skater and last season at times, looked a step behind.
Simmonds does, however, bring an intense demeanour and some serious intimidation to the Maple Leafs’ lineup. He’s never afraid to stick up for his teammates and at this point, is basically a security blanket out there. Unfortunately, that may not cut it this season as the team is looking to refresh the fourth line and create a bang-and-crash unit that’s built on speed, tenacity and being defensively sound. Simmonds will need to prove that he’s refined his game and added some more speed in order to win over the crowd that’s competing for bottom-six spots.
Earlier this summer, I heard some rumblings that Maple Leafs forward Kyle Clifford was contemplating the next chapter of his hockey career and there was potential he was going to venture into coaching junior hockey. Instead, Dubas offered him a two-year contract extension and Clifford heads into this season trying to win a roster spot.
The bruising forward is one of the hardest workers on the team and much like Simmonds brings an element of toughness that’s needed on any NHL roster. The only problem is the Maple Leafs have stockpiled these types of players for training camp and because of Clifford’s skating and positional play, he’s likely on the outside looking in this season.
The 31-year-old forward is someone who is strictly a fourth-line candidate and isn’t skilled enough to move up in the lineup. This of course limits his options when it comes to positioning on the team and with the likes of Gaudette, Aube-Kubel, Aston-Reese and Joey Anderson ready to compete for the fourth-line, Clifford will find it difficult to make the 2022-23 opening night lineup.
What I think may be the best situation for Clifford and the Maple Leafs is if he gets sent down to the American Hockey League and becomes the captain of the Toronto Marlies. This leadership role with the organization is something he could thrive in and with a young family and roots down in the area, perhaps this could be a setup that works for everyone involved.
One of the transactions that snuck under the radar this summer was the Maple Leafs signing Denis Malgin to a one-year contract at the league minimum of $750,000.
The 25-year-old winger re-joins the Maple Leafs after appearing in eight games back in 2019-20 and then making his way back to Switzerland where he has been an offensive force. Unfortunately for him, the NHL is a much stronger league and this roster in Toronto is going to be very tough for the shifty winger to crack. If he’s able to show he can play a 200-foot game, help kill penalties and chip in with some secondary offense, perhaps Malgin makes a big enough impression to win a spot.
Malgin was a teammate of Auston Matthews in 2015-16 and caught the attention of Maple Leafs’ brass. He’s managed to appear in 192 NHL games since, having his best season in 2017-18 with the Florida Panthers when he scored 11 times in 51 games. Unfortunately for him, it’s been a grind ever since as he hasn’t been able to catch on full-time with an NHL club.
Malgin heads into training camp this season with the Maple Leafs in the very same boat as Clifford and Simmonds. What makes it even tougher on these depth forwards is the fact Toronto has cap issues. One way they get creative is by not having a healthy scratch and keeping only the minimum amount of players on the NHL roster, which is not something a potential fourth-liner wants to hear.
The 2022-23 Maple Leafs training camp is full of question marks and storylines and one of the areas of focus will be how the fourth line shapes up. The likes of Malgin, Clifford and Simmonds are all in very tough to make the team this season as Dubas and company have stockpiled depth forwards this summer, not to mention the organization’s prospects knocking at the door looking for an opportunity. If I had to predict how things will play out, don’t expect to see any of the three forwards mentioned above in the opening night lineup.
Shane’s been a part of The Hockey Writers team since 2020, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs & Pittsburgh Penguins. A constant contributor, his versatile perspective on game results and everything off the ice produces diverse content. You can also find him on the Maple Leafs Lounge podcast with Peter Baracchini and Alex Hobson. Follow along on Twitter @ShugMcSween